John Steinbeck's Naturalism and Direct Historical Representation: The Great Depression and the Grapes of Wrath
Literature cannot help but be reflective of the period in which it is written. Even novels that are set somewhere outside the time and place that author occupies will necessarily include some degree of commentary on the issues, beliefs, and values of the author's own world. This is, in part, what makes an understanding of history so essential to a true understanding of individual works of literature as well as larger literary movements, periods, and genres; though historical criticism is certainly not the only valid approach to reading and interpreting literature, a lack of basic historical knowledge concerning the background of a specific text will almost certainly lead to a misinterpretation of that text and a lack of awareness of certain subtleties and implications in a given work.
At other times, of course, authors make their works far more explicitly about the times in which they are living, or perhaps through which they recently lived. Fiction that is directly and explicitly historical can be very powerful as a means of social and political commentary, and when the literature is of a high enough caliber the messages and characters of a particular piece of historical fiction continue to resonate with subsequent generations while still retaining the flavor and values of the time in which it was created. The stylistic choices and implicit values of a given piece of historical fiction, that is, are embedded both in the external story of the text as well as in its symbolic and structural details.
John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is one such piece of historical fiction. Published in 1939, at the end of a decade typified by the major economic downturn known as the Great Depression, the novel depicts the plight of the Joad family and the country at large as poverty, hunger, and a conspiracy of weather patterns changes the face of the Midwest -- the "Breadbasket" of America -- and forces homesteading farmers West in search of itinerant labor and land where foraging might actually yield some nutrition. Both the events and the values of the time period are clearly captured and starkly presented in Steinbeck's novel, and the style of the text is as important to an understanding of the work and the time period as is the story itself. This paper will examine the historical background created by the Great Depression, the basic overall elements of Naturalism in literature, and finally discuss The Grapes of Wrath as a naturalistic representation of this particular period in American history.
The Great Depression
Like most major economic events in modern history, the Great Depression is a highly simplistic way of referring to a time period created by fairly complex and ongoing economic forces. Throughout the 1920s, the newly created Federal Reserve system gave investors a great deal of confidence that the economy would be stabilized, and when the Fed tried raising interest rates in 1928 and 1929 to discourage stock market speculation, business reacted by shrinking back hugely in a succession of mutually harmful protectionist practices (DeLong 1997). This led to the crash of the stock market in 1929 and the beginnings of the recession.
Though The Grapes of Wrath is not directly concerned with the machinations of the economic system that had been created in contemporary American society (the subject is addressed in a symbolic and decidedly non-economic manner, as will be detailed below), it is important to understand the failures of the financial institutions in the country during the 1930s in order to understand the totality of the Joad family's plight. The recession did not occur only in the United States, but took place on a global level; investors were left without money to invest from companies failing, companies failed due to a lack of investment, and the entire global system of finance and trade essentially ground down to an excruciating snail's (or turtle's) pace (Smiley 2008). Very rich individuals actually got richer early on (and some throughout), but in general there was a scramble by banks and those in the middle-class urban and suburban areas to obtain real assets and begin building some semblance of financial security again (Smiley 2008). In the Midwest this meant one thing: land.
By 1933, an estimated fifteen million adults of working age could not find employment -- meaning approximates for the proportion of unemployed range from a quarter to a third of the country's non-farm workforce (The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers 2003; Smiley 2008). In the Midwest, where agriculture was the industry, supporting most families directly and all others in the area indirectly, things were even worse -- nearly forty percent of all farm workers were unemployed (Smiley 2008). Without people to pay decent prices for food crops, farmers were finding themselves unable to earn a living wage (TERP 2003).
They also found themselves unable to pay their mortgages, and with banks in trouble over their own investment speculations they began to seize properties where payments weren't being made on time, as a way to try and wring some modicum of earnings from their holdings (TERP 2003). This, coupled with ongoing drought conditions that turned America's Breadbasket into the great Dust Bowl, drove most of the small farming families out of the lands of the Midwest and into California and other lands West in search of work in the agricultural industry still thriving here (TERP 2003; Smiley 2008). The fact that so many people throughout the country were out of work, however, meant that there was no shortage of willing labor for successful farms (or for any successful venture, for that matter), and wages reduced drastically to the point that families continued to go homeless and hungry even when putting in more than a full day's work (TERP 2003).
The picture of the poor farmers, their loss of land and their dignity in their subsequent working conditions, is the Great Depression that John Steinbeck focuses on in The grapes of Wrath. While the Great Depression of the urban areas is important and influential in the action of the novel, it is not the focus because it was not the experience of the majority of Americans at the time of the Depression itself. Steinbeck wrote about what he saw, and what the people of the Midwest and the bulk of the country saw, and he tried to do so in a manner that was at once highly realistic and yet deeply interpretive and symbolic. This is where a certain starkness in style that is evocative of the period itself begins to emerge.
The term "naturalism" can refer to many different things, but in the world of literature the label applies to a certain philosophical perspective and set of stylistic choices and symbolic images that imply both a scientific objectivity and yet a close connection with human impulses and motives (Cutajar 2010; Campbell 2010). That is, naturalist writers are concerned with developing a system for understanding human behavior, and believe that rational and logical explanations for this behavior could be developed if the forces influencing behavior could be sufficiently understood (Campbell 2010). At the same time, the only way to even possibly develop such an understanding is through intense scrutiny of human beings in real human conditions, and this creates an intense closeness to the characters in many naturalistic works that is sharply juxtaposed, in some sense, to the concept of scientific objectivity and distance (Campbell 2010; Cutajar 2010). This style actually developed in the late nineteenth century, but is also very appropriate for the Great Depression.
An extensive definition of naturalism written by Donald Pizer is quoted by Campbell (2010), describing two primary "tensions" at work in naturalistic novels. An understanding of these two tensions can help to explain why the style and philosophical voice of naturalism is so well-suited to the period of the Great Depression, and will also aid in an interpretation of The Grapes of Wrath as well. Steinbeck deals with large, epic themes as well as minute stories of human relationships and emotions, and naturalism is uniquely equipped to handle this dichotomy.
The first tension that Pizer describes in his definition of naturalism is that between the "subject matter of the naturalistic novel and the concept of man which emerges from this subject matter" (Campbell 2010). He goes on to explain that the heroes of naturalistic novels are of the lower-middle or low classes in society, living a life of day-to-day drudgery that forms the "subject matter" of the novel, and it is the ability for the writer to perceive and extract the heroic and momentous human qualities out of this everyday drudgery that labels them as a practitioner of naturalism (Campbell 2010). There is a tension, according to Pizer, between the ultimately heroic presentation of man/mankind and the inherent unheroic nature of his surroundings in a naturalistic novel (Campbell 2010).
The second tension that exists as a defining feature of naturalism, according…