“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” Fed up with the pointless extravagances and intricacies of civilized society, Henry David Thoreau ventured to return to the simple life that mankind once lead, only concerning himself with the most basic necessities for survival. For two years and two months, Thoreau lived in a cozy shack he built himself by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, recording during this time his reflections on civilization and his observations of the natural world around him in this, his most popular book, Walden: or, Life in the Woods.
Set in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl of the early 1930s, when severe drought caused disastrous crop failure and loosened and exposed the tired topsoil of the Great Plains, and relentless gales swept up storms of dust violent enough to block out the sun and even suffocate those who were caught unprepared, The Grapes of Wrath narrates the story of the Joad family as improving industrial technology renders them and their fellow sharecroppers impractical and forces them to abandon their farms, their homes, and their old way of life in search of work in the legendary orchards of California and a place to call home. Their journey is characterized by struggle and tragedy, passion and hatred, and a beautiful unity and interdependence among fellow human beings. Steinbeck’s book is very political, depicting the worst of a selfish capitalistic country that values profit more than people, and assertively proposing instead the equality and philanthropy of socialism. However, Steinbeck also delves deeply into the more abstract themes of religion, hope, suffering and sacrifice. The book proved spectacularly thought-provoking to me, and has significantly impacted my view on life in general, and on politics especially.
Steinbeck clearly crafted this work very carefully and intricately. Each page has a rhythm to it, and Steinbeck writes the speech of each character as it is intended to be read, with the sayings and accents and quirks appropriate to his background. I could not help but read the book out loud. However, it is undeniably a difficult read. Though not of any particular concern to me, the book is long, but what makes it challenging is that Steinbeck apparently exhausts a good deal of his expansive vocabulary as he describes the minutest details of each scene, the story at some points seeming to drag along altogether too slowly. In addition, Steinbeck is not bashful and generously supplies the reader with the profane language and vulgar imagery that would come naturally to one from such a background as his characters. (I am usually able to tolerate or overlook such “cultured” language, but even still there were numerous times when I would turn red and timidly drop my voice to an imperceptible whisper.) Patience and no small amount of caution are necessary to read this book, but to those who can I would strongly recommend it. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and consider it so far my greatest accomplishment as a reader.
A captivating and absorbing story and a beautifully crafted novel, I highly recommend The Grapes of Wrath to those who are ready to meet Steinbeck’s challenge. I myself look forward to rereading this book in the not-so-distant future.