The Promised Land

On the 14th April 1939, the American author John Steinbeck published his novel “The Grapes of Wrath”. Since its publication it has caused controversy, mainly from misinformed activists who are notoriously ill educated about literature in general. Steinbeck’s intention was not explicitly political, even though the book was widely interpreted to be so, and it continues to be read as a comment on American social and economic policy. This basic interpretation of his work is simply demeaning and shallow.

On a purely superficial level it is a narrative about the hardships of poor tenant farmers living through the Great Depression. However to categorise it as a polemic about the iniquities of capitalism is to dismiss its deeper significance as a uniquely human story of exile and loss. It is a book which is a powerful testament to the human spirit and has parallels with Steinbeck`s singular family history.

John Steinbeck`s grandfather was a devout Protestant from Prussia called Johan Grossteinbeck. His religious beliefs were similar to the English Protestantism professed by the poet John Milton. Milton loftily pronounced that the English were a lost tribe of Israelites and he idealised a kind of Zionism for the English people. Whether Milton and his fellow English Israelites literally believed in a promised land is questionable, most people now understand that he was using this biblical story as an allegory.

However Grossteinbeck took Zionism as a literal truth. In 1853 he travelled to Palestine to fulfil a prophecy. He was accompanied by other Protestants who shared the same ideal. They set up a farm called Mount Hope and recruited Jewish labourers living in Jaffa to work and pray, in time for the second coming when they believed that they would all be redeemed by God. Five years later this noble plan was destroyed when an Arab gang attacked the farm. One man was murdered and one woman was raped. Grossteinbeck emigrated to the United States to seek out another promised land.

Since its inception, the United States of America has been a beacon for idealists all over the world. Its whole identity has been predicated upon opportunity and freedom. Many sought religious freedom, like Grossteinbeck, who shortened his surname to Steinbeck as soon as he received US citizenship. Although Mount Hope was in tatters, he maintained a pioneering ethos that drove so many of his compatriots to find fortune in a new continent.

Life for these new Americans was hard, it was an unfamiliar frontier but what is remarkable about their stories is the composure and dignity. Steinbeck had a huge respect for his grandfather`s generation and honoured the legacy of men like him. Contemporary Americans often lose sight of the pride of their ancestors and it seems that there is now a concerted effort to tarnish history. This is grossly unfair as they owe so much to this maligned generation.

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