I wrote for the good folks at Pacific Standard about the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath — such a fierce and fearless novel. As the magazine's intro text puts it, "The Grapes of Wrath is still a staple in most American classrooms. Is that because we haven’t yet written anything that does a better job of portraying the devastation of not having enough?"
The 1939 New York Times review of The Grapes of Wrath called it “as pitiful and angry a novel ever to be written about America … it reads as if it had been composed in a flash, ripped off the typewriter and delivered to the public as an ultimatum.”
It’s hard to imagine similar words describing today’s fiction (and not just because of that typewriter). Despite our recession-era reckoning with economics and inequality, fiction that examines both the macro and micro experience of poverty is all too rare. Of the writers who do venture forth in the tradition of John Steinbeck, many are finding new and riveting approaches to an age-old subject. But there are crucial gaps, still. And as brilliantly as Steinbeck wrote about poverty, we cannot rely on him to comprehensively tell today’s story.
Steinbeck was a moralist—he wrote of the Depression in Biblical terms, after all—but he was not a polemicist. That’s a tricky balance to strike …
At the height of the Depression in 1933, Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Worker movement. She often wrote that the defining feature of poverty is not the lack of money; it is precarity—of not being sure if tomorrow you will be fed, sheltered, and safe. There is a lack of security. Will this leaking roof collapse? Will my kid eat breakfast tomorrow? Will the money I’m owed arrive before I have to pay the rent? Will I get picked to day labor today?
Today’s best fiction about poverty is brilliant about tracing the nuances of precarity—how to survive when there is nowhere else to go. But there is another story about poverty that deserves to be more fully developed for our twenty-first century: It didn’t have to be this way.