Saturday, September 13, 2008

Review of Obscene in the Extreme


I just read Jonathan Yardley's Washington Post review of Rick Wartzman's Obscene in the Extreme. To each his own, of course, but I wondered about some of the major points.

Rick's book is about John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and its reception, especially in Kern County, where there was a movement to ban it. Yardley notes that the novel deals with the Dust Bowl migration and hopes of starting fresh in California. Then he makes an extremely misleading claim. "The issues this [migration] raised have long since been resolved," Yardley maintains, "and many descendants of the Okies now live in comfort in a state whose economy is larger than those of all but a handful of the world's countries, but the book continues to move readers."

Long since resolved? Well, yes, many Dust Bowl families and their descendants ended up doing fine. But how about the people working those same jobs now? Is it possible that the novel still resonates not only because the book is easier to teach than more demanding novels, as Yardley supposes, but also because the underlying labor issues it documents persist in spades?

As Carey McWilliams observed at the time, the Joads' problems weren't exactly new. What distinguished them from what came before and after was the fact that the Joads were white, English-speaking citizens who could vote. In fact, California agribusiness continues to rely on a low-wage, disenfranchised, and easily exploited labor pool. And farm labor isn't the only forum for those issues, as T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain showed in 1995. (That novel owes something to Steinbeck as well as Voltaire.)

Yardley mentions McWilliams in passing but suggests that his appearance in the book, along with other "endless dollops of information," is a form of padding. I think that misunderstands Rick's goal. The book offers a snapshot of Kern County in 1939 and then places that snapshot in history. So I can't knock the book for mentioning McWilliams, the Wobblies, or other relevant players. I'm not sure I would have been interested in the snapshot if Rick hadn't added that historical context.

Yardley ends his review as follows: "A further difficulty is that Wartzman seems to have little if any literary judgment and fails to subject The Grapes of Wrath to careful scrutiny. No doubt it is an important novel, but whether it is a good one is another matter altogether, and this question Wartzman simply avoids."

I'm baffled by this. Again, it seems to misunderstand the book's goal, which isn't to critique the novel but to depict its reception in a particular time, place, and cultural context. Besides, we're not exactly short on critical readings of this or any other major American novel. The woods are full of them.

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4 Comments:

At 3:44 PM , Anonymous Brian said...

Hi Peter,

I hadn't checked in here in a bit. Excellent review -- I've always liked Yardley, but you call him out for missing the point entirely ... twice.

First, he forgets that agribusiness labor exploitation is alive and well today. Then, he unfairly suggests the historian's job includes literary criticism.

Your calling attention to Yardley's forgetfulness made me think of Ralph Ellison:

"No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

Hope you're well!

 
At 9:19 PM , Blogger Peter Richardson said...

Thanks for checking in, Brian. There might be an Ellisonian refusal to see here. If you identified with the Joads, don't worry; they all got jobs at Northrop Aircraft! In the meantime, enjoy the produce that appears magically in your supermarket.

 
At 1:00 PM , Blogger Matt Bokovoy said...

Dear Peter,

I did see that review, and concur that Yardley mischaracterized both the motivations of the Dust Bowl Migration and also the nature of agribusiness today. James Gregory's book clearly shows that the Okie migration was larger from 1920-1930 and from 1940-1950 than during the 30's. Hmm...

For the perennial low-wage labor plaguing CA agribusiness, one only need consult Richard Street's Beasts of the Field, and his numerous recent essays on California farm labor. Especially enlightening is Street's essay and Pulitzer finalist piece from the early 1990's about the town of Huron published in the San Jose Mercury News.

This would seem to make what was "padding" in Wartzman's book necessary historical background for getting at these issues, particularly McWilliams' work. Keep up the good work.

Best Wishes,

Matt Bokovoy

 
At 5:31 PM , Blogger Peter Richardson said...

Thanks for these titles, Matt. Fanatical readers of this blog should note that Matt knows a thing or two about labor history and Oklahoma.

 

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