Reading the Recession

Check out this story from the Washington Post:

John Steinbeck

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.

Is Steinbeck a feel-good author in a time when encouragement is really needed? Possibly, but the article’s author doesn’t stop there. Quelling the notion that Steinbeck’s books offer a sympathetic “ear” to current economic problems, she suggests that Steinbeck might be whispering a satisfied “I told you so” somewhere in the hereafter:

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. 

One of my favorite Steinbeck novels is The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), which brilliantly showcases the gradual erosion of moral principle that tags along when the American Dream morphs into the pursuit of wealth. The article’s author heads in a similar direction. She says,

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?'” 

I don’t think I’m the only reader looking at this statement and thinking, “Pure horror? Pure fact.” Maybe, instead of just picking up Steinbeck to remind ourselves of the enduring power of the human spirit, we ought to consider some of his other, subtler messages about responsibility and materialism. 

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