There have been some lovely literary items floating around in recent days.
NPR is doing a series called “Letters of Note” which, if you love words, you would do well to check out.
This year marks the 75th Anniversary of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. I remember disliking the novel in High School but a little time, life experience and the Great Recession have deepened my appreciation. Describing the lives of his migrant farmers en massé, Steinbeck writes in a deliberately biblical style, painting his poor characters as holy in opposition to the Dark Satanic Mill-bent of their persecutors. The effect of his clean and sweeping prose pierces the heart and imbues the simple characters with a sense of mythic power. It hardly bears mentioning that many of the moral outrages which occur in the book are paralleled in our current Robber Baron economy.
Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks and the ripe fruits. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage. (The Grapes of Wrath, 75th Anniversary Edition, p. 367)
Interestingly, this year also marks the 75th anniversary of the filmed version of Gone with the Wind—a vision of the American struggle which could not be more different. Gone with the Wind’s treatment of its African American characters only gets more dated and silly with time–but the story itself remains compelling thanks to the powerful portrait of its central, and unapologetically flawed, heroine. We may not sympathize with Scarlett O’Hara’s politics but we must stand in awe of her determination to survive. Thus, though The Grapes of Wrath is Marxist and Gone With the Wind capitalist, though one story deifies the poor and the other exalts a materialistic aristocrat, both are iconic literary (and cinematic) portraits of the factions at work in the American soul.
(Did I mention I get hyperbolic? I get hyperbolic on this blog.)
Finally, the Atlantic’s James Parker has written a beautiful piece about his relationship with Robin Williams’s film Mrs. Doubtfire. Death and Mrs. Doubtfire is a great read.