California Migrant Camps
Besides, The Grapes of Wrath had been praised by the left as a triumph of proletarian writing, nominated by critics and reviewers as "The Great American Novel," given historical vindication by:
Senator Robert M. La Follette's inquiries into California tyrannical farm labor conditions, and validated by Carey McWilliams, whose own great work, Factories in the Field, is the renowned sociological coun¬terpart to Steinbeck’s novel. The Grapes of Wrath was defended on sev¬eral occasions by President and Eleanor Roosevelt for its power, integrity, and accuracy. For instance, after inspecting California migrant camps in 1940, Mrs. Roosevelt said, “I have never thought The Grapes of Wrath was exaggerated.” (Steinbeck responded gratefully: “I have been called a liar so constantly that... I wonder whether I may not have dreamed the things I saw and heard.”).(Demott xl)
Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that The Grapes of Wrath is one of the few American novels that have attracted such passionate attacks and equally passionate defenses. The Grapes of Wrath proves itself to be far from being a mere propaganda. This is because it is much more profound than even its contemporary partisans realize, as it becomes one of the few modern novels to achieve true epic proportions. In this regard, Robert Demott declares, "If a literary classic can be defined as a book that speaks directly to readers’ concerns in successive historical and cultural eras, no matter what their critical approaches, methods, or preoccupations are, then surely The Grapes of Wrath is such a work" (xi). Concerning the novel's form, John Steinbeck told the literary critic Harry T. Moore that "he was improvising his own "new method" of fictional technique: one that combined a suitably elastic form and elevated style to express the far-reaching tragedy of the migrant drama" (Demott xvi). The Grapes of Wrath is in thirty chapters, fourteen of which carry the Joad story.As for the other sixteen chapters (called inter-chapters), they are either expository essays or sketches of typical situations in the great migration. The interchapters are lyrical chapters of exposition and background pertinent to the migrants as a group because they present the economic, social and historical background of all the migrants. These interchapters are alternating with the long narrative chapters of the Joad family's exodus to California. On these interchapters, Robert Demott argues that:
Steinbeck structured his novel by juxtaposition. His “particular” chapters are the slow-paced and lengthy narrative episodes that embody traditional characterization and advance the dramatic plot, while his jazzy, rapid-fire “interchapters” work at another level of cognition by expressing an atemporal, universal, synop¬tic view of the migrant condition …. The novel demonstrates how form itself is a kind of magic lantern, a shifting lens for magnifying and viewing multiple perspectives of reality.(xvi)
As for the interchapters, Joseph Fontenrose points out that some of them are masterpieces in themselves. He also notices that Steinbeck uses a variety of prose styles in them. Fontenrose expounds this notion in the following lines:
In these short sketches, he [Steinbeck] could experiment, endeavoring in each to evoke both a vivid picture of something that happened and a feeling tone. He employs paratactic Biblical language, go-getter talk, conversational narrative in Okie speech, the soundtrack of documentary films. Some interchapters are literally poetic … if we convert the ostensibly prose sentences into an arrangement of phrases; we get irregularly rhythmic verses that recall the Psalms.(70)
In this regard, John Timmerman argues that the use of interchapters is a technique that functions in several ways. First of all, the interchapters "provide aesthetic richness by symbolic analogies that frame or support the narrative plot" (107). Timmerman states that the land turtle – which Tom Joad catches at the beginning of the novel – is perhaps the most notable example of the symbolic analogies which he refers to. The turtle carries its house on its back as the migrants carry their households on the backs of ancient vehicles. The "horny peak" and the "fierce, humorous eyes" of the turtle resemble both the grim determination and the quick capacity for joy in the migrants. Furthermore, the turtle's instinctive sense of direction toward the southwest resembles the dogged determination of the migrants to reach California despite the many obstacles in their way. Finally, the turtle's awkward gait, as it "jerked itself along", resembles the overloaded and lurching trucks of the migrants (107).