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Published: Sunday, 11/2/2008

Grapes of Wrath resonates today

Banks failing?

Check.

Environmental upheaval?

Check.

Displaced workers desperate for jobs?

Check.

We ve got them all, and so did the 1930s. (Although times were inarguably much more difficult 70-some years ago.) And out of that morass of suffering as has long been the case comes great literature, most notably epic tales of struggle, like John Steinbeck s The Grapes of Wrath. It s been cribbed, co-opted, and copied so much it has become a part of the country s fabric. The novel produced a great movie starring Henry Fonda and shows up on high school reading lists and in various pop culture references.

Steinbeck grew up in California in the early 20th century, giving him a front-row seat to the internal diaspora that drove farmers and working class people from the parched Dust Bowl of the Midwest to the West in hopes of finding a better life. What they found, in Steinbeck s eyes, were discrimination, grueling poverty, and injustice.

It s a tale that resonates because the author was acutely aware of how literature is driven by the way external forces directly affect the internal lives of the characters. The result is a universal acceptance of situations that, while they may have never happened to you, conjure the classic, What if? questions.

The book s protagonist, Tom Joad, is a stoic man who journeys to California with his family and other Okies. Freighted with biblical allusions and political jabs, The Grapes of Wrath earned its spot in the pantheon of American literature because it is definitively of this country.

The references to the hard times and the reactions to them, veering from lustful violence to acts of heartbreaking tenderness and generosity, go a long way toward summing up this country s strengths and its weaknesses. Ultimately, the book is a character study of how a nation deals with hard times and how it treats its citizens.

By now it s difficult to look at The Grapes of Wrath with fresh eyes because it s so ingrained in our national iconography. But it s worth telling over and over, and quite likely it will continue to hold down a spot as required reading in high schools and colleges in the coming years, thanks to its resonance in modern times.

Rod Lockwood



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