by Tim Roberts San Dieguito Academy Encinitas, CA, 2009
On a schedule in which there is never enough time and within a curriculum in which everything, at least on paper, has to be tied to the AP Language exam, finding a place for a novel the size of The Grapes of Wrath can take some doing. What follows are two suggested AP writing assignments that could be done with the book to supplement whatever other literary or response-based approach you may choose. As far as teaching to the test, the language exam has a number of qualities to recommend for it despite its necessarily superficial and abbreviated format. Rhetorical analysis promotes close reading, and the interchapters lend themselves well to such analysis. They are rich in imagery and figurative language, widely range in tone, and employ syntax to varied and dramatic effect. The synthesis essay calls on students to use research materials in forming a coherent argument; there are a number of topics in the novel that could be grouped with outside readings to provide the basis for such an essay. It’s an assignment that would lead students to examine the novel’s themes more thoroughly and explore their significance more deeply.
I’m familiar with The Grapes of Wrath as a staple in AP Language classes that had their roots in American literature courses. It’s still possible to invest the time to read the book with students while preparing them for the exam. I’ll assume that most students would have been introduced to rhetorical analysis already. The interchapters represent a stylistic tour de force on Steinbeck’s part, kind of the writerly equivalent of a jazz musician referencing Dixieland, swing, bop, and free jazz in a concept album. “Perhaps no aspect of Steinbeck’s accomplishment in The Grapes of Wrath has been overlooked as often as the sheer genius of prose style throughout the novel,” writes Louis Owens in The Grapes of Wrath: Trouble in the Promised Land. His excerpt on style, “From Genesis to Jalopies: A Tapestry of Styles,” is an adequate reference on the interchapters’ stylistic variety from the opening’s biblical cadences and epic sweep to the fragment-filled passages that render the confusion generated by the fast-talking used car salesmen.
The analyses could be approached in a number of ways. An entire chapter could be analyzed; the students could identify what they see as Steinbeck’s major purpose in the selection and explain what rhetorical elements uses to convey it. Alternatively, students could be given a section of the chapter, perhaps of a roughly equivalent length to an AP selection. For example, Chapter 23 has several short scenes depicting the migrants’ pleasures at the roadside camps, including telling stories, making music, dancing, getting drunk and getting saved. Any of those slices would be a suitable subject for analysis. Even a more seamless interchapter, such as Chapter 15, can be divided into smaller, more manageable units (the initial description of the diner, Mae and Al; the description of the “shitheel” couple). In another variation, the prompt could be focused to mirror some of the AP rhetorical analysis exercises. For example, students could analyze how Steinbeck conveys his criticism of the used car salesmen in Chapter 7, or his view of technology as expressed in the depiction of the tractor in Chapter 5.
In addition to the rhetorical analysis, the multitude of developed topics in The Grapes of Wrath could be used to give students practice with the synthesis essay. The essay calls for students to integrate at least three of six to seven given sources into a coherent argumentative essay. Teachers could choose topics and passages for the students to integrate into an essay supplemented by material that they have found or that students locate through research. In addition to the skills involved in crafting a solidly argued synthesis essay, the assignment could have students meet a number of other goals. For example, they could learn to identify thematic topics in novels such as are developed in The Grapes of Wrath. They could also research supplementary works to complement their topics.
A few suggested topics with suggested supplementary works follow. (If you’re like me, you want to use your own. I usually find more reasons to reject people’s suggested titles than adopt them, preferring to find my own. An assignment of this nature might work best if the teacher or students chose works of particular interest to them. However, the suggestions are offered in the spirit of providing some leads and examples.)
The alienating nature of technology Steinbeck presents conflicting views.
In Chapter 5, the tractor is presented as an insect-like destructive force that rapes the land and separates its driver both from the land and the community. However, in Chapter 10, Al is described as closely in tune with the truck, monitoring it for problems. That close relationship is echoed in Chapter 12, the interchapter depicting the migrants’ “flight” along Route 66. Finally, in Chapter 16 Steinbeck gives nearly step-by-step instructions in how to replace a con-rod in 1925 Dodge that highlight the men’s intimate relationship with the machine. The intimacy that characterized the farmers’ relationship with the land now colors their relationship with machines. These alternative attitudes toward technology – intimate and alienating – can be found in a number of other works. I’ll suggest three: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (that dates me); “The Case for Working with Your Hands” by Matthew Crawford, which appeared in the May 21, 2009 New York Times Magazine and is adopted from his book The Soulcraft of Shop Class,; and “Brain Candy: Is pop culture dumbing us down or smartening us up?” by Malcolm Gladwell, which first appeared in The New Yorker.
The immorality of capitalism
Throughout the novel, Steinbeck presents an indictment of a capitalist system that allows people to starve, exploits them mercilessly and, ultimately, is complicit in their murder. That topic is explored in a number of short essays by eminent economists, philosophers and politicians entitled “Does the free market corrode moral character?” available at the John Templeton Foundation website.
The morality of working for the good of the group
In the novel, Steinbeck charts his characters’ growth from looking after their own self-interests to caring for the good of the whole, depicts their movement from “I to We.” This is a topic with a rich tradition in American literature from which to draw: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”; the poetry of Walt Whitman; aspects of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. An interesting companion piece might be William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a staple of early high school years with an arresting counterpoint to Steinbeck’s view of the group behavior. For an interesting evolutionary biological view, try Natalie Angier’s “Of Altruism, Heroism and Evolution’s Gifts” from the September 18, 2001 New York Times.
There are a number of other lesser topics that can be followed and extracted out of The Grapes of Wrath that could make for engaging work: the crippling effects of guilt, sin and shame, as illustrated by Uncle John’s condition, the nasty shopkeeper that Ma converts in Chapter 26 and misery-dealing evangelicals; the nature of work, both satisfying and alienating, seen, again, in the alienated tractor driver in contrast with the pleasures of hefting a pickaxe in Chapter 22; the dangers and uses of anger, providing people with the righteous outrage to fight on bookended in the first and penultimate chapters but worrying Ma that it will reduce Tom to a “walkin’ chunk a mean-mad”; the advisability of taking life one day at a time and going with the flow suggested in Tom’s repeated strategy of just putting one foot in front of another and Ma’s ability to ride easily in the truck and adjust to the life changes, the latter explained to Pa in Chapter 28.
The above is not, by any means, intended to lay out a complete serving of topics in The Grapes of Wrath. (I haven’t even broached the repeated references to road kill.) It does suggest ways to incorporate a lengthy novel in a curriculum hemmed in by the demands of the AP Language requirements.