Sunday, December 31, 1989

College Reflections

If you ride up and down on a roller coaster long enough, eventually you get sick and throw up.

- Me, sometime in college.

Friday, April 14, 1989

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath: Published 50 Years Ago Today

Updated 12/7/2020.

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck

First Publication: April 14, 1939

Category: realist novel

Sales: 15 million


About the Book:

“At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s powerful landmark novel,” AZ it is “perhaps the most American of American Classics.” AZ The book chronicles “what happens when growing things…turn brown and create an ecological disaster;” SS-17 that is, the period during the Great Depression in the 1930s when hundreds of thousands of migrant workers flooded into California looking for work and a new life after drought had decimated their farms and livelihoods.

The novel “probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.” AZ “Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.” AZ

The story focuses on the Joad family, who are driven out of Oklahoma “by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work.” WK They set out for California on “a slow journey toward the dream that America holds out for its people” SS-38 through “jobs, land, dignity, and a future.” WK “Hope for a better life is why the Joads, the salt of the earth, continue to signify an American spirit we don’t want to relinquish. We fervently want to believe that Americans make it over the blue summit.” SS-97

Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 song, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is about “no home, no job, no peace, no rest” – “a pretty good summary of The Grapes of Wrath.” SS-39 Springsteen said the book “resonated through my whole life.” SS-43

The Title:

“Grapes of wrath” is a phrase from the song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was Steinbeck’s wife, Carol, who suggested the title. John likened the song’s marching rhythm to the tone he wanted to strike with the book. He also insisted on printing the song lyrics in the book, a move intented to help dissuade accusations that the book promoted radicalism and Communism. SS-98

The Characters:

The novel focuses on Tom Joad when he gets out of prison and goes home, only to find he almost missed his family as they are headed to California. He meets Jim Casy, a former preacher, who is painted as “a Jesus figure…because of his initials, because he goes into the wilderness to consider his faith…and because he leads the twelve Joads out of Oklahoma.” SS-57

His mother, Ma, is a pillar of strength who “voices the book’s major chords – connection, faith, and pride.” SS-69 However, Tom’s sister, Rose of Sharon, can be viewed as a whiner. As author Susan Shillinglaw asserts, however, “she’s pregnant, unhomed, stressed, hungry, and abandoned. That seems reason enough for self-indulgence.” SS-68

The other males in Tom’s family are a mix of beaten-down family men. His brother Noah and brother-in-law Connie both abandon the family. His uncle John is plagued by guilt about the loss of his wife and child. Tom’s father is diligent about keeping the family together, but isn’t exactly a patriarchal figure.


“Few novels can claim that their message led to actual legislation, but The Grapes of Wrath did just that.” LC It “ignited a movement in Congress to pass laws benefiting farm workers. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the committee specifically cited this novel as one of the main reasons for the award.” LC When he accepted the award, Steinbeck said, “The thing that arouses me to fury more than anything else is the imposition of force by a stronger on a weaker for reasons of self-interest or greed.” SS-92


Steinbeck “wrote this book for mass culture.” SS-46 “In 1939, many read about poor characters for the first time, others found their lives in a book.” SS-46 “The Joads are…every family family in exile, every family huddling on transitional borders, every family torn from a home.” SS-48

He researched the book for three years and then gave himself 100 days to complete the book, pushing himself to write 2000 words a day. SS-33 A college friend of Steinbeck’s said he “was a journalist at heart, a writer itching to be on the scene, see for himself, listen to dialogue, discover detail.” SS-117 For example, Steinbeck visited one of the government camps in California in 1936. He reported on the conditions of the camp and the efforts of its compassionate director, Tom Collins, to organize the migrants into self-governing units. SS-123 He visited other camps where he “sat in the ditches with the migrant workers, lived and ate with them.” SS-124

He was intent on creating an accurate depiction of live in Hoovervilles, or the shantytowns “atched together of corrugated iron and cardboard and tin, named after President Herbert Hoover, who many Americans though bore responsibility for the Depression.” SS-112

There are details within the book, however, which sound like personal experiences more than research. For example, “there’s authority in the description” SS-3 of Tom Joad skinning a rabbit or removing the oil pan from a car. SS-3 Steinbeck “felt a deep psychological bond with the migrants…because of his own experience as an outsider” SS-49 growing up as an outsider in a town of “haves” where his family were “have nots.”

The Five Layers:

The Grapes of Wrath amplifies that insistent holistic truth: individuals belong to families, blood families are bound to other family units, and all humans are connected in spirit.” SS-xiii Steinbeck wrote the book with five layers in mind. He was friends with marine biologist Ed Ricketts whose approach to understanding ecology applied to Steinbeck’s approach to writing Grapes:

  1. Observe the details of the environment. SS-10 This one shows itself in how Steinbeck gives vivid descriptions of the settings and the scenes. As he tackled the final draft of the novel, he heeded his wife Carol’s advice to “Stay with the detail.” SS-15 Steinbeck’s “prose if richly visual…he wrote in pictures.” SS-79 This also accounts for the slow pace of the book, something symbolized early on in the novel with a story about a turtle. SS-34

  2. Consider the interactions amongst people and how they band themselves together. SS-10 Ricketts said, “wherein the whole consists of…the community in its environment, the notion of relation being significant.” SS-28 Steinbeck noted that “the group unit is so strong…that it can change the nature of its biological units…Sometimes a terrible natural stimulus will create a group until over night. They are of all sizes, from the camp meeting where the units pool their souls to make one yearning cry, to the whole world who fought the war.” SS-82 Grapes shows “twenty families becoming one family and the loss of home becoming one loss.” SS-83

  3. Consider history. SS-10 While Steinbeck focuses on the plight of the Joads, he also offers commentary on how Oklahoma sharecroppers ignored the land’s natural contours and kept planting cotton and how California growers refused to pay decent wages. He also shows the parallels of how those displaced Okies acquired their land in the first place by displacing native Americans. SS-108

  4. What is basically equivalent in different regions? SS-11 This is where Steinbeck made the Joads’ story universal through “the novel’s insistent metaphorical reach.” SS-128 “The niches that the Joads occupy – Oklahoma sharecroppers, Okie migrants, California field-workers – are linked to niches across space and time, universal and mythic historis of land use, dispossession, and poverty.” SS-129 There are also themes of oppression and prejudice which “lift the Joads story from the 1930s to the present.” SS-133

  5. Emergence – “the belief that humans could ‘break through’ to a larger, broader, spiritual, all-encompassing awareness.” SS-11 “Emergence is a large part of why the book endures.” SS-146 It is the step forward, or call to action, that people can take. This is showcased through Tom Joad’s speech “Whenever men are fightin’ for their rights…that’s where I’m a-gonna be.” SS-41 Steinbeck borrowed the speech from the ballad “Joe Hill,” about a labor organizer, and Woody Guthrie, in turn, created his seventeen-verse ballad “Tom Joad” with those as the closing words. SS-41

The Dialogue:

One of the potentially distracting aspects of the novel is the “salty dialogue” which some find “hokey.” SS-19 Author Susan Shillinglaw asserts that Steinbeck’s effort to capture the sound of the Okies’ voices is “pitch-perfect, concrete and exact, capturing the migrants’ metaphoric speech patterns. Steinbeck’s characters speak with the grittiness he heard from California workers and Oklahoma migrants.” SS-19


The Grapes of Wrath is frequently read in American high school and college literature classes due to its historical context and enduring legacy. A celebrated Hollywood film version, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford, was released in 1940.” WK

Resources and Related Links:

In July 2018, I became the organizer of the Classic Novels Book Club. Check out the Book Club tab here or Meetup for more information. This is our December 2020 book.

Friday, March 31, 1989

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving Published This Month

Last updated 7/6/2020.

A Prayer for Owen Meany

John Irving

First Publication: March 1989

Category: novel with religious themes

Sales: ?

Accolades (click on badges to see full lists):

About the Book:

From A Prayer for Owen Meany: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” AZ

The seventh novel from John Irving “tells the story of John Wheelwright and his best friend Owen Meany growing up together in a small New Hampshire town during the 1950s and 1960s.” WK “In the summer of 1953, [the] two eleven-year-old boys…are playing in a Little League baseball game.” AZ Owen hits a foul ball which kills John’s mother. Owen “doesn’t believe in accidents; …[he] believes he is God’s instrument. What happens…after that 1953 foul ball is extraordinary.” AZ

“The novel is also a homage to G√ľnter Grass’ most famous novel, The Tin Drum. Grass was a great influence for John Irving, as well as a close friend. The main characters of both novels, Owen Meany and Oskar Matzerath, share the same initials as well as some other characteristics, and their stories show some parallels. Irving has confirmed the similarities. A Prayer for Owen Meany, however, follows an independent and separate plot.” WK

“The novel deals with serious spiritual issues, such as the importance of faith, matters of social justice, and the concept of fate.” WK “John and Owen both offer criticisms of organized religion and religious hypocrisy,” WK but Owen “is quite certain that he will die because he is an ‘instrument of God’ and thus will serve some good and important purpose.” WK

Resources and Related Links:

In July 2018, I became the organizer of the Classic Novels Book Club. Check out the Book Club tab here or Meetup for more information. This is our January 2019 book.

Thursday, January 19, 1989

Three Hundred Sixty Seven

a short story from college days

Tellers at drive-up bank windows and servers at fast food joints were the extent of my noon companions. Lunch hour barely served as an escape from work; I was always rushing to complete menial tasks that, faced with under sixty minutes to complete, take on titanic proportions.

Every day I flew past the local park, blessed to have never hit a pedestrian unwisely trying to soak up some sun instead of treating noon to one like an Indy 500. In the summer the park was populated with its own version of hustle and bustle. A traffic jam of skateboarders, joggers, and roller bladers crowded the walking trail, all racing towards nowhere in particular, while I was engrossed in a life-or-death quest for large fries and a chocolate shake.

For some inexplicable reason, the call of the green grass and open skies bellowed louder that day than the black and blue ink scrawls of my to-do list etched on the back of a wrinkled Quik-Trip receipt. My automobile swerved into the parking lot and screamed at me to, “Get out!” I did. Then I did something so extraordinarily out of character that I questioned my sanity. I stretched. I stretched and then I strolled and then I even started to relax. I could feel stress dripping off me as I soaked in the June sun and chuckled at pigeons squabbling for leftovers and children quarreling over whose turn it was to swing. Even watching dogs tinkle on the oak trees offered a peculiar affirmation of the freedom of the outdoors.

About twenty feet ahead of me on the path, an elderly gentleman stood frozen in his tracks, his eyes gazing downward. I wondered if the man was looking for something. The words, “do you need help?” were just forming on my lips when a pre-teen cyclist came hurtling toward us. “Look out!” I yelled to the man, finally getting him to look up and thereby convincing me he was a person and not just a statue for the pigeons to use as target practice.

The boy swerved and the man stepped backward, untouched by the bicycle but tumbling over in a heap. To my astonishment the boy actually stopped, instead of racing onward and ignoring his actions, and got off his bike to help the man.

“You all right, mister?” yelped the boy, leaping off his bike. I’m sorry ‘bout that. I’m trying to break my record. Five minutes and thirteen seconds. That’s how long it takes me to get around the track.”

I rushed to their aid expecting any fashion of mutilation. Either the old man’s heart would halt from the shock of the ordeal or he would strangle the boy.

However, the old man not only appeared unharmed but unphased. His temper appeared in tact as he righted the bicycle and spoke calmly. “Son,” he said, “you mind if I give the bike a try?”

The boy was bewildered, probably terrified that the old man would bash the bike, its owner, or both into the nearest tree. Being a corporate-minded adult, I pondered the likelihood of the boy getting sued not over nearly hitting the old man, but the old man then borrowing the boy’s bike and crashing into a tree.

“Sure,” the boy fumbled, “I guess, mister.” Soon the man was grinning ear to ear as he zipped down the trail, both he and the bike a little more scratched than five minutes ago, but neither in irreparable shape. The man proved as much menace to the public as the boy; he swerved left and right narrowly averting innocent mothers and strollers and downright terrifying an unprepared squirrel.

About a hundred yards down the sidewalk the man wheeled about, paused, and then pedaled like mad. The bike came hurtling back towards the boy who was reeling in horror at the prospect of being run over by an angry senior citizen wielding the boy’s own bike as his weapon. Instead the old man came to a screeching halt a matter of feet before the boy, laying down a skid mark that the shocked kid swore had to be some kind of world record.

“Man for an old guy, you’re pretty wild.”

The old man smiled broadly as he dismounted the bike and returned it to the boy. “Go scare some more people.”

“Bye, mister!” The kid stormed down the sidewalk once again, sending pedestrians screaming left and right, narrowly escaping his reckless path.

I was now convinced I was asleep and this was some weird dream. In my haze of puzzlement, I approached the man. “Sir?” I said, “I’ve got to tell you - that has to be, well, one of the oddest things I’ve ever seen. You must be the most forgiving victim of an almost collision that I’ve ever seen.”

“Ah, the boy’s just having fun. Don’t mean no harm. I’ll tell ya – there’s one thing you learn about gettin’ old,” he began, his words coming out slowly and thoughtfully, as the twinkle in his eye glowed brightly. “It’s better not to.” He jabbed his finger toward me in a mock warning and then turned and trotted away, his body showing no signs of having been ravaged by a bicycle accident.

The summer dragged on, each day threatening to send the mercury past the previous day’s record scorcher. Despite the heat I frequented the park; it was less torturous than my standard lunch hour of a few months ago. I’d rather sweat to death than stress to death. I looked for the old man, half assuming he’d be tearing up the walking path on a shiny new Schwinn, but through mid-August I spotted neither man nor bike. I fought back my fear that the man whose youthfulness rivaled the playground crowd might have seen the last of his cycling days.

The few park dwellers challenging the wrath of the hot August sun did so better equipped than I. They came armed with shorts and tank tops; I arrived in suit and tie. The tie was suffocatingly tight when I neared the park; it was as if corporate America refused to release their stranglehold on even my one hour haven from my nine-to-five life. Stripping myself of suit and tie didn’t free me from the prison of the noon-day sun, but it did offer me refuge from cubicles and computer screens.

The younger park dwellers proved the brightest of all. I have yet to witness a ten year old playing at the park in a tuxedo. Stripped to just shorts or a swim suit, the kids washed away their trouble with a dip in the fountain. When the city constructed the fountain a few years ago, the goal was a centerpiece for the park. The local swimming hole was not what the city had in mind. The fountain was not conducive to swimming, but its foot-deep basin was ideal for wading.

The mist from the fountain spray licked my face, already bathed in summer sweat. While I was physically uncomfortable, the relaxation of watching the children gleefully wash their troubles away more than made up for it. Of course, I thought, their freedom isn’t forever. The impending Labor Day would toss the fountain dwellers back into their own corporate worlds of crayons and chalkboards.

Glancing at my watch reminded me that while their freedom had a few weeks to go, mine only had minutes. I rose from the park bench and tucked my newspaper under my arm. With my eyes fixed gloomily toward the ground, I didn’t see the man until I’d already collided with him. Without even looking up, I muttered, “Oh, sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

“It’s alright, sonny. I’ve survived a few bumps in my time,” came the response.

“Hey! It’s you!” I said, now breaking my glued-to-the-ground gaze.

“Sorry? Have we met?” The old man looked puzzled, but not at all concerned. I couldn’t imagine he had any enemies to be afraid of running into.

“That day - here at the park - a kid nearly ran into you with his bike.”

The old man nodded firmly, the incident obviously coming back to him. “Oh sure,” he said, “that was the first time you’d been at the park, wasn’t it?”

I was startled. “Yes,” I responded, “how did you know that? I don’t remember telling you that.”

The old man smiled, suggesting he was pleased with himself. “No, no. You didn’t. I just kinda figured. You just looked much older then.”

I was baffled by the remark. Could I have worn such a face of desperation that it screamed a message of stress to people? Before I could ask the man, he excused himself. “Well, young man, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll take a dip.”

The man padded across the paved area surrounding the fountain. As I watched in shock the man stepped right in the fountain without so much as removing his shoes. A delighted chorus of shrieks greeted the man as he turned back toward me and smiled. “Come on,” he coaxed, “get in.”

My heart sank. My sole encounter with this man at the summer’s onset had sent my life expectancy into the black. He now wanted to give me lunacy instead of vibrancy. “You’ve got to be kidding!” I protested. “I’m wearing a suit! I’ve got to go back to work! In fact, I was just leaving. You’d have to be insane to get in that fountain fully clothed.”

A look came over the man’s face that I had not thought possible. His smile contorted into a disgusted frown and his brow furrowed in anger. “Young man,” he said in a firm but quiet tone, “do you know what insanity is?”

“Of course I do. It’s when someone doesn’t have the capability for rational thought.”

“Let me give you another definition. An insane person,” the man explained, “is not aware that what he does is out of the ordinary. A sane man knows, but does it anyway.”

I found myself beside the old man, splashing and laughing and feeling the stress melting off into the water. I looked at the old man, reveling in the joyful howl of the children in awe at witnessing fully-clothed adults cavorting in a park fountain. “Are you sure you’re old?” I jokingly asked the man.

In a tone scarcely audible over the din of aquatic acrobatics, he declared, “only the parts.”

The words flooded me with a realization. I gazed at the man surrounded by the representatives of several generation gaps and noticed the liver spots on the back of his hand. I pondered the sparse, wispy tuft of hair perched atop his scalp like a snow-capped mountain. He squinted through lenses half an inch thick and strained to listen with his ear plugged with a hearing aid. His arms looked like saplings threatening to snap at the first sign of a strong wind. Despite his frailty, his vibrancy fooled one into believing he was at least thirty years younger than his physical features confessed.

My curiosity finally overwhelmed my discretion and I finally asked the man how old he was.

“I’m really not sure anymore,” he declared with total sincerity, “I lost track after the Civil War.”

I looked for a grin or a twinkle in his eye to assure me he was kidding, but he was already engaged in a splash war with the fountain’s entourage.