In Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote about the Joads and their forced migration from Oklahoma to California. They were forced to leave their simple farming life because of the Great Depression. Through the struggles of the members and friends of the Joads, Steinbeck was able to portray an undesirable, yet accurate picture of America in the early twentieth century. Thus, this story is considered as one of the most powerful social novels in human history.
But, Steinbeck did not just describe the country where he lived. In the later part of the novel, Steinbeck crafted a political message that is intended to change the present and unacceptable state of America. In Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin wrote a series of essays about the experiences, thoughts, and struggles of an African-American deep in the heart of Europe. The collection of essays appears to be a rite of passage for Baldwin who did not want to be labeled as a Negro writer, but simply an American writer.
But, through the series of essays, Baldwin wove together his own political message, which wanted to radically shift the point of view of society about what America is all about. In both pieces of literature, it can be found that the written works of art are not just mere expressions of the authors’ creativity. This is because a simple creative expression is wandering and aimless. The written art is similar to a powerful sword that can be wielded to effect political and social changes, but this figurative sword obeys the authors’ personal views that are derived from their personal experiences.
Despite the personal basis of the authors’ opinions, the political nature of the written art is needed in societies that are thrown in the midst of division and conflict because the political nature of written art serves as a guiding beacon of light, both for the ordinary citizens and for the political leaders. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath has many interpretations that originate from varying perspectives, such as religious, economic, social, political, and personal.
The same could be said of Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name. Different and numerous interpretations of literary works are acceptable because that is the nature of all literary works and the authors could not be confronted and asked to choose which interpretation is the most accurate. It is probable that Steinbeck purposely wove a novel that is a mosaic of several messages. And it is also probable that Baldwin delved into different issues and each essay in the said collection might be about more than one perspective.
But, in comparing the novel and the essay collection, the two perspectives that will be analyzed are the similar personal and the political beliefs of the authors about the American society. Both Steinbeck and Baldwin see a divided American society. In Steinbeck’s novel, the division is between the rich and the poor. This division is felt sharply in the Great Depression when the rich and powerful preyed on the desperation of the poor people. The reputed rich grape vineyards in California became attractive to the Joads and other poor people who are suffering the pangs of hunger due to the poor harvest.
The house was dead, and the fields were dead” (Steinbeck, 135). The family chose to uproot themselves and went to California. But, the vineyards did not deliver the promise of providing enough food security for the people. Instead, the Joads toiled hard, day and night, but remained poor, oppressed, and discriminated. In Baldwin’s essay, the division is between the Blacks and the White. The Civil War has ended but the discrimination against the Black Americans remained.
Many Americans gave lip service to the concept of equality and assimilation, but it is far more difficult to remove the generations-old dogma of Blacks being an inferior race. Hoping to achieve the desired state of equality, the Blacks fought by excelling in the fields of sports, music, and literature. But this was not enough. Instead, the Blacks continued to endure discrimination. The nature of the division that was described by Steinbeck may not be exactly the same as the division described by Baldwin. But the division and the conflict are strongly felt.
And because of the presence of the conflict, America is not united. Unfortunately, there are more conflicts that exist other than the conflict between people of different races and people who come from different socio-economic status. There are conflicts based on gender, education, and sexual orientation. “The tensions of American life, as well as the possibilities, are tremendous” (Baldwin, 11). But what could be the long-term implications of having a divided country? Both Steinbeck and Baldwin predicted that the present divisions in America would lead to overwhelming wrath that might destroy society.
In Steinbeck’s novel, the poor finds that many of their opportunities are kept away from them or wasted away by the rich and powerful. “The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back … in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath” (Steinbeck, 477). It is suggested that the travels of Steinbeck revealed to him the desolate state of his country and the increasing resentment of the poor. In Baldwin’s essay Fifth Avenue, Uptown: a Letter from Harlem, he described the rotting and festering social situation of Harlem, the corner of the world where he grew up.
Baldwin drew upon his experiences and observations when he was still living in Harlem to create this essay that depicts the oppression that the Whites wielded through the police. The policemen “represent the force of the white world … the black man corralled up here, in his place” (Baldwin, 57). The Blacks have began to realize that they were being discriminated and that the basic right to human dignity was been taken away from them through the selfish and callous way that the Whites treated them in the past decades.
But, instead of being apologetic, the Whites, being the majority, demanded assimilation. It would be inevitable that the Blacks would feel resentment. And with resentment, there would be a burgeoning anger. Steinbeck and Baldwin are personally aware of the negative effects of the existing conflicts in their societies. They knew that anger would be fermented. There is a limit to the patience of the people who are being oppressed. What then should Americans do with the existing conflicts in their country?
Both Steinbeck and Baldwin personally believed that there must be a radical political change in the country, but for any radical change to happen, there should also be a radical change within each individual American. In Steinbeck’s novel, there were many characters that underwent changes throughout the story. However, the character that underwent the most radical change was Rose of Sharon, who, after suffering from the loss of her own child, has agreed to nurse an old man. “Then she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side.
Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast” (Steinbeck, 619). This last scene in Steinbeck’s novel often elicits a violent reaction from readers. But, upon reflection, it was the most humane act of all. The violent reaction occurred simply because many readers are trapped within the bounds of society’s conventions. Without these conventions, the readers will be rid of preconceptions that prevent them from reaching out to other people. Without preconceptions, the division between the poor and the rich would eventually disappear.
In Baldwin’s essays, the personal change that he wanted to obtain is to prevent the self from following the tides of anger that will sweep and destroy the country. Thus, instead of wearing the easy cloak called Negro writer, he chose to create a new one, the American writer. He found that the American writers of his time lack the sense of purpose that a literary artist should have. This is because the American writer, similar to the many readers of Steinbeck, is trapped by conventions of society.
Baldwin believes that unless the American writer “is released from the habit of flexing his muscles and proving that he is just a regular guy that he realizes how crippling this habit has been” (Baldwin, 6). If all Americans will remove the concept of race from their minds, they will find that there is no Negro problem after all. The concept of effecting an individual change prior to achieving a wider social change evolved primarily from the personal experiences of the authors and from their observations.
These were distilled to create the plot of the novel and the subject of the essays. As influential authors, were Steinbeck and Baldwin ethically appropriate in creating literary works that came from their personal experiences and personal political beliefs? The answer is an affirmative. The literary artist must take his own personal history, distill truth from his experiences, and use his insights responsibly by sending a political and social message to the rest of the world.