Writing novels about the poor and dispossessed in 1930s California and in the process attracting the wrath of farmers’ organisations and the attention of the FBI gave John Steinbeck a reputation which has persisted to this day. Many people assume that he was a communist, or at the very least a socialist. This novel, along with [b:The Grapes of Wrath|4395|The Grapes of Wrath|John Steinbeck|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1352912927s/4395.jpg|2931549] and [b:Of Mice and Men|890|Of Mice and Men|John Steinbeck|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1367951092s/890.jpg|40283] is a work which cemented Steinbeck’s reputation in that regard.
However, the characterization of Steinbeck’s politics as socialist or communist is incorrect. While he had a passion for supporting the underdog, he wasn’t any further to the left politically than New Deal Democrat. Steinbeck was, if anything, disparaging about communists, commenting in a letter to a friend shortly after this novel was published:
I don’t like communists either. I mean I dislike them as people. I rather imagine the apostles had the same waspish qualities and the New Testament is proof that they had equally bad manners.The plot of this novel - Steinbeck’s fifth - focuses on fruit growers in a fictional valley in California. Two “Party” (presumably Communist Party) activists – the seasoned campaigner Mac MacLeod and his young apprentice Jim Nolan – infiltrate a group of itinerant fruit pickers with the intention of provoking a strike and violent confrontation with the growers. From the beginning Mac is aware that the strategy is doomed to failure because of the superior resources of the growers. However, he doesn’t hesitate to manipulate the fruit pickers and to use whatever means at his disposal to achieve the Party’s objectives.
The novel works on a number of levels. At its simplest level, it analyses the process of manipulating a group of people to achieve a political end. However, it’s also an exploration of one of Steinbeck’s favourite themes – group behaviour and the way in which it differs from the behaviour of individuals. The novel also functions as Jim Nolan’s bildungsroman, the psychological portrait of a young man moving from disaffection to self-knowledge as he discovers his skills and strengths.
Unusually for Steinbeck, the novel contains relatively little description of the natural world. Instead, most of the action is contained in dialogue. However, even with the absence of descriptive language, there is a cinematic quality to the narrative. I could picture scenes in the novel as scenes from a film – detailed, vivid and striking. The characters are also striking with a solidity and reality I’ve come to expect from Steinbeck’s writing.
Writing a novel like The Grapes of Wrath meant that everything else Steinbeck wrote either before or after was going to be compared to it. That was a burden for Steinbeck as it would be for any writer. Given the subject matter of this novel, the comparison with The Grapes of Wrath is even more inevitable. That’s a shame, because this work has its own power. And according to Wikipedia it’s Barack Obama’s favourite Steinbeck novel, which may well be another reason to read it, should a reason be required.