The Grapes of Wrath

I am still reading the books from my ridiculously ambitious list as mentioned in this post. 

When I started reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics version), I have to admit that I was doing it more out of a sense of obligation than an interest in the plot or characters.

I have heard so much about the novel throughout the years, from sources that vary from friends who have read it to literary tests that discuss its overarching themes and character struggles. I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in middle school or early high school. While I thought it was well-written, I also felt like it wasn’t an experience I’d like to repeat.

I also don’t think that I’d like to see the movie version.

The movie version that I don't care to see- fun poster though!

I feel the same about The Grapes of Wrath to a large extent. The last 80 pages or so were pretty depressing. I mean, I did know that it was a novel about the struggles of one family through the depression, but at a certain point I did feel a bit like I was torturing myself by continuing.

The characters suffer so much, and the “epic” narrative style paints an American capitalist process that I’m not necessarily fond of. Large corporate interests overtake hard working “common” men and women during the great depression, and those men are literally driven off of “their” land (which they stole/ was stolen for them from Native peoples), then pretty much slowly starved because a few greedy landowners want to make more of a profit.

The novel switches between a close and distant narration, alternating chapters between the telling of one specific family, the Joads, and the larger narrative of American “progress.” I found this description chilling and timely when we consider the wealth disparity now in place in our country. It is not only the small farmers and tradesmen/women who are struggling now, but it is also the home-owning middle class.

In the novel, the Joads, along with hoards of other tenant farmers from Oklahoma and surrounding areas, are pushed off the land they tend by the banks, quite dramatically with large plows. In this telling scene, many of the family members are looking for someone to talk to about the matter, for someone to fight with about it. However, they soon find that what they are fighting is so large that they are not even able to find it, let alone fight it.

The Bank is driving them, but they are unable to respond. I feel like this ties directly into the current argument being touted by the Occupy Movement, that corporations are Not people. The fact that Steinbeck was already addressing this phenomenon in 1939 so eloquently, and also the fact that the machine that is the Bank destroys human life, destroys crops, and destroys community, is pretty astounding to me.

One of the quotes I think best illustrates this feeling comes early in the novel. In one of the chapters where the narrator is distant, he points out the conversation one feels is echoed by thousands.

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there.

The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in the                       ~bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is ~something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but ~they can’t control it. (emphasis mine -sorry, the formatting got all wonky when I pasted the text).

I feel like this discussion is very relevant for today, and because of this, I think that I devoured this novel with more zest than I was expecting. It made me appreciate how far we have not come in our understanding of the capital machines that still control and drive our country.

It also made me appreciate the taste of food more. I definitely understand why it’s an American classic. It tells our story pretty poignantly, and asks some questions about the capitalist value system that are not only necessary, but that are also still being asked.

Points taken away: There are definitely a few offensive-to-contemporary-readers storytelling moments in which the characters glorify the old colonial period and the killing of Native Americans, but I also don’t feel like Steinbeck necessarily agreed with those sentiments as much as he was trying to portray the Joads and other Oklahoma residents in the truest way possible.

I would give this book 4.5 of 5 stars for its beautiful writing, its interesting character details, and its importance in our current historical moment.  I would also highly recommend it.

Read with Milk, and some sort of rustic camping food such as fried potatoes, baked beans and coffee.


Miss E

Judith and Jack and Chandan

Hi all!

The other night, I went to an informal presentation by wonderful team Jack and Judith Halberstam and Chandan Reddy at Elliot Bay Bookstore promoting their new books.

It was a wonderful reminder of why it’s awesome to live in Seattle 🙂 In my graduate work, I often studied Halberstam, and greatly admire her scholarship. I could not believe that two amazing and pretty famous queer theory scholars would be offering a talk in a bookstore basement easily accessible to me. This was during the MLA Convention, so many scholars were in town. Still, I was very impressed with their choice of location, especially since I did not pay 60 dollars for registration to attend closed panels at the convention.

So, I excitedly hailed a cab to Capital Hill and arrived just in time for the presentation to begin.  I was planning on meeting Judith, but when I arrived, I was introduced to Jack. Apparently, Halberstam is only Judith in writing. Jack’s presentation was really fun, and I found his style incredibly engaging. Chandan was very verbose, but also very pedantic and somewhat jargony.  I think that non-academics had a hard time understanding some of his points, but I also think that he worked hard during and after his presentation to make his information more accessible to the public.

Together, this team of scholars was pretty formidable, and I felt lucky that I got to see them in action.

Here are the pictures from that night:

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I promised a friend that I would copy notes for him, and I decided to copy some for you all as well.

I found myself scribbling excessively for both presentations, but more so for Chandan’s half. He went second, and he made many complicated points about modernity, but interlaced with discussion of a complex racial history. Writing down key points during the presentation was really helpful for me, and I think I got the gist of what he was arguing.

Like Halberstam said at the beginning of their presentation, Reddy’s arguments are complex, but they also reflect the intense complexity of the issues he is working with, some of which would be done a disservice by being condensed. They obviously have a lot of love for one another’s work, and their long-standing friendship began when Halberstam was Reddy’s professor during his first year of teaching. How awesome is that?!

Halberstam’s key points/ highlights:

1. “Failure is something all people do, but perhaps is something only queer people can really turn into a lifestyle.” Jack related this to a capitalist model, arguing that in our society, and in the capitalist model, there must be “winners” and “losers.” There is no way to opt out of capitalism without becoming a “loser” when to succeed in our system, one must have money and conform to both a capitalist and heteronormative timeline for success.

2. Jack also said that “if that’s success, then I choose failure.” I found that to be a very powerful statement.

3. Halberstam also argued that Pixar movies have been “feeding children communist fables” of anti-corporate sentiments in movies such as Monsters Inc., Robots, and Over the Hedge, which she believes has helped the young generation feel so strongly about the Occupy movement and anti-capitalist reform.

4. She also gave 3 lessons in how to “fail,” or to embrace failure, which included: 1.) Learn to lose, 2.) Be a Lesbian (she gave a lot of examples of how Lesbians are still not represented as “winners” in western media, especially “The Butch,” since straight men do not desire her and straight women don’t want to emulate her). Thus, Lesbians are the greatest losers, because they are still unable to be defined by the heteronormative capitalist model. 3.) Embrace a certain type of negativity, and find other options besides winning and losing.

Reddy’s Key Points/ Highlights: 

1. Introduction of his book Queer of Color Critique of Capitalism, and the goal of exploring what a queer reading and queer person of color perspective can bring/do to capitalism.

2. Capitalism = racial capitalism in the US, which = racialized state because of colonial history, which has always been racialized.

3. Discussion of Neo-liberalism. He says that we often think of freedom as the antithesis of violence, so when the state is pointed out as the source of violence, we need to reconcile that lie, or in his words “at the moment in which “freedom” becomes the vehicle of violence.

4. Pointed out the “3 regimes of modern freedom,” which includes his notion of “negative liberties,” or when freedom from violence was untenable; it rather was a freedom through revolutionary violence. He argues against the national rhetoric of the state that purports the idea of attaining freedoms from violence and all peoples becoming equal once that illusive freedom is attained. He pointed out that this approach and this myth hasn’t worked, and has never been attained, using that as a touchstone for the necessity of rethinking our subject positions and the idea of freedom within a violent state.

5. He used a great image example of a “missing billboard” installation art to illustrate the people who are left out of the picture the state paints in the capitalist model. He says that by intentially leaving out or disqualifying other possibilities of being, the modern capitalist state attempts to sustain [and advertise?] very specific system of experience. According to Reddy, we need to look at the latticework, or the frame, the people on the outskirts of what is being represented to us, for models of being.

6. He also argued that we are all being asked by the state, through citizenship agreements, to lose a little bit of our personal identities, and also to re-imagine our complicity with “freedom” and all that it costs. In essence, our complicity is really asking us to reconsider that subject position in the state with it’s history of violence (most likely through ignoring or attempting to “forget” that history of violence). Because we are taught that to identify ourselves and attain “embodiment” through the state, or to be “recognized” by the sate in order to have rights, we sacrifice for those rights.

7. Thus, he argued that “we need not ask for representation, but should try living on the fringe, in disorganization.” Too often, according to Reddy, Gays and Lesbians, etc. “make the cut” with this knowledge once they find safety or representation via citizenship, and THAT NEEDS TO STOP, since only in the fringe can true revolution and self-actualization without participation in state violence really occur.

8. I have 3 more pages of notes from this talk, more than I feel is appropriate to share through blog post, but if you want to know more, just let me know 🙂

I found both presentations compelling, and am very glad that I live in Seattle and was able to experience this discussion. I found Chandan’s argument especially intricate, but very very interesting. Both Reddy and Halberstam really argued strongly for resisting capitalist heteronormativity, for different but valid reasons. In other words, it rocked my socks off!

Excitedly yours,

Miss E

Is English Relevant?

As a former English major myself and obviously very attached to the field of English, I am always interested in discourses surrounding it.

One conversation that was brought up often among colleagues in the humanities was about defending the significance or social importance of a liberal arts education, a humanities education, and the English major particularly.

After working in a business setting since graduation, and doing freelance work on the side, I have realized that there are many more options out there than I had previously considered.

English majors out there and graduate students in the humanities- chin up, because guess what? Despite not having a direct career path after graduation laid out for us during college, our skill set (analyzing, summarizing, presenting, writing, editing, using imagination and innovation to come up with new ideas, and critical thinking) are actually very competitive skills to have.  Let’s start seeing the forest for the tress in regards to this topic, shall we?

Forest for the Trees! ; -)

A very dear friend reminded me of this when I was applying for jobs this summer, which is one of the reasons I started working at my company. I just wanted to share a few sites that I have found in my daily internet browsing which I found helpful or at the very least interesting to read.

For English Majors– Susan, the blogger for this site, seems dedicated to making sure that English majors continue to understand their own worth in our capitalist job market.

4Humanities– The team of educators at 4 Humanities advocate for the relevancy of Humanities and liberal arts educations, and propose that Humanities educations are much needed in our society.

Sell Out Your Soul– Yes. This blog is aggressive, as the title would suggest. While I don’t necessarily agree with the title, I think this writer brings up many interesting points. This site is specifically geared for grad students in English and people who really think critically about the graduate school rhetoric of a narrow focus and hopeless job prospects. It may cheer you up; it may depress you, but it is interesting.

All of these sites discuss job prospects for students in the Humanities, whether at a college or graduate level, and even though they take different angles, they show the “worth” of the skills that come with an education in English.

Hope you enjoy your reading material, and let me know what you think.


Miss E