Steinbeck’s “big words” and why we should read them

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“Ever know a guy that said big words like that?”

“Preacher,” said Joad.

“Well, it makes you mad to hear a guy use big words. ‘Course with a preacher it’s all right because nobody would fool around with a preacher anyway.”

I have a confession to make: before this week, I had never read The Grapes of Wrath. I normally dig novels that deliver their content in unconventional forms, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s use of illustrations or David Grossman’s surrealism. I’m a news junkie who’s constantly consuming the New York Times and The Atlantic, so I tend to get my dose of realism from those nonfiction sources. But I decided that before I wrote my thesis on mixed race families in modern America, I needed to dig a little deeper, back to earlier roots of the images of the American nuclear family that come to mind today.

Instead of straight realism, I was surprised and pleased to find some pretty unconventional, Modern prose in Steinbeck. I loved the chapters of free-form dialogue that appear in between chapters that more conventionally plot the Joads’ journey from Sallislaw, Oklahoma, to Bakersfield, California. The speakers in these chapters are sometimes later identifiable as the Joads and sometimes a sort of Everyman, stream of multiconsciousness (streams of consciousness?) essence of the shared experience of the Dust Bowl, and Steinbeck often interjects political musings in place of these Joyce-esque rambles.

Throughout the novel, which is formally complex and ideologically robust, I was struck by the juxtaposition of Steinbeck’s neat narrative prose and his use of alternative, vernacular spellings and punctuation in the dialogue. The quote above, about big words, jumped off the page for me as an early signal of an implicit division between Steinbeck’s vivid use of dialect-driven spelling and grammar and his use of standard English. I identify three distinct types of writing within The Grapes of Wrath: first, Steinbeck’s use of standard grammar in his narration of the Joads’ journey; second, Steinbeck’s use of nonstandard grammar in the relatively freeform chapters of quotation-mark-free conversations; and third, Steinbeck’s use of vernacular language, which is contained between quotation marks as the Joads converse with one another and others they meet on the road.

Published fifty years and several artistic movements later, Gish Jen’s postmodernism amps up the juxtaposition of vernacular language with elevated language in a way that is often elaborately humorous, delivering deadpan passages like this one from Mona in the Promised Land:

More and more, [Mona and Sherman, a new student from Japan,] joke. For example, [Sherman] often mixes up thinking with sinking — which they both think is so funny that all either one of them has to do is pretend to be drowning, and the other one cracks up. And he tells her things. for example, that there are electric lights everywhere in Tokyo now.

“You mean you didn’t have them before?”

“Everywhere now!” He’s amazed too. “Since Orympics-u!”

In the hands of another author, Jen’s spelling of “Olympics” would be questionable or even a downright racist parody. But in the context of the book – as Mona patiently and empathetically helps Sherman to practice his English to speed his assimilation into their high school – the spelling is simply true to the phonics a new speaker of English might use.

Similarly, Steinbeck’s larger discussion in Grapes of Wrath concerns class division and structural problems of agriculture in America. His vernacular spellings accurately capture the voice – right down to every last “somepin” and all of the dropped consonants at the ends of words – of the migrants who endured hundreds of miles of rough travel to seek a better life in California. Steinbeck captures voices that otherwise went unheard, communicating the story of a population that was largely illiterate and delivering it to an audience that likely shared neither their challenges nor their speech patterns.

In December of last year, NPR reported a story entitled “Ax vs. Ask” (the story is only 3:38 long, and well worth a listen), which examined the necessity of switching between vernacular speech and standard English. The debate pitted two pronunciations of the word that means “to request an answer or information,” both of which, as it turns out, have deep roots in the English language. NPR reports that although “ax” is often seen as an uneducated pronunciation, the word was actually used by Chaucer and in the first Bible in English translation: “Axe and it shall be given.” Still, those who have been raised in households where “ax” is the most common pronunciation find it necessary to switch to “ask” in professional settings.

When pronunciation and vocabulary signal class, race, or other markers of identity, realism begins to look blurry. Steinbeck’s realism is actually a careful combination of elements, with enough standard English to prevent a reader from feeling alienated and enough nonstandard spelling to give the narrative an authentic vibe. By providing an intimate look at the Joads’ hope, fear, discomfort, grief, and ambition, Steinbeck avoids using nonstandard spelling as a way of making the Joads a spectacle or parody of poverty. Within these complex challenges, Steinbeck faced another obstacle: how to elevate the Everyman into a subject worthy of wealthy, highly educated readers’ attention without weighing his prose down with multisyllabic vocabulary words that the Everyman himself  would need a dictionary to decode. Steinbeck handles this problem by offering crisp prose that is elegant in its simplicity, which is why The Grapes of Wrath is an enduring classic in the American literary canon.

Elsewhere, Joyce also recognized language’s ability to implicitly contain class or racial tensions. In Ulysses, Joyce writes, “I fear those big words, Stephen said, which make us so unhappy.” I’ll end this post with a zine I (amateurishly) made at a workshop earlier this year, based around this quote and the idea that small words can be just as unhappy as those $5 vocabulary words. The text and images are mostly from Rolling Stone, along with a few clipped from catalogues.

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My reading this week will hopefully carry me to the end of The Grapes of Wrath, and Anna Karenina is up next on my reading list.

 

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