The Grapes Of Wrath

On this, another day of rest and recuperation while recovering from a heavy cold, I finished reading

which, according to Studs Terkel in his excellent introduction, “Dorothy Parker, at the time of its publication in 1939, called ‘the greatest American novel I have ever read’ “. Like Terkel, who has surely read many more, I would concur.

The Folio Society produced this fine edition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original publication. Without giving away too much of the story I can say that this is the tale of myriads of farming families driven from their rented lands by the Dust Bowl drought and the owners of their farms which could no longer provide their living. Terkel cites the 1988 drought as a repetition of the earlier natural disaster. And here we are again facing the consequences of worldwide similar events.

Firstly, this is a gripping tale focussed on the flight of one family and those they encounter along the way to the promised land of California. The prose is of the quality that was to win the author the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. The narrative flows along with intermittent lyrical notes. Speech is given in the vernacular which is natural and uncomplicated.

Steinbeck uses straightforward language to describe landscape, events, atmosphere, and character to a degree that takes us right there with him. We see, hear, touch, and taste, with all the protagonists; and empathise with their feelings.

We are reminded how shared adversity can both bring people together and divide them; we see generosity in that adversity and we see how fear of difference can turn to hate and violence.

The division and mistrust between the haves and have-nots reflects today’s chasms. If you have not yet read this novel I would urge you to do so. There are many lessons therein for all of us.

Terkel was an inspired choice of introducer because his prose is commensurate with that of Steinbeck. He places the work in history and in the writer’s oeuvre.

Bonnie Christensen’s muscular illustrations are, as can be seen by the pages in which they are set (except for the full page one), faithful to the text:

The diagonals crossing the front cover continue across the spine to the back board. The design is based on the artist’s frontispiece above.

My header picture is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, from a California migrant workers’ camp in 1936.

This evening I dined on more of the chilli con carne while the others, except for Ellie, enjoyed beef burgers and chips. Jackie drank Hoegaarden and I drank more of the Gran Selone.

Focus On History


For my last birthday, Shelly and Ron gave me “Eyewitness – 150 years of Photojournalism” by Richard Lacayo and George Russell. Published by Time magazine this covers the history of such photography up to 1995.

The book is a collection of important pictures stitched together by a series of erudite essays from the two writers. I finished reading it today and found it fascinating. Some of the images were familiar to me, but many were not. What I have chosen to feature here is necessarily idiosyncratic, but I hope it will provide a flavour.

Boulevard du Temple, Paris 1839

I start, as does the book, with ‘the first known photograph of a human being’. Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre exposed this image of Boulevard du Temple, Paris in 1839. Because, in those early days, exposure times were several minutes, any moving thing, such as carriages, horses, or pedestrians would pass on by without leaving a trace. Except for the man standing still for long enough to have his boot polished. Can you spot him?

The Crawlers c1876-77

Some early photographers set out to expose social ills. John Thompson made his picture ‘The Crawlers’ in about 1876-77. ‘Crawlers’ “were poor people so malnourished they would literally crawl to fetch water for the hot tea on which they chiefly subsisted. This woman held a small child all day for its mother, who had found a job in a coffee shop.”

Street Arabs at Night 1889

Jacob Riis’s ‘Street Arabs at Night’ in about 1889 slept on “warm spots around the grated vent-holes” in New York’s Lower Manhattan.

Important events could now be recorded. We are told that in 1908 James Hare “had taken a picture that proved the Wright brothers’ plane could fly”. At that time we still believed that the camera could not lie.

Yalta Conference? 1990

However, certainly by 1990, when Paul Higden  produced ‘Yalta Conference?’, which included “some latter-day gatecrashers”, we had become disillusioned.

A number of photographers brought back images of combatants in the American Civil War, but it was neither technically possible nor seen to be desirable to photograph the action.

British artillerymen 1917

That had to wait until World War 1 when an unidentified photographer produced this painterly picture of ‘British artillerymen feed[ing] an 8-inch howitzer’.

Normandy invasion on D-Day 6.6.42

Robert Capa was there with his camera for the ‘Normandy invasion on D-Day’, 6th June, 1944. Unfortunately the is one of only a few images of this event that were saved, most of the others having been destroyed in a dark-room accident.

In 1947 Capa, with David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, William and Rita Vandivert, and George Rodger formed that prestigious photography group, Magnum.


The Cartier-Bresson picture I have chosen for this piece does not feature in this book. It comes in the form of a postcard sent to me by Giles. The image is of a typically candid shot from this photographer, at the Brasserie Lipp in Paris, taken in 1969.

Bangladesh 1971

A later member of Magnum was Don McCullin. In the 1960s and ’70s he “became one of the best- known chroniclers of war and misery”. This picture demonstrates the sensitivity that this man exemplified.

Joseph Goebbels 1933

I have selected two images by Alfred Eisenstaedt which book-end WW2. It is amazing that he managed to walk away unscathed when he photographed Joseph Goebbels at a League of Nations Assembly in Geneva in 1933. A year or two later it would surely have been a different story.

Mother and Child at Hiroshima 1945

I’d rather witness the hate of Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda than the devastation of this ‘Mother and child at Hiroshima’ that Eisenstaedt portrayed in 1945.

Migrant mother 1936

Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant mother’ from a California migrant workers’ camp in March 1936 “is one of the best-known icons of the Dust Bowl era”.

Suicide 1942

Finally, who, old enough, could examine Russell Sorgi’s 1942 ‘Suicide’, without being transported back to 9/11?

This evening we finished our Chinese takeaway meal.