Each semester in High School English we would study one main novel, and in Grade 11 we "did" John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. I loved it (as I loved most of what we did in English) despite the curriculum. I was moved by the way the Joad family maintained their dignity in the face of the crushing poverty of the Great Depression and the absurdity and cruelty of their society. As a result I read quite a few other Steinbeck books in my youth, and they were just the thing for a sensitive young man.
Coming back to some of these stories as a supposedly mature person provides some interesting food for thought. Take, for example, The Pearl. This little novella, a kind of meditation on Jesus' parable of the pearl of great value, features Kino, his wife Juana, and their infant son Coyotito, a poor Indigenous Mexican fishing family. One day Kino goes pearling and discovers an amazingly beautiful, enormous pearl, a find that should enable him to live out his dreams. Modest dreams they are too - new clothes, a proper church wedding for he and Juana, schooling for Coyotito, perhaps his own rifle. This, I think, is Steinbeck's version of the Kingdom of God - a simple decent life free from want.
However, the pearl buyers in his town, all agents of the one ultimate buyer (perhaps a stand-in for God) collude in telling him the pearl is of little value and offering him a token price. He knows they are trying to cheat him, and refuses to sell, planning instead to try his luck in the capital. When their attempts to trick him into handing it over fail, the buyers resort to violence, sending men in the night to take the pearl from him. Instead of acheiving his dreams he has his fishing boat destroyed, his grass hut burnt down, and becomes an outlaw after killing one of his attackers. In the end he and Jauna despairingly throw the pearl back into the sea.
Nothing relieves the despair of this tale. Its message seems to be that the wealthy - with God on their side - will conspire to prevent the poor from rising, will always allow their greed to triumph over their humanity. The best course for the poor, he seems to say, is to make the best of their lot and keep their heads low.
If this is the problem as described by Steinbeck, the solution may be found in his comic novels, especially Cannery Row and its sequel, Sweet Thursday. These books centre around a group of characters in a run-down street called "Cannery Row". There's the semi-homeless men of the Palace Flop-House and Grill; the prostitutes of the euphemistically named Bear Flag Restaurant; the successive proprietors of the local grocery store; and the hub around whom the action of both stories revolves, Doc, the owner of Western Biological, a supplier of specimens to educational institutions. Not all of these people are in the depths of poverty and none of them are trapped in it - if they are poor it's because they choose to be. Their low-level and transparent swindles, their clumsy and often disastrous attempts at doing good, are told with a wry humour and a sharp eye for the unexpected twist.
Yet for all the romanticisation of poverty there is a core here of what Steinbeck obviously sees as the good life - the community of Cannery Row is bound together by its members' care for each other. They often fail to do right by each other, but they try. When Doc's loneliness has all the residents worried, and Suzy, the new girl at the Bear Flag, is so obviously unsuited for the work, the community push them together. Their attempts are misguided, they almost succeed in driving the pair apart, but ultimately love blossoms.
This is Steinbeck's hope, and ultimately I guess its the same for all of us. We have comfortable lives. None of us is in the depths of poverty. But our comfort doesn't make us happy and depression and anxiety are at an all-time high in our community. As Larry Norman says "without love you aint nothin'".