Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered to be one of the originative figures in the American literature. His writings were famous not only in the United States, but also in Europe. A great sign of his thriving influence was the number of individuals he affected both professionally and personally. He personally helped in the publishing careers of Margret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau. His influence grew very fast and even after his death; his reputation continued to grow where further editions of his work were written as well as various critical appraisals. His influence was deeply felt among thinkers and writers in his generation and beyond. Philosophers who read and admired his work included George Santayana, John Dewey, and William James. Among the poets who admired him included Robert Frost, Hart Crane, Robinson Jeffers, James Russell Lowel, among others. Other writers satirized Emersonian ideas through characters such as Jim Casy in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Miss Birdseye in Henry James’ The Bostonians (1886). Emerson also influenced British writers such as George Eliot, Thomas Carlyle, among others. At the moment, the scope and extent of Emerson influence is still debated. The purpose of this paper is to present how John Steinbeck was influenced by Emerson in his book titled The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
Steinbeck was inspired by Emerson’s belief of an Over-Soul, the transcendental concept in which each human’s soul is spiritually intermeshed and is part of a big soul of all souls. Steinbeck has used this concept in order to develop or help his characters mature. In the novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the emigrants struggle to endure throughout the text, and the sole way for the emigrants to make in life is depicted in beliefs of Emerson’s essay “The Over-Soul”. Tom Joad and Ma Joad who are the protagonists of this book realized, with Jim Casy assistance, that with an understanding of the Over-Soul, human unity is more important for survival rather than benefiting their own personal welfare. The characters transition and subsequent discovery of this idea in The Grapes of Wrath relates to the Emersonian beliefs of an existent Over-Soul to the development and growth of Steinbeck’s characters. The idea of Over-Soul in Steinbeck novel was given a practical shape when the Joad Family realized that the only of being happy in this world is to unite with others and help one another as much as possible. Jim Casy is the character who was used by Steinbeck to rephrase the concepts of self-reliance and Over-Soul.
Before his development, Tom Joad began the text as an ignorant, self-centered man. Tom portrays his selfish character after his release by telling Jim that he would murder another man just like the first one (25). He explained how he killed the other man without showing any sign of regret. He was not guilt and ashamed of taking another man’s life, and he cared less about the man he killed provided he was okay. His ignorance is portrayed by how he was unable to understand the message Jim was preaching to Him. Jim told him a story concerning unity but Tom understood nothing. In a later date, Tom realizes that what Jim was telling him was the right thing, and there was no way he could survive on his own. Unfortunately, Jim had already died when Tom came to his senses. Tom explained to his mother that he has learnt that man cannot survive on his own and selfish attitude could only do him more harm. The transition of Tom is portrayed by the following quote:
“Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’t have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole (418)”
Tom realized he has to work together with the rest of the society and in this way, he became part of “a little piece of a big soul” that spiritually intermesh all human souls, and is capable of loving and working for all of mankind.
The Emerson’s beliefs that he portrayed in “The Over-Soul” are directly related to Tom’s acceptance of Jim’s beliefs and sayings following his transition. According to Emerson, even though human beings may be divided through their ideas, concepts, and lifestyles, everyone’s soul will be unified into an eternal universal beauty. The Emerson’s view of Over-Soul is depicted by Tom’s transition as “That Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being, is contained and made with all other, that common heart.......” (Emerson 52). Emerson believed that in a society people must connect through their souls and work together to unite their Over-Soul, no matter how different they may be through their lives, actions and ideas. Tom’s understanding of the Over-Soul helped him to unite all the emigrant workers together against all odds. When the emigrant united and agreed to prevent their land from flooding, every community member participated, and they started realizing that unity is strength and together they can overcome anything (Steinbeck 440). The idea of Tom bringing the community together reflects Emerson’s view that the more man helps individuals around him, the more he can be part of a community, contributing positively to their life and survival.
Another character used by Steinbeck to portray the Over-Soul concept is Ma Joad, Mother to Tom Joad. At first, Ma understood that all people must help each other, though the experiences she underwent through caused her to abandon her belief. A good example to illustrate how she abandoned her belief is when she was in the Hooverville, she refused to share the stew with hungry children who were not her own. However, in the end she transformed and shared freely with everyone. She was able to merge all her aspects on the world, of viewing it in the right perspective, and finally understood that there is a great soul in which every individual is a part of.
The final scene in the novel which offers the fullest image of the Over-Soul is where Rose of Sharon offers milk of her own body to a man dying of hunger. Rose was only concerned with her own legitimate needs before the delivery of her child. Her selfishness trait changed later, and she managed to help a dying man. Her cryptic smile is a clear indication that she had come to the same understanding as had Jim that everyone in the society is one of our own. Home is being with every member of your community, and that is how the novel has described the relations of human beings.
Emerson’s essay “The Over-Soul” has a tremendous impact on Steinbeck’s character in The Grapes of Wrath. Many of the characters in this text are deeply influenced by the ideas and concepts portrayed in the Over-soul. Tom Joad and Ma Joad transformed from their initial state where they believed everyman for himself to a state where they were willing to help every member of the community. Their transformation was however initiated by Jim Casy who made it clear that the unity of humanity is the most powerful unity.
There are a number of incidents in The Grapes of Wrath novel that portrays the Emersonian concept of Self-Reliance. The Joad family show this concept when they take care of their spattering truck and the Wilsons’ car on Highway 66 heading to California. Al and Tom showed this concept when they managed to repair broken connecting-rods, which Casy declared that he could not. So Steinbeck placed faith in oneself and your ability to get together with others against the contracting forces of nature.
In emphasizing the concept of self-reliance, Steinbeck illustrated a mutual relationship between an individual and the fruits of his labor when he wrote the following phrase “To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in this wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam” (204). When someone put effort in his deeds, he gets something out of it, which can be either positive or negative, although Steinbeck was illustrating the positive side. This idea reveals a crucial relationship between man and his deeds. That is, a man gives his affection through work and consequently manages to gain from his effort. This idea corresponds to Emerson belief as shown by his phrase “A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best, but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. . . .In the attempt his genius deserts him” (255). When an individual attempts to escape with living a successful life through detachment and negligence, he is his own contender or enemy. Both Emerson and Steinbeck agree that a man should gain from his own personal toils (self-reliance), but not depending on others or misusing them for you to survive.
All the characters in The Grapes of Wrath portray the concept of self-reliance since they are all lost in their own selves. They all felt alienated as caused by their individualism there seem to be darkness comprehensively because of their individualism. After all the struggles, they managed to see some light of knowledge when everyone come out of the cocoon and identified himself with the “bigger self”. Steinbeck is trying to portray that everyone should be given a chance to give what he can and the contribution of each one to the society will add up to something great.
Steinbeck was inspired by the two texts of Emerson. They are a number of Emersonians beliefs that are portrayed in his text. Steinbeck has used the transcendental concept in which each human’s soul is spiritually intermeshed and is part of a big soul of all souls. This concept assists to develop his characters in a systematic manner. Tom Joad and Ma Joad are the two major characters in which Steinbeck has employed this concept in the right direction. Another character indicated the essence of this concept is Rose of Sharon who embraced the concept of Over-Soul after fighting with her selfishness. Self-reliance concept is also portrayed in this novel. The Joad family show this concept when they take care of their spattering truck and the Wilsons’ car on Highway 66 heading to California. In emphasizing the concept of self-reliance, Steinbeck illustrated a mutual relationship between an individual and the fruits of his labor. When someone put effort in his deeds, he gets something out of it, which can be either positive or negative, although Steinbeck was illustrating the positive side. This idea reveals a crucial relationship between man and his deeds.