The 1939 New York Timesreview of The Grapes of Wrath called it “as pitiful and angry a novel ever to be written about America ... it reads as if it had been composed in a flash, ripped off the typewriter and delivered to the public as an ultimatum.”
It’s hard to imagine similar words describing today’s fiction (and not just because of that typewriter). Despite our recession-era reckoning with economics and inequality, fiction that examines both the macro and micro experience of poverty is all too rare. Of the writers who do venture forth in the tradition of John Steinbeck, many are finding new and riveting approaches to an age-old subject. But there are crucial gaps, still. And as brilliantly as Steinbeck wrote about poverty, we cannot rely on him to comprehensively tell today’s story.
Published 75 years ago this month, Steinbeck’s opus was discussed, banned, burned, and sold in wildly high numbers before winning two of literature's biggest prizes (and making the case for the author’s later Nobel Prize). Nowadays, The Grapes of Wrath has much more staid reputation—the novel is a Common Core text for ninth and tenth graders, and everyone from The New York Times to a Los Angeles theater company is publishing teaching guides to the novel. The mainstreaming of the novel gives it a certain veneer of conventionality, despite a radical and provoking story that once incited a backlash.
Kern County, California, was the endpoint of the fictional Joad family’s journey from their dust-ridden Oklahoma farm, and its real-life inhabitants did not take kindly to its depiction as a place of corruption, unrewarded labor, and misery. In August 1939, the county board of supervisors voted 4-1 to ban the book from all schools and libraries. Bill Camp of the local Associated Farmers—a group of anti-union landowners—saw Steinbeck’s novel as “communist propaganda” and organized a book burning in downtown Bakersfield. Camp got one of his workers (who had not read the novel) to light the fire. “We are angry, not because we were attacked, but because we were attacked by a book that is obscene in the extreme sense of the word,” Camp reportedly said.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Board of Education ordered the book removed from 20 public libraries because of “indecency, obscenity, abhorrence of the portrayal of women and for ‘portraying life in such a bestial way.’” An East St. Louis, Illinois, library burned the novel. A Buffalo library banned the book for “vulgar words.”
As if vulgar words were the worst of it.
Steinbeck was a moralist—he wrote of the Depression in Biblical terms, after all—but he was not a polemicist. That’s a tricky balance to strike.
In a year where national unemployment hovered around 17 percent, Steinbeck’s novel was all too familiar to readers. Oklahoma farms are swallowed in dust storms caused by cotton crops that killed the roots that held the land down (crop rotation was not permitted; it mitigated profit margins). Company men sat in their “closed cars” and told tenant families that “one man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families.” The bank must be fed, above all. The people must leave. When we meet Tom Joad, he’s hitching a ride after being released from prison. He returns just in time to see his people readying to find work in California. But the family does not arrive whole. One of them refuses to leave in the first place. Two die along the way. When their truck stops by a river along Route 66, one of them decides to stay behind. And yet another abandons them all. Meanwhile, as the embattled family nears California, they meet people headed the other way. Those who went looking for jobs are coming back broke, bitter, and betrayed. Not all is as promised in the golden land.
Steinbeck wrote his novel in the late years of a Depression. Three-quarters of a century later, we’re in the wake of a brutal recession that left many reeling. Who, then, are Steinbeck’s heirs—the fiction writers of today that are wrangling with the plight of the poor? And how does their rendering of need, hunger, and the politicization of social class compare to Steinbeck's take?
As it happens, some of the most fascinating contemporary literature that wrestles with poverty—and features poor people as protagonists—is found not in epic novels, but in short fiction. Taut tales with big vision are a propulsive force in detailing the devastation of not having enough.
Take, for example, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award. Campbell places her 14 potent stories in the rural landscape of southwest Michigan, peopled by militiamen, underemployed custodians, farmers, meth addicts, hunters, protective parents, and lonely teenagers with big hearts. Unlike Steinbeck’s classic novel, these people are not going anywhere—nobody is imagining a new life on the coast. But like the Joads, their lives are distorted by “the machine” that, to them, has neither face nor name.
Campbell’s post-industrial landscape is haunted by empty factories and stilled foundries: The people here are the “salvage” of a faceless but damning economic shift. While in The Grapes of Wrath, company men drove up to tenant farmers to evict them, here, the employers have simply vanished. Nobody explains anything; it’s just another empty space. The people left behind are drifting and hungry. When one man—burned in a foundry accident years before—hits a teenage girl with his car, he at first feels a jolt of joy “at the notion he’d hit a deer, joy that he’d have something more than rabbits to take to his father’s house, joy that his father would be glad to see him.”
Krys Lee’s story collection, Drifting House, takes place in three countries, and it has a sharp eye on the cross-border suffering caused by inhumane economic and politics. In “The Salaryman,” the title character finds out that his job “no longer exists” after the 1997 financial crisis in South Korea. He spends his days in a park with other men wearing suits and reading newspapers, feigning a workday to their families “until there’s no money left in the bank account.” In a line that could have come straight out of Steinbeck, Lee writes that “The green bills separate you from who you were the day before, and you want to live because you are a human being and you deserve it.”
Junot Díaz’s short fiction takes the story about poverty into East Coast cities—particularly in the urban Dominican communities where poverty is cut through by prejudice, immigration, and assimilation. This is simmering heat behind the characters in This Is How You Lose Her, as they navigate a reckless and big-hearted search for love. Lives are shaped by the dull staccato rhythm of work: it’s what brought many of them to America in the first place. A woman named Yasmin is working in the laundry room of St. Peter’s Hospital in New Jersey in one story: “Never late. Never leave the laundry room. Never leave the heat. I load washers. I load dryers, peel the lint skin from the traps, measure out heaping scoops of crystal detergent. I’m in charge of four other workers, I make an American wage, but it’s a donkey job.” Díaz’s characters—especially the recurring narrator Yunior—are alert to how their poverty shapes how others see them. Speaking of one of his girlfriends, “a Mason Gross student,” Yunior says that her “last painting was of you, slouching against the front door: only your frowning I-had-a-lousy-Third-World-childhood-and-all-I-got-was-this-attitude eyes recognizable.”
And then there is an oddly singular story of poverty as incarnated by B.D. in Brown Dog, Jim Harrison’s newly collected novellas. B.D. is an alcoholic Native American in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, an “anti-magnet for money” with a cutting attitude toward bureaucracies. The stories of Donald Ray Pollack’s Knockemstiff unfolds in the stagnant country of southern Ohio: “We lived on soup beans and fried bread, but drove around Knockemstiff like rich people.” In Frank Bill’s collection of tales, ominously called Crimes in Southern Indiana, the heartland—bereft of jobs, let alone union jobs—is growing underground industries of survival: fighting dogs, selling meth, slinging guns, prostituting daughters. “Yeah,” thinks one of Bill’s characters—the one who sells his daughter, one who previously burned his father’s home for insurance money—“I’s a son of a bitch.”
None of these works of fiction could be called an “ultimatum” for America’s people, as The Grapes of Wrath was in 1939. They do not have the bald urgency, or the explicit and patient delineation of the process of economic devastation, at once national and personal. Steinbeck’s novel is, of course, famous for the interstitial chapters that bring an epic scope to the searing story of inequality, told in the voice of “we” and taking a collectivist look at the story that is not nearly so present in today’s literature about poverty.
Many of today’s characters devolve into self-incrimination—moving in the opposite direction of Steinbeck’s leads, who come to see themselves as part of a larger story. The preacher Jim Casy finds his call to leadership as a fierce (albeit doomed) union organizer. Ma Joad’s advice for people who are “in trouble or hurt or need” is to “go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help—the only ones.” Tom, when he finally must leave his family, promises his mother that he will continue to fight for oppressed people. “Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there,” he says.
Steinbeck was a moralist—he wrote of the Depression in Biblical terms, after all—but he was not a polemicist. That’s a tricky balance to strike, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that few of Steinbeck’s literary heirs have attempted it. While the oppressed are clearly portrayed, the oppressors are not.
But in many ways, today’s writers are bringing essential depth to the awful and ongoing story of inequality in America. Short fiction has an agility that seems to suit a subject as sharp-cornered and consuming as poverty. The model of linked stories helps many of these writers bring a broad-view into their fiction: poverty as it is experienced through time. Like Steinbeck, today’s writers are speaking to the modern moment. If The Grapes of Wrath is cued by the Dust Bowl, which occurred three years before the novel was published, Campbell, Pollock, and Bill are focusing on the broad swaths of disinvestment in the upper Midwest caused by outsourcing, foreclosure, and generational cycles of unemployment—all, unfortunately, very timely phenomenons.
And thanks to writers like Díaz, Harrison, and Lee, our literature of poverty has become more diverse, and therefore more truthful. (Contrast that with a weak spot of Steinbeck’s: The text claims morally just ownership of the land for the farmers in part because their grandfathers “killed the Indians” on it.)
At the height of the Depression in 1933, Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Worker movement. She often wrote that the defining feature of poverty is not the lack of money; it is precarity—of not being sure if tomorrow you will be fed, sheltered, and safe. There is a lack of security. Will this leaking roof collapse? Will my kid eat breakfast tomorrow? Will the money I’m owed arrive before I have to pay the rent? Will I get picked to day labor today?
Today’s best fiction about poverty is brilliant about tracing the nuances of precarity—how to survive when there is nowhere else to go. But there is another story about poverty that deserves to be more fully developed for our twenty-first century: It didn’t have to be this way.