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Shorter and Fewer

Was "Grapes of Wrath" too obscene?

Alaina Buzas/Flickr

Read letters to the editor in response to this column.

The stock head upon this weekly sermon is slightly inappropriate today because I want to speak in favor of a few unpopular inhibitions. I would like to see the sturdy woodsmen who pioneer new paths in literature be a little more merciful to such freshly painted walls and fences as are yet inarticulate. I would not put a complete ban upon all four-letter words, but the law of diminishing returns does set in when they are used forty times four or even more generously. Shock words may wear out their welcome just as readily as prissy ones. 

Of late in novels and short stories I have been minded to say to purveyors of the stark and bold, “All right, all right, but I get the idea. Don’t rub my nose in it.” As a matter of fact, I have a suspicion that there is something a little toplofty in the literary assumption that all troopers swear and that the enraged truck driver reacts to irritation in a set formula of blistering phrases. In spite of the prevalence of stencils, there is a margin of variation in the common speech of the common man. 

If I say that there are words, be they Anglo-Saxon or whatever, which seem to me ugly in sound as well as in connotation I am likely to be told that this is the result of unresolved complexes and that there is nothing inherently evil in any sound compounded out of the alphabet. I am quite ready to confess to complexes. Indeed there was a time when I used to bore large dinner parties by long harangues which began, “The trouble with me is...” 

But as far as complexes and inhibitions go, aren’t we all? And no writer can type a shock word with the same casualness it may acquire when tossed off in casual talk. There are conversations which tend to purify themselves like running brooks. I have heard some of the most objectionable participles flung around in a way which was wholly austere. These were grace notes from which all sensuality had departed. It would be interesting to take some such free talker and show him a stenographic transcript of the words which come tumbling out of his unconscious. I suspect that he himself might be gravely perturbed to see himself in cold type. 

Print changes the entire character of a phrase. A simple damn by a river’s brim may become a fearful expletive when set down in bold face. There are things that are well enough at a smoker which should still be kept out of twenty-four-point Caslon. Of course, we are rearing up a new generation of readers and reviewers. I have yet to see a single critic make any mention of the fact that John Steinbeck lays it on pretty thick in The Grapes of Wrath. I hold no card of membership in the critic’s craft and so I may state timidly that I think he does. Nor will I willingly accept the indictment that any such opinion indicates that I am drifting to the right. I do not see a necessary connection between proletarian literature and some set percentage of words which bring the blushes to a maiden’s cheek. 

Of course, I respect the complete integrity of Steinbeck’s artistic sincerity. Indeed I think The Grapes of Wrath is a novel of great significance, and one cannot write of misery and men crushed to the ground without having access to words that are earthy. But at times I think a kind of phoniness creeps in. Folklore can become confused with the type of yarn which the stockbroker brings up from the busy marts of trade, saying, “Here is one, that was going around the Street today.” In at least one chapter of The Grapes of Wrath a little daisy is introduced about a boy who owned a cow, and it is presented as something springing right out of the anecdotage of the sharecroppers. Upon some subjects I have a retentive memory. I spotted that one. It first came to my ears on the sidewalks of Manhattan, West Eighty-Seventh Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. I was six years old at the time, which would make the dirty little story at least half a century in age. It has been lugged into The Grapes of Wrath. It is not a native flower. 

Some years ago I was accepted by a friendly magistrate as an expert witness in a case brought by John Sumner’s society against James T. Farrell. The book in question was A World I Never Made. I was testifying in favor of Farrell. Magistrate Curran, whose literary gifts became palpable when he served as assistant mayor, very properly refused to accept a marked copy. He said he wanted to read the book as a whole. And he dismissed the complaint. As far as my own testimony went, I said truthfully enough that in my opinion Farrell was an important literary figure, that he was not a person seeking cheap notoriety; that A World I Never Made was a distinguished piece of fiction and that it was not aimed at the prurient nor would it make any appeal to them. 

But I’m glad that Sumner’s law did not ask me on cross-examination, “Don’t you think the longer interlude on the boy’s erotic day dreaming might have have been made at least one-third less without sacrificing anything vital in literary merit?” Having been duly sworn, I would have been compelled to answer, “I think it’s too damn long.” I have always held to the theory that too much chalk may be just as bad for a novel as for a knee joint. 

And if anybody wants to take cracks about the sad state of tension in my unconscious mind I am quite ready to launch a counter-attack. People who come up through life or literature the hard way must inevitably carry their scars with them into composition. Men who have been battered about are not likely to develop into authors intent upon doing exquisite little essays on old wines and the joys of pipe smoking. That’s all to the good. And there is justice in the fact that they should write with bitterness about the forces against which they had to fight. But that does not mean that they are freed from the same excellent rules of procedure which should sway in part, at least, every person who puts words on paper. Even the revolutionary writer will err if he fails to grasp the enormous effectiveness of occasional understatement. 

I am not going to go into that old one about photography not being art because it is an art. And the good photographer knows what to bring out and what to blur. I do not think I am wrong in the belief that there are times when a kind friend should say, “Keep your shirt on,” to the polemist. I think he ought to do that whenever he finds a writer too completely immersed in the mood of, “I’ll show the dirty —————s!”