Saturday, August 4, 2012

Summer of Steinbeck

     We have an extremely small, local library that we've gone to every week this summer, which inhabits a very tiny building that is run entirely by volunteers and donations.  They have a wonderful kids' section, but the adult section looks eerily like your 80-year-old grandmother cleared out all the books she bought in the 1980s and hadn't read.  The "Literature" section in the kids' department is pretty good, and is also about 90% John Steinbeck.  Since living in California, I've realized that everyone raised here became inundated in Steinbeck from school, and yet I can't remember reading one of his books.  At some point in my life I'd read multiple good quotes from Travels with Charley, so I thought I would give it a try, and it was excellent!  I followed that up with a collection of his short stories in The Long Valley, and finally decided to go for the plunge and read Grapes of Wrath.
      To paraphrase another author: "It was the best of books, it was the worst of books."  I've entirely fallen in love with Steinbeck's ability to describe characters and tell a good story.  He really likes his characters, and it shows.  The one-eyed junkyard supervisor is one of my personal favorites.  However, there is definitely some heavy-handed political statements he's trying to make with the story that get oppressive and trite with repetition.  There is no way that one Okie family could encounter every possible event of the Dust Bowl, and the sentimentalism of it is too much for such a good writer.
       Steinbeck's genius can be found in how many times he's been copied over the last 80 years.  It seemed that writers as far apart as Tom Wolfe and Wallace Stegner have copied aspects of his style.  In fact, Stegner is extremely similar, but has even less hope for his characters' unhappy endings than Steinbeck does.
       Steinbeck certainly wasn't a happy character himself--he drank and partied his way through college (which he didn't finish), his first wife was an active Communist who had an abortion because Steinbeck thought being a father would inhibit his writing career.  He neglected his second wife and children, and was possibly happiest with his third wife.  It sounds as though he enjoyed the company of the characters on the page more than those that inhabited his house.  However, his skill is amazing, and I'm looking forward to a visit to the National Steinbeck Center, which is about 20 minutes from my house.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

From Alfred to Victoria

     Both ancient Hebrew and classical concepts of rural life came together in the founding of the United States.  As many as 90% of the earliest colonists from England were Puritans of the yeomen class, which consisted of free landowners.  This class of English commoners had been raised under the 1,000-year-old English common law written by King Alfred in the 700s A.D., who modeled his private property laws on the Hebrew Old Testament.  They were educated by John Wycliffe and William Tyndale who sought to educate the common farmer by widely distributing the Scripture in the vernacular language.  These Reformers arrived in the New World with their thirst for religious freedom, as well as English property law engrained in their hearts and minds.  Thomas Jefferson, the son of Puritans as well as the Enlightenment, wanted to institute the agrarian ideals of liberty that were espoused by both John Locke and the French Revolutionaries, who took their cues from the classical agrarian revolutionaries.  Jefferson believed that the key to democracy and a moral society lay in the equal distribution of property, and even tried to include such requirements in the Virginia State Constitution.  He found a kindred spirit in James Madison who incorporated agrarianist ideals at the Constitutional Convention, into the Bill of Rights, and in the building of Washington, D.C.  
     However, the 19th century saw the beginnings of a break in this ancient, long-standing relationship between productive land ownership and civil rights.  The Industrial Revolution created a society that, for the first time in history, did not have to exist just at or barely above subsistence.  The factory, instead of the home, became the focus of productivity.  Husbands desired the steady paycheck of a factory job, while their wives (who had both servants as well as modern, industrial conveniences), had to justify their lack of productivity in the home.  This situation created Victorian society, wherein the home was transformed into a place of consumption, not production.  In addition, the Romantic Movement reacted to the Industrial Revolution by hailing the beauty of wilderness and naturalism.  The Romantics discouraged farming, viewing it as an activity that imposed upon the inherent beauty and function of nature.  In addition, the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Civil War placed more constraints on small, family-owned farms to be financially viable, leading even more farmers to abandon the work of their ancestors and move to the cities.