Steinbeck and Me: Literature of the Recession

Guest Post by Magdalena Ball

We all know The Grapes of Wrath – a classic novel of depression, fragile hopes, human oppression, poverty and dignity.  I’m not for a minute suggesting that my own novel Black Cow is a modern Grapes of Wrath, though one reviewer did compare the book to Cannery Row ” in its ability to capture the moment in history in a personal way.” What Black Cow and The Grapes of Wrath have in common however is that they both use the backdrop of recession and financial uncertainty to probe deep into the human psyche, into the notions of greed and fear and how they shape our life choices.  In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck focuses his attention on the Joad family, poor sharecroppers struggling to cope with the Great Depression, draught, and oppression.  In Black Cow, a family is also struggling with the deepening recession, but the situation is quite different.  

The luxurious Double Bay waterfront lifestyle of The Archers, a recognisably modern family, couldn’t be further from the Oklahoma dustbowl that the Joad’s run from, but their hunger is still killing them.  The continual spending while working longer hours at the expense of creativity is destroying this family as surely as draught and poverty destroy the Joads. The Archer’s impoverishment is concealed by the gleaming marble surfaces, underfloor heating, and high priced designer gear, but this is indeed a poor family that is as impacted by recession and media manipulation as the Joad’s are by greed and meanness.  The difference is that The Archers have a choice. Both novels aim to capture the zeitgeit – the burning issues that define our generation, in a fictional construct built around a family in trouble.

Why do we need literature that captures the times that we live in and the issues that concern us?  Novelists have always strove, in one form or another, to capture the spirit of the times that we live in (even in historical fiction) through their stories, characters, setting and above all, by using a microcosm (eg the lives of characters in a particular point in time) to explore the macrocosm of the issues that concern those characters.  Recognising ourselves and the bigger context in which we live, or, as Joyce put it, “reducing the veil between literature and life” is a critical aspect of what literature does for us.  This means addressing the issues that we are all grappling with – in the case of Steinbeck and other writers of the recession, this means unemployment, increasing fear of poverty, rootlessness, the impact of these issues on the individual and on families in as universal a context as possible.

Other modern novelists explore similar timely themes include Philipp Meyer in his novel American Rust, Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, Janelle Brown’s This is Where We Live, The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, and even, taken to an extreme level Cormac McCarthy in The Road (moving past the tipping point).  All of these novels, including my own, have something in common with Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in that their plots are gripped tight around what happens when materialism and amorality are taken to their limits, and when economic failure begins to crumble the family unit.  


Magdalena Ball is the author of the newly released novel Black Cow. Grab a free mini e-book brochure here:

For more about Magdalena and her novels, poetry and nonfiction books visit:



Posted on March 23, 2012, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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