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A Recession Only Steinbeck Could Love

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.

Or, alternatively, to really understand how Steinbeck would feel about the Great Recession, forget the 1930s books or postwar America. Go straight for the sea coral and Steinbeck's writings on his travels with marine biologist Ed Ricketts, a lifelong friend. That's what Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at San Jose State University and a prolific Steinbeck scholar, suggests. I met her in 2004 when I was doing research for my college thesis at the university's Center for Steinbeck Studies. At that point, the questions I had for her -- about how deeply Steinbeck's impressions of the community born of devastating poverty in the 1930s primed him to disdain the scattered, competitive nature of life in postwar America -- were purely academic. In Silicon Valley at least, the country seemed pretty far from the kind of widespread economic distress that Steinbeck had written about in the 1930s.

But today, the connections are more immediate. Shillinglaw talks about Steinbeck's fascination, linked to his friend Ricketts' work, with marine species that are the most "survivable." He liked the ones that were "battered by waves." Even in the ocean, Steinbeck thought, if you are "too soft, if too much is given to you too easily, it leads to corruption," Shillinglaw says.

Steinbeck himself expressed that view in 1960, when he wrote to his friend and editor Pascal Covici from the road with Charley: "Over and over I thought we lack the pressures that make men strong and the anguish that makes men great."

Well, the pressure's on now.

It's on for the people in several communities north of Durham, N.C., who participated in a "Grapes" Big Read in October organized by Piedmont Community College librarian Lionell Parker. At the events last fall, Parker said, people were amazed that the timing was so perfect -- that just as the national economy was lurching toward previously unimaginable lows, they could gather to talk about the Depression, share stories about job losses and hold a food drive while they were at it. It's on for the Jackson County, Mich., library patrons who are snapping up the packets on avoiding foreclosure that were put together as part of this month's Steinbeck-related events. The pressure seems more immediate than it has ever been for the 11th-graders in Kimberly Rapert's class at Western High. Rapert is happy that the students are so engaged with "Grapes," but she's a little concerned that some of the connections are a little too easily made, the despair too fresh.

In class, her students share stories about college plans dashed, parents losing work and bleak uncertainty about the future. Student Sarah Hanson remembers a discussion the class had had about how young people had to grow up fast during the Depression. Others talked about how they, too, were shouldering more adult burdens in the current economy. One classmate's father had to move out of state for work. Many were trying to get a job but found themselves competing for low-wage work with adults who had families to support.

Since the students are spending so much time with Steinbeck, I checked out whether the author himself had ever made it there. Based on "Travels with Charley," it doesn't look as though he did. At the part of the text that roughly corresponds to Jackson County's coordinates, the landscape seems to go by in a blur: "As I passed through or near the great hives of production -- Youngstown, Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, Pontiac, Flint, and later South Bend and Gary -- my eyes and mind were battered by the fantastic hugeness and energy of production."

Now, not even 50 years after his journey with Charley, those great hives of production are mostly silent. And if any reasonable person were to use the term "fantastic hugeness" to describe anything related to our current economy, it would be the stimulus bill or the deficit.

So I wondered what Steinbeck would think if, in Quixote-like fashion, he were to pack up a second-generation (possibly hybrid?) Rocinante -- what he named the camper he drove across the country in 1960 -- and retrace his route today, seeking once again to "listen to what the country is about."

David Kipen, director of the NEA's "Big Read" programming, including the Steinbeck events, thinks that the author wouldn't feel completely disoriented. He'd find both the nation's economic predicament and the resilience of its people familiar.

"There are enough Joad-like families here in America that I don't think he'd throw in the towel," Kipen says.

He wouldn't give up on us, that's true. He'd give us a lecture. So maybe it's best to recycle one. My favorite Steinbeck scolding comes from "America and Americans." It describes the domino effect of materialism, the way "having many things seems to create a desire for more things." And it culminates in the disaster that Santa hath wrought: "Think of the pure horror of our Christmases when our children tear open package after package and, when the floor is heaped with wrappings and presents, say, 'Is that all?'" Steinbeck surveys the country and concludes: "We are trapped and entangled in things."

Yes, he's right. I don't know about then, but we certainly are now. And even if his rage makes him seem too curmudgeonly to take advice from, Steinbeck's observations are worth listening to at this moment. Untangle yourself from things.

But first, pick up a copy of "Travels With Charley." It's a road-trip book -- like "Grapes of Wrath" -- but on balance, I think it makes better Great Recession reading.

dryr@washpost.com

Rachel Dry is an assistant editor in Outlook.

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