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John Steinbeck

Although many of his works deserve note, including Of Mice and Men and Travels with Charley, it is primarily for The Grapes of Wrath that I include Steinbeck here. Along with The Great Gatsby, I consider The Grapes of Wrath to be the Great American Novel. Steinbeck's tale of the Joad family's travails through the Dust Bowl not only manages to evoke the hardship of the Great Depression -- it is also a stinging indictment of laissez-faire capitalism and a cry for a more vibrant democratic community.

I read the Reverend Casey, who gives up his Christianity in order to preach the gospel of love, as Steinbeck's prophet of a transfigured, communal democratic life. Although both Ma Joad and the government camps of California aspire to this ideal, neither in the end embodies Steinbeck's meaning- the former is too familial and the latter too bureaucratic. Indeed, in the end, it is only the children of the Joads, Tom and Rosasharn, who have embraced Steinbeck's democratic vision - Tom has left his family to organize other citizens, while Rosasharn gives up her mother's milk to a desperate stranger. Both have expanded the traditional ties of family to include their fellow men and woman. What is the hope of democracy is not this? Indeed, as the religious connotation of the title implies, what is the message of Christ, if not this?

Steinbeck's book carries not only a promise but a threat. In various asides scattered throughout the book, Steinbeck captures the dehumanizing effect of laissez-faire capitalism. Farms are torn down and families are lost under the grinding gears of a profit margin that no one- not the farmers, the evictors, the banks, or the East, really controls anymore. In the last scene of the book, as the remaining Joads escape a flood that covers everything in its wake, Steinbeck's message is clear. The Great Depression, the breakdown of New Era capitalism, was an act of divine retribution- God has trampled out the vintage where the Grapes of Wrath were stored. Now, the survivors must band together and try to establish a society that better fulfills the promise of democratic life.

In the end, the message of The Grapes of Wrath echoes the poetry of W.H. Auden: "There is no such thing as the State, and no one exists alone. Hunger allows no choice to the citizen or the police. We must love one another or die." As Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was a religious call for America to live up to its democratic principles, so too is The Grapes of Wrath a plea for America to reaspire to the spiritual ideal of democracy.

Start up the jalopy and visit Steinbeck.

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