The two Greatest American Novels are Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, and The Grapes Of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.
Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (The "The" was added in later editions. If you have an edition lying around the house without the "The" in it, give us a call, we'll take it off your hands and save you the trouble of storing it) represents a groundbreaking change in American Literature (which has been a criteria for inclusion in our list): it is the first American Novel to be written almost entirely in the local vernacular of the places in the Novel. And of course, the Novel takes place along that most American of locales: The Mississippi River, which itself shaped the course and history of this nation. The most American of stories, about the most American of places, with the most American of characters. How could this novel not be number one?
Well, because our personal favourite Novel was written by our personal favourite author.
When we initially conceived of this list, we wrote a short paragraph distinguishing why The Grapes of Wrath (TGOW) edged out To Kill A Mockingbird. At that moment we had Adventures third. In our mind, we were awarding first place based not only on the greatness of the novel, but Steinbeck's body of work. Every book Steinbeck has written is a masterpiece. Of Mice and Men doesn't make the list only because it is a Novella, and not a Novel. otherwise it shares second with Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye. As a young boy, we plucked Steinbeck's Travels With Charley off the bookshelves of our grandfather's library, and we were hooked.
There is so much that is so great about TGOW that we cannot cover it in a simple blog post. The writing is simple. It tells a very American story (the second migration to California, this time by American farmers/refugees from the depression and the dustbowl). Issues of politics, personal liberty, suffering, motherhood, exploitation, class, and the great American struggle for a better life for the next generation all are at the forefront.
"If you're in trouble, or hurt or need-go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help- the only ones.
Ma Joad, The Grapes Of Wrath.
Once you read TGOW you must immediately read Steinbeck's "Working Days- The Dairy of The Grapes Of Wrath".
May 31, 1938: I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day. Just now the work goes well.
June 5: …My whole nervous system is battered…I hope I’m not headed for a nervous breakdown…
June 9: …This must be a good book. It simply must…
June 11: …My life isn’t very long and I must
get one book written before it ends. The others have been make shifts, experiments, practices. For the first time I am working on a real book…
July 8: I wonder how this book will be. I wonder.
September 7: So many things to drive me nuts… I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too… If only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves.
Readers of this blog are not (yet) familiar with our other writing endeavors. But we will share this with you: writing a novel is stepping off a cliff into space with no safe place or way to land in sight at the first step. You must simply trust that your thousands of hours of effort will not be for naught. And yet every day you are besieged by self doubt. At those moments, to know a genius like Steinbeck was similarly overcome with doubt, makes the journey though a novel somewhat easier (only somewhat- the doubts are crippling).
As an interesting side note, Steinbeck has been translated to the big screen very successfully. Both the movie versions of TGOW (Henry Fonda as Tom Joad) and Of Mice and Men (a spectacular movie with Gary Sinise and John Malkovitch as George and Lenny. And if you can ever find it, don't miss the original 1939 film with Lon Chaney as Lenny and Burgess Mereidith as George. That film received four Oscar Nominations) are classics.
In 1962 Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature and TGOW was prominently mentioned as a basis for the award.
Then I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'—I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. An' when our folk eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build—why, I'll be there...
Tom Joad, The Grapes of Wrath.
Monday: Back to work. A new year. A new you. A new blog?
See You In Court, but not next week, and long time and careful readers know why. If you don't know, click in tomorrow and find out.