It was today, May the 6th, in 1940, that John Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel the Grapes of Wrath. He also won the National Book Award for the book, and when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, it was cited as principal among his writings.
That novel has been celebrated, occasionally castigated, and summarized in film and song. I even wrote a sermon about it.
I consider the Grapes of Wrath one of the great novels of our American heritage.
He was a life long Episcopalian. Although he moved theologically to agnosticism over the years, the compressive Anglican church never felt the need to let go of him, nor he of them. Currents of spirituality and spiritual quest together with a progressive if increasingly that agnostic form of Christianity feature prominently in Steinbeck’s writings. And no doubt it informs his masterwork the Grapes of Wrath.
Not unconnected, Steinbeck occupied a place to the left of our American political scene. While he was condemned by some for not full throatily condemning the Vietnam war, he had earned the enmity of J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover felt Steinbeck was an enemy of the state (himself a man who consistently confused the status quo of the moment for the country and its higher aspirations), who when he couldn’t find a way to prosecute Steinbeck did what he could to persecute him. Whether directly connected or not isn’t known for sure, but Steinbeck was audited by the IRS throughout his life.“Steinbeck country” is a term usually associated with those parts of Central California, particularly Monterey and Salinas that he frequently wrote about. Me, I think of the great nation he held up, its aspirations, its possibilities even in the face of its failures and betrayals, and frankly, I think of our country as Steinbeck’s dream of hope.
In these days when the White House is occupied by a hungry ghost, a monster of ego, a spewer of hatred for all perceived as an “other,” I take some comfort in knowing that’s not the only vision of what we are, of who we can be. Mr Steinbeck calls us to something beautiful and, I believe with all my heart, possible.
I dream of Tom Joad. I dream of Preacher Casey. I dream of Ma Joad. And, I dream of the secret Steinbeck proclaimed about who we really are, and I know a country dedicated to justice and love and possibility is possible.
So, I find myself dreaming hope, dreaming possibility, dreaming of Steinbeck’s country…