John Steinbeck Would Love This Recession

By Rachel Dry
Sunday, March 22, 2009

There's nothing like a Great Recession to make people want to read about the Great Depression.

Seventy years after John Steinbeck published his best-selling tale of the Joad family's journey from Oklahoma to California along Route 66, "The Grapes of Wrath," required reading that never really went out of style, is suddenly in high demand.

At the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of grant applications for "Big Read" community reading events around "The Grapes of Wrath" was twice what it was last year. In Jackson County, Mich., librarians estimate that more than 2,000 people will read the book this month as part of a "Big Read." Kimberly Rapert is teaching the novel to her 11th-graders at Western High School there, and she says that having a book this relevant to the current economic crisis "is like a godsend."

So what would Steinbeck say about all this?

It's a little silly to attempt to divine the opinions of a long-dead author -- though what would Jane Austen think of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?" -- but since Steinbeck created one of the most enduring portraits of the hardships of the 1930s, and since we are now in the worst, most prolonged downturn since the Joad family was forced West, it does seem a fair question to ask.

The answer, though, isn't exactly a salve to our overleveraged wounds.

Steinbeck would think that we're getting just what we deserve. And he'd like it.

Not because the Nobel laureate and best-selling author would wish misfortune upon his fellow citizens. But because, first of all, he romanticized the essential moral goodness that springs from adversity, and second, because he hated the material bloat of postwar America. He just didn't like stuff. And now that we are brought low by stuff, acquiring it without really paying for it, devising complex financial instruments to get more of it, he'd think that maybe we're ready to learn a lesson or two.

Rereading Steinbeck today -- not the compassionate chronicler of human struggle Steinbeck of the 1930s but the cantankerous social critic Steinbeck of the 1950s and '60s -- is a little eerie. If only we'd listened to him, we might not have spent our way in to the current crisis. Of course, in the aftermath of disaster, anyone who punctured enthusiasms with vague harbingers of doom can seem retroactively brilliant. But listen to Steinbeck on the American obsession with things: "If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick."

That sentiment, written in a 1959 letter to his friend Adlai Stevenson after the Charles van Doren "Twenty One" scandal, expresses Steinbeck's outrage at a world so morally bankrupt that people were cheating on television game shows. As the years progressed -- and he watched more television -- he got even angrier that everywhere he looked, people needed some purchasable product to validate their position in society, to fortify their stomachs, to coax their hair into looking its shiny best.

At the end of his career, Steinbeck's main subject was his extreme distaste for materialism in America, which he explored in a novel and two works of non-fiction: In 1961, he published a postwar morality tale called "The Winter of our Discontent," in which fraud rocks a family ensconced on the ladder of suburban ascension. Shortly after he finished it, he set out across the country in a specially outfitted camper truck, accompanied by his French poodle, for the trip that became "Travels With Charley in Search of America." He followed that with a 1966 book of essays called "America and Americans."

Those are the three books we should really be reading now. "Grapes" might have the economic hardships, but these titles have it all: apathy, greed, moral decay, a dissection of an America gone soft.

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