When I was a young novelist, fairly often a reviewer would get fervent and declare that an obscure book such as Call It Sleep, or a hugely successful one such as The Naked and the Dead, was The Great American Novel. By writers the phrase was used half-jokingly — What are you writing these days? Oh, you know, The Great American Novel. I don’t think I’ve seen the phrase used at all for a couple of decades at least. Maybe we’ve given up on greatness, or anyhow on American greatness.
I began quite a while ago to resist declarations of literary greatness in the sense of singling out any one book as TGAN, or even making lists of The Great American Books. Partly because the supposed categories of excellence omitting all genre writing, and the awards and reading lists and canons routinely and unquestionedly favoring work by men in the eastern half of the United States, made no sense to me. But mostly because I didn’t and don’t think we have much idea of what’s enduringly excellent until it’s endured. Been around quite a long time. Five or six decades, to start with.
Of course the excellence of immediate, real impact, of an art that embodies the moment, is an excellent kind of excellence. Such a novel speaks to you now, this moment. It tells you what’s going on when you need to know what’s going on. It speaks to your age group or social group that nobody else can speak for, or it embodies whatever the current anguish is, or it shows a light at the end of the tunnel of the moment.
I think all the enduringly excellent books began, in fact, as immediately excellent, whether they were noticed at the time or not. Their special quality is to outlast the moment and carry immediacy, impact, meaning, undiminished or even increasing with time, to ages and people entirely different from those the novelist wrote for.
The Great American Novel… Moby Dick? Not greatly noticed when published, but canonised in the twentieth century; no doubt A Great American Novel. And The Great (canonical) American Novelists — Hawthorne, James, Twain, Faulkner, etc. Etc…. But two books keep getting left off these lists, two novels that to me are genuinely, immediately, and permanently excellent. Call them great if you like the word. Certainly they are American to the bone.
I won’t talk about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, much as I love and admire it, because I want to talk about the other one.
If somebody came up to me in a dark alley with a sharp knife and said, “Name The Great American Novel or die!” — I would gasp forth, squeakily, “The Grapes of Wrath!”
I wouldn’t have, a year ago.
I first read it when I was 15 or 16. It was utterly and totally over the head of the little Berkeley High School girl (maybe ‘under her radar’ is better, but we didn’t know much about radar in 1945 unless we were in the Navy.) I liked the chapter with the tortoise, early in the book. The end, the scene with Rose of Sharon and the starving man, fascinated and frightened and bewildered me so much that I couldn’t either forget it or think about it.
Everything in the book was out of my experience, I didn’t know these people, they didn’t do things people I knew did. That I had been going to Berkeley High School with the children of the Joads simply did not occur to me.
I was socially unaware as only a middle-class white kid in a middle-class white city can be.
I was dimly aware of changes. In the forties, the shipyards and other war employment brought a lot of people into Berkeley from the South and Southern Midwest. What I mostly noticed was that, with no discussion or notice taken that I was aware of, the high school lunchroom had become segregated – self-segregated – white kids this side, black kids that side.
So, OK, that’s how it was now. When my brother Karl, three years older than me, was at BHS, the president of the student body had been a black kid — a Berkeley kid. That little, artificial, peaceable kingdom was gone forever. But I could keep living in it. On the white side of the lunchroom.
I lived in it with my best friend, Jean Ainsworth. Jean’s mother Beth was John Steinbeck’s sister. A widow with three children, Beth worked for Shell Oil and rented out rooms in their house, higher in the Berkeley hills than ours, way up Euclid, with a huge view of the Bay. The peaceable kingdom.
I got to know Uncle John a little when I was in college in the East and Jean was working in New York City, where he then lived. He was fond of his beautiful red-headed niece, though I don’t know if he quite realised she was his equal in wit and heart.
Once I sat hidden with him and Jean under a huge bush at a huge wedding in Cleveland, Ohio, and drank champagne. Jean or I foraged forth for a new bottle now and then. It was Uncle John’s idea.
At that wedding I had first heard, spoken in all seriousness, a now-classic phrase. People were talking about Jackie Robinson, and a man said, heavily, threateningly, “If this goes on, they’ll be moving in next door.”
It was after that that we hid under the bush with the champagne. “We need to get away from boring people and drink in peace,” Uncle John said.
He did a bit too much of both those things, maybe, in his later life. He loved living high on the hog. He never went back to the austerity of his life when he was working on The Grapes of Wrath, and who can blame him, with fame and money pouring in on him? Maybe some books he might have written didn’t get written and some he wrote could have been better.
I respect him for never jumping all the hoops at Stanford, even if he kept going back and letting people like Wallace Stegner tell him what The Great American Novel ought to be. He could write rings around any of them, but they may have helped him learn his craft, or at least showed him how to act as if he had the kind of writerly confidence that life on a farm in Salinas didn’t provide. Though it provided a great deal else.
Anyhow, when Jean and I were still in high school, 1945 or thereabouts, I read her famous uncle’s famous novel and was awed, bored, scared, and uncomprehending.
And then sixty-some years later I thought, hey, I really ought to re-read some Steinbeck and see how it wears. So I went to Powells and got The Grapes of Wrath.
When I got towards the end of the book, I stopped reading it. I couldn’t go on. I remembered just enough of that ending. And this time I was identified with all the people, I was lost in them, I had been living with Tom and Ma and Rose of Sharon day and night, through the great journey and the high hopes and the brief joys and the endless suffering. I loved them and I could not bear to think of what was coming. I didn’t want to go through with it. I shut the book and ran away.
Next day I picked it up and finished it, in tears the whole time.
I don’t cry much any more when I read, only poetry, that brief rush when the hair stirs, the heart swells, the eyes fill. I can’t remember when a novel broke my heart the way music can do, the way a tragic play does, the way this book did.
I’m not saying that a book that makes you cry is a great book. It would be a wonderful criterion if only it worked, but alas it admits effective sentimentality, the knee-jerk/heart-string stimulus. For instance, a lot of us cry when reading of the death of an animal in a story — which in itself is interesting and significant, as if we give ourselves permission to weep the lesser tears — but that is something else and less. A book that makes me cry the way music can or tragedy can – deep tears, the tears that come of accepting as my own the grief there is in the world — must have something of greatness about it.
So, now, if somebody asked me what book would tell them the most about what is good and what is bad in America, what is the most truly American book, what is the great American novel… a year ago I would have said – for all its faults — Huckleberry Finn. But now — for all its faults – I’d say The Grapes of Wrath.
I’d like to say more about Steinbeck, next blog. I just want to add now: yes, I saw the movie of The Grapes of Wrath, and yes, it’s a good movie, faithful to the elements of the book that it could handle, and yes, Henry Fonda was fine.
But a movie is something you see; a novel is something made out of language. And what’s beautiful and powerful in this novel is its LANGUAGE, the art that not only shows us what the author saw, but lets us share, as directly as emotion can be shared, his passionate grief, indignation, and love.
3 October 2011
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.
She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.