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Table of Contents
THE GRAPES OF WRATH
Born in Salinas, California, in 1902, JOHN STEINBECK grew up in a fertile agricultural valley about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast—and both valley and coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929). After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California fictions, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey’s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon Is Down (1942). Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), The Pearl (1947), A Russian Journal (1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright (1950), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) preceeded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history. The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There Was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969), Viva Zapata! (1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (1989). He died in 1968, having won a Nobel Prize in 1962.
ROBERT DEMOTT is Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor at Ohio University, where he has received half a dozen undergraduate and graduate teaching awards, including the Jeanette G. Grasselli Faculty Teaching Award and the Honors College’s Outstanding Tutor Award. He is a former director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, and served for more than three decades on the editorial boards of the Steinbeck Quarterly, Steinbeck Newsletter, and Steinbeck Studies. He is editor (with Elaine Steinbeck as Special Consultant) of the Library of America’s multivolume edition of John Steinbeck’s writings, of which Novels and Stories 1932-1937 (1994), The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings 1936-1942
(1996), and Novels 1942-1952 (2001) have so far appeared. His annotated edition of John Steinbeck’s Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book in 1989, and his Steinbeck’s Typewriter: Essays on His Art (1996) received the Nancy Dasher Book Award from the College English Association of Ohio in 1998.
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First published in the United States of America by The Viking Press 1939
Published in a Viking Compass edition 1958
Published in Penguin Books 1976
Edition with an introduction by Robert DeMott published 1992
This edition with notes by Robert DeMott published 2006
Copyright John Steinbeck, 1939
Copyright renewed John Steinbeck, 1967
Introduction copyright © Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 1992
Notes copyright © Robert DeMott, 2006
All rights reserved
Some of the endnotes are reprinted from The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings, 1936-1941, edited by
Robert DeMott and Elaine Steinbeck, The Library of America, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Literary Classics
of the United States. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Steinbeck, John, 1902-1968.
The Grapes of Wrath / John Steinbeck ; introduction and notes by Robert DeMott.
p. cm.—(Penguin classics)
1. Migrant agricultural laborers—Fiction. 2. Rural families—Fiction. 3. Depressions—Fiction.
4. Labor camps—Fiction. 5. California—Fiction. 6. Oklahoma—Fiction. 7. Domestic fiction.
8. Political fiction. I. Title. II. Series.
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To CAROL who willed it.
To TOM who lived it.1
“My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other. . . .”
—Steinbeck in a 1938 letter
“Boileau said that Kings, Gods, and Heroes only were fit subjects for literature. The writer can only write about what he admires. Present day kings aren’t very inspiring, the gods are on a vacation, and about the only heroes left are the scientists and the poor. . . . And since our race admires gallantry, the writer will deal with it where he finds it. He finds it in the struggling poor now.”
—Steinbeck in a 1939 radio interview
The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most famous novels in America— perhaps even in the world. When John Steinbeck wrote this book he had no inkling that it would attain such widespread recognition, though he did have high hopes for its effectiveness. On June 18, 1938, a little more than three weeks after starting his unnamed new manuscript, Steinbeck confided in his daily journal (posthumously published in 1989 as Working Days):
If I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I’ll just have to work from a background of these. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain. . . . If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time.
Despite Steinbeck’s doubts, which were grave and constant during its composition, The Grapes of Wrath turned out to be not only a fine book, but the most renowned and celebrated of his seventeen novels. Steinbeck’s liberal mixture of native philosophy, common-sense leftist politics, blue-collar radicalism, working-class characters, homespun folk wisdom, and digressive narrative form—all set to a bold, rhythmic style and nervy, raw dialogue—qualified the novel as the “American book” he had set out to write. The novel’s title—from Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”—was clearly in the American grain—and Steinbeck, a loyal Rooseveltian New Deal Democrat, liked the song “because it is a march and this book is a kind of march—because it is in our own revolutionary tradition and because in reference to this book it has a large meaning,” he announced on September 10, 1938, to Elizabeth Otis, his New York literary agent.
After its arduous composition from late May through late October 1938 (“Never worked so hard in my life nor so long before,” Steinbeck told Carl Wilhelmson), The Grapes of Wrath passed from his wife’s typescript to published novel (Viking’s designers set the novel in Janson type-face) in a scant four months. In March 1939, when Steinbeck received copies from one of three advance printings, he told Pascal Covici, his editor at The Viking Press, that he was “immensely pleased with them.” The novel’s impressive physical and aesthetic appearance was the result of its imposing length (619 pages) and Elmer Hader’s striking dust jacket illustration (which pictured the exiled Joads looking down from Tehachapi Pass to lush San Joaquin Valley). Steinbeck’s insistence that The Grapes of Wrath be “keyed into the American scene from the beginning” by reproducing all the verses of “Battle Hymn,” was only partly met: Viking Press compromised by printing the first page of Howe’s sheet music on the book’s endpapers in an attempt (unsuccessfully, it turned out) to deflect accusations of communism against the novel and its author.
Given the drastic plight of the migrant labor situation in California during the Depression, Steinbeck refused intentionally to write a popular book or to court commercial success. It was ironic, then, that shortly after its official publication date on April 14, 1939 (the fourth anniversary of “Black Sunday,” the most devastating of all Dust Bowl storms), fueled by the nearly 150 reviews—mostly positive—that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals during the remainder of the year, The Grapes of Wrath climbed to the top of the bestseller lists for most of the year, selling 428,900 copies in hardcover at $2.75 each. (In 1941, when Sun Dial Press issued a cloth reprint for a dollar, the publisher announced that more than 543,000 copies of Grapes had already been sold.) The Grapes of Wrath won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize (Steinbeck gave the $1,000 prize to friend Ritch Lovejoy to encourage his writing career), eventually became a cornerstone of his 1962 Nobel Prize, and proved itself to be among the most enduring—and controversial—works of fiction by any American author, past or present. In spite of flaws, gaffes, and infelicities its critics have enumerated—or perhaps because of them (general readers tend to embrace the book’s mythic soul and are less troubled by its imperfect body)—The Grapes of Wrath has resolutely entered both the American consciousness and its conscience. Few novels can make that claim.
If a literary classic can be defined as a book that speaks directly to readers’ concerns in successive historical and cultural eras, no matter what their critical approaches, methods, or preoccupations are, then surely The Grapes of Wrath is such a work. Each generation of readers has found something new and relevant about it that speaks to its times. You might love it, you might hate it, but you probably won’t be indifferent. Although Steinbeck could not have predicted its success (and was nearly ruined by its roller-coaster notoriety), the fact is that, in the past six-plus decades, The Grapes of Wrath has sold more than fifteen million copies and currently sells annually 150,000 copies. A graph in Book (July/August 2003) indicates that of the fifty bestselling “classic” British and American novels in 2002, Grapes ranks eleventh—five spots behind Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but seven ahead of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (Steinbeck and Hemingway are the only writers with three titles each on the list). In that same issue of Book, Jerome Kramer includes Grapes as one of the twenty books that changed America. Moreover, a recent spate of turn-of-the-century polls, all employing differing, even opposed methodologies, agendas, and criteria, arrived at similar conclusions: surveys by Radcliffe Publishing Course, Modern Library Board, Hungry Mind Review (now Ruminator Review), San Francisco Chronicle, Heath Anthology of American Literature Newsletter, Library Journal, and British booksellers Waterston’s all place The Grapes of Wrath among the premier works in English of the twentieth century.
Moreover, an elaborate Writer’s Digest (November 1999) survey of readers, writers, editors, and academics ranked John Steinbeck as the number one writer among the century’s “100 Best” (a list whittled down from more than seven hundred nominees). The criteria—admittedly slippery—used to judge each author included “influence,” “quality,” and “originality.” Even with a healthy dose of critical skepticism thrown into the mix, and a strong awareness of our turn-of-the-century obsession with compiling “best” lists, there is still something more significant at work in these dovetailing independent assessments of Grapes’ achievement than the mere operation of special pleading, narrow partisanship, demographic distribution, or simpleminded puffery. Something more than the vagaries of cultural correctness and identity politics is at work in these polls that keeps Steinbeck’s novel relevant to the kind of large-scale public conversation that took place in California in 2002, the year of Steinbeck’s one hundredth birthday, when the state’s Humanities Council, in an unprecedented and ambitious project, invited everyone in the state to read and discuss the novel at 140 public library venues. California’s effort was itself part of a nationwide Steinbeck centennial honoring the “Bard of the People,” which, according to Anne Keisman, became the “largest single author tribute in American history.”
Grapes has also had a charmed life on screen and stage. Steinbeck sold the novel’s film rights for $75,000 to producer Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Then Nunnally Johnson scripted a truncated film version, which was nonetheless memorably paced, photographed (by ace cinematographer Greg Tolland), and acted (Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, and John Carradine as Jim Casy) under the direction of John Ford in 1940. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and took home two Oscars—Ford as Best Director; Darwell as Best Supporting Actress. (A restored DVD version with added historical features, Movietone documentary newsreel footage of Dust Bowl conditions, and extended interpretive commentary by Susan Shillinglaw and Joseph McBride was released in 2004.) It proved to be a “hard, straight picture . . . that looks and feels like a documentary film and . . . has a hard, truthful ring,” Steinbeck reported on December 15, 1939, after seeing its Hollywood preview. (Folksinger/songwriter Woody Guthrie said it was the “best cussed pitcher I ever seen,” and urged readers of his column in People’s World, “go to see it and don’t miss. You was the star in that picture. ”) Frank Galati faithfully adapted the novel for his Chicago-based Steppenwolf Company, whose Broadway production, featuring Gary Sinise as Tom Joad and Lois Smith as Ma Joad, won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1990.
Steinbeck’s novel has created legacies in other ways, too. Cesar Chavez, Jim Harrison, Edward R. Murrow, John Sayles, and Bruce Springsteen have all acknowledged Steinbeck as a valued predecessor. Ike Sallas, the hero of Ken Kesey’s Sailor Song (1992), prizes the novel and places it among his collection of classic American books—“the essential heavies,” he calls them. Steinbeck’s literary legacy goes on and on, show-cased recently by Shillinglaw’s John Steinbeck: Centennial Reflections by American Writers, a gathering of statements, homages, commentaries, reminiscences, and affections by nearly four dozen contemporary men and women writers of every genre and identity, from Edward Albee to Ursula K. Le Guin to Al Young. “John Steinbeck was the writer who taught me that literature could be about real people in real places,” California writer Gerald Haslam summed up in recalling Steinbeck’s impact. There are hilarious send-ups, too: MAD magazine’s “The Wrath of Grapes,” by John Steinfull, and Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones’s “The Beaver of Wrath” in their The Beaver Papers: The Story of the “Lost Season” of the television series Leave It to Beaver. The Grapes of Wrath has also been translated into nearly thirty languages. One way or another, it seems that Steinbeck’s words continue in Warren French’s apt phrase “the education of the heart.” Even Harold Bloom, among Steinbeck’s most inflexible critics and Olympian detractors, confessed in 1988 that “there are no canonical standards worthy of human respect that could exclude The Grapes of Wrath from a serious reader’s esteem.”
Every strong novel redefines our conception of fiction’s dimensions and reorders our awareness of its possibilities. The Grapes of Wrath has a populist, homegrown quality: part naturalistic epic, part labor testament, part family chronicle, part partisan journalism, part environmental jeremiad, part captivity narrative, part road novel, part transcendental gospel. Many American authors, upon finding that established fictional models don’t fully suit their sensibilities, forge their own genealogy by synthesizing personal vision and experience with a disparate variety of popular motifs, cultural forms, and literary styles.
Steinbeck was no exception; he was susceptible to many texts, ideas, currents, impulses, and models. To execute The Grapes of Wrath he drew directly and indirectly on the jump-cut technique of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1938), the narrative tempo of Pare Lorentz’s radio drama Ecce Homo! and the sequential, rapid-fire quality of Lorentz’s documentary films The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937), the stark visual effects of Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Dust Bowl Oklahoma and California migrant life, the timbre of the Greek epics, the rhythms of the King James Bible, the refrains of American folk music, the philosophical implications of Darwinism, the view of cooperative matriarchal society defined in Robert Briffault’s anthropological treatise The Mothers (1931), as well as Edward F. Ricketts’s all-important theories of natural ecology and phalanx (“group man”) organization (aided and abetted by interdisciplinary readings in ethnography, marine biology, political philosophy, and contemporary science). Steinbeck transformed these ancient, classical, and modern resources (especially biblical themes, parallels, analogies, and allusions) into his own kind of combinatory textual structure. As David Minter says, it is a mistake to read Steinbeck solely as “a realist, a naturalist, or a proletarian novelist.” The Grapes of Wrath is large; it contains multitudes. Malcolm Cowley’s claim that a “whole literature is summarized in this book and much of it is carried to a new level of excellence” is still pertinent. Thus, Steinbeck pushed back the boundaries of traditional mimetic fiction and redefined proletarian form.
And yet The Grapes of Wrath is in some ways an old-fashioned book, with roots in two major American fictional traditions: the masculine escape /adventure myth and the feminine sentimental/domestic tradition. The former features a sensitive young loner who retreats from civilization by lighting out for unknown frontier territory, while the latter highlights home-based values by creating, nurturing, and sustaining family and community relations through the performance of sentiment and affect. Historically, in nearly every regard, these two spheres appear to be separate and antagonistic, as aesthetically and thematically oppositional as Melville’s Moby-Dick and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Alcott’s Little Women, but Steinbeck, borrowing from both spheres and adding grimly realistic contemporary twists of his own, has woven them together in The Grapes of Wrath.
Tom Joad, an archetypal bad guy, a paroled, unrepentant killer, lights out for the West not alone, or even in the company of a select male comrade, as might be expected according to the delineations of what Nina Baym has famously dubbed “melodramas of beset manhood.” Far from being an isolate, Tom goes on the lam with his mother and his extended family; for the most part, their presence requires social propriety, not outlaw conduct. The Joad family vehicle, a Hudson Super-Six modified from passenger car to truck, becomes their “new hearth” and home, and acts as the site of matriarchal wisdom and the center of domestic relations during the migrant diaspora. Tom is indebted to ex-preacher Casy for guiding him toward social awareness and political action, but he is equally indebted to his own flesh and blood, especially Ma Joad, “citadel of the family,” who schools his sympathy for and affection toward common humanity.
Even though Ma is unable to move much beyond the limits of her nurturing wife/mother role (Mimi Gladstein notes that women’s roles are mostly functionary and enabling in this novel), in the larger picture, her efforts to keep her family intact, her loving relationship to Tom (a topic rarely discussed by scholars, and her mentoring of Rose of Sharon allow Steinbeck to interrogate one aspect of the American myth of entrenched power. Steinbeck critiques authoritarian (and often violent) masculinity by refusing to exclude the domain of private sensibility, feeling, and cooperation. “Steinbeck’s sensitivities to the values of female sensibilities demonstrate a . . . view that supports the idea of humanitarian, large-scale changes that would make America, as a nation, more responsive to larger social needs,” Nellie McKay asserts in David Wyatt’s New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath. Indeed, Tom’s ultimate spiritual lesson, realized in chapter 28, is not solely about brooding solipsistic individuality or the tragic nobility of a separate superior consciousness, as is often the case in Adamic adventure tradition works (think Natty Bumppo, Ishmael, Huck Finn, Nick Adams, Ike McCaslin), but about profoundly affective fellow-feeling for alienated others, the abiding motions of the heart. As Michael Szalay says, The Grapes of Wrath is “detached from anything like a coherent critique of capitalism,” and does not solve problems but makes compassion, empathy, and commitment not only possible but desirable in a class-stratified society.
Nothing less than the full spectrum of emotional coloration, from outright rage and inarticulate anger to honest sentiment and unabashed tenderness, is adequate to portray lives under pressure. Steinbeck, whose characters symbolize the “over-essence of people,” according to a July 6, 1938, entry in Working Days, was borrowing from and signifying on—and, in a sense, reinventing—both precursor cultural traditions. In renegotiating binaries of public/private, action/feeling, male/female, isolation/community, etc., The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck’s updated hybridized conjoining of nineteenth-century “literary” and “national” narratives characterized by Jonathan Arac in the second volume of Sacvan Bercovitch’s The Cambridge History of American Literature (1995).
In early July 1938, Steinbeck told literary critic Harry T. Moore that he was improvising his own “new method” of fictional technique: one that combined a suitably elastic form and elevated style to express the far-reaching tragedy of the migrant drama. In The Grapes of Wrath he devised a contrapuntal structure with short lyrical chapters of exposition and background pertinent to the migrants as a group—chapters 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 11, 12, 14, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29—alternating with the long narrative chapters of the Joad family’s exodus to California—chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 13, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 30. (Chapter 15 is a swing chapter that participates in both editorial and narrative modes.) Steinbeck structured his novel by juxtaposition. His “particular” chapters are the slow-paced and lengthy narrative episodes that embody traditional characterization and advance the dramatic plot, while his jazzy, rapid-fire “interchapters” work at another level of cognition by expressing an atemporal, universal, synoptic view of the migrant condition. In one way or another, Steinbeck’s combinatory method has allegiances to the stereopticon, mentioned explicitly in chapter 10. The novel demonstrates how form itself is a kind of magic lantern, a shifting lens for magnifying and viewing multiple perspectives of reality.
No matter what aural or visual analogy we apply, the fact remains that The Grapes of Wrath is not a closed system of historical periodicity, but a relational field, a web of connections between text and context, nature and culture, physical earth and human inhabitants. His “general” or intercalary chapters (“pace changers,” Steinbeck called them) were expressly designed to “hit the reader below the belt. With the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader—open him up and while he is open introduce things on a [sic] intellectual level which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up,” Steinbeck revealed to Columbia University undergraduate Herbert Sturz in 1953. Throughout his career, Steinbeck was always a relational thinker, and in Grapes, the intercalary chapters provide a kind of anthropological “thick description” of the American migrant plight. Moreover, Steinbeck historicizes the Joad narrative by embedding his fiction in its contemporary milieu; conversely, he demonstrates the fluidity of history by re-creating it in fiction. History surrounds fiction; fiction embeds history. Text and context are integrally related to each other in a kind of necessary complementarity, “a unique ecological rhetoric,” according to Peter Valenti, whose totality cannot be separated, subdivided, or segregated without risking distortion of its many layers of meaning.
The Grapes of Wrath is an unapologetically engaged novel with a partisan posture, many complex voices, and passionate prose styles. Except for its unflinching treatment of the Depression’s climatic, social, and economic conditions, there is nothing cynically distanced about it, nothing coolly modernist in the way we have come to understand the elite literary implications of that term in the past ninety years. It is not narrated from the first person point of view, yet the language has a salty, catchy eyewitness quality about it, and its vivid biblical, empirical, poetical, cinematic, and folk styles demonstrate the tonal and visual acuity of Steinbeck’s ear and eye, the melding of experience and rhetoric, oral and literary forms.
Steinbeck told Merle Armitage on February 17, 1939, that in “composition, in movement, in tone and in scope,” The Grapes of Wrath was “symphonic.” His fusion of intimate narrative and panoramic editorial chapters enforces this dialogic concert. Chapters, styles, voices all speak to each other, set up resonances, send echoes back and forth—point and counterpoint, strophe and antistrophe—as in a symphony whose total impression surpasses the sum of its discrete and sometimes dissonant parts. Steinbeck’s novel belongs to that class of fictions whose shape issues not from an ideal blueprint of aesthetic propriety but from the generative urgency of its subject matter and its author’s experience. (“It had to be written,” Stanley Kunitz said in 1939.) Steinbeck’s direct involvement with the plight of America’s Dust Bowl migrants in the latter half of the 1930s created his obsessive urge to tell their story honestly but also movingly. “This must be a good book,” he wrote in Working Days on June 10, 1938. “It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted—slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges.” Like Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, making the audience see and feel that living picture was paramount. “I am not writing a satisfying story,” he claimed to Pascal Covici on January 16, 1939:
I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied. . . . I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written. . . . Throughout I’ve tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness. There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won’t find more than he has in himself. [Emphasis added.]
Steinbeck’s participatory aesthetic—it was the closest he came to conceptualizing a personal theory of the novel—linked the “trinity” of writer, text, and reader to ensure maximum affective impact on the audience. In representing the migrant experience, Steinbeck worked out a concept of reader-response theory generally well ahead of its time. (It coincided with the publication of Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration in 1938, where she first proposed her pioneering transactional reader-response model.) In chapter 23 Steinbeck writes: “And it came about in the camps along the roads, on the ditch banks beside the streams, under the sycamores, that the story teller grew into being, so that the people gathered in the low firelight to hear the gifted ones. And they listened while the tales were told, and their participation made the stories great” (emphasis added). This seemingly innocuous moment has enormous performative consequences for writer and readers because it invites us to enter the text, and serves to make us active agents in the construction of meaning, which itself is always changing, depending on our critical preoccupations. Invested in the process of interpretation, readers must actively cross boundaries between differing realms of discourse, and must remain open to variant, flexible ways of experiencing the story, including being moved by the recuperative power of a narrative, which, according to Louis Owens, is structured on at least four simultaneous levels of existence, ranging from socioeconomic determinism to transcendent spirituality:
On one level it is the story of a family’s struggle for survival in the Promised Land. On another level it is the story of a people’s struggle, the migrants. On a third level it is the story of a nation, America. On still another level, through the allusions to Christ and those to the Israelites and Exodus, it becomes the story of mankind’s quest for profound comprehension of his commitment to his fellow man and to the earth he inhabits.
The last point opens the door to viewing The Grapes of Wrath as one of the most significant environmental novels of the century. From the dust storms that open the novel to the floods that close it, The Grapes of Wrath can be read as a novel that foregrounds “profound ecological awareness,” according to Donna Seaman. Grapes is a sustained indictment about a natural world despoiled by a grievous range of causes—natural disaster, poor land-use practices, rapacious acquisitiveness, and technological arrogance. Failure of genetic engineering and industrialized nature “hangs over the State like a great sorrow,” Steinbeck laments in chapter 25, and the “failure . . . that topples all our successes” stems from misconceived values— manipulating nature and misunderstanding man’s delicate place as a species in the biotic community. (Steinbeck’s ideas, indebted to Ed Ricketts’s ecological training, paralleled those of pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold who proposed a viable land ethic in A Sand County Almanac.)
For more than sixty years Jim Casy’s errand into the wilderness has been interpreted in a strictly Christian framework, despite his insistence in chapter 8, “ ‘I ain’t sayin’ I’m like Jesus.’ ” Whatever other considerable ends it achieves, Casy’s sojourn brings him to an understanding of “deep ecology,” an egalitarian, biocentric, nonsectarian view in which all living things are related and equally valued: “ ‘There was the hills, an’ there was me, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy,’ ” he tells Tom Joad (emphasis added). In our age of increased environmental awareness, perhaps The Grapes of Wrath’s most resonant and radical lesson is that saving a bioregion or ecosystem requires the kind of gesture symbolized in eco-hero Casy’s sacrifice and Rose of Sharon’s gift of breast milk to a starving man—that is, gestures (affective or otherwise) that dramatize a way of giving that requires full commitment to a realm larger than the self. In its polemical register and evangelical tone, in its trajectory from I to We, in its indictment of a “crime . . . that goes beyond denunciation,” The Grapes of Wrath is at once an elegy for and a challenge to live in harmony with the earth.
Like many American novels, The Grapes of Wrath does not offer codified or institutional solutions to cataclysmic social, economic, political, and environmental problems. Rather, it leads us deeper into complexities those issues raise by historicizing beneficence, sympathy, compassion, and relatedness. For instance, Grapes privileges the white American migrant labor scene. Steinbeck elides—but was not ignorant of—the problems of nonwhite migrant workers—Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans—who made up a significant percentage of California’s agricultural labor force, according to Carey McWilliams and other informed observers. (William Conlogue notes that part of Grapes’ bestseller status came from Steinbeck portraying “whites being treated as if they were nonwhite.”) And yet, in any event, his book still speaks to the experience of human disenfranchisement, still holds out hope for an ecology of dignified human advancement. At every level The Grapes of Wrath enacts the process of its author’s belief and embodies the shape of his faith, as in this ringing synthesis from chapter 14.
The last clear definite function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back. This you may say and know it and know it.
As Charles Shindo explains, in Steinbeck’s desire to instill a sense of justice in his audience, The Grapes of Wrath provokes not only individual thought but collective action.
Behind this most public of American novels stands a reclusive writer. John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902, to respectable middle-class parents: John Ernst Steinbeck, a businessman who would later become Monterey County treasurer, and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, a former schoolteacher. Steinbeck attended Salinas High School, where he was an undistinguished student, then enrolled sporadically at Stanford University from 1919 to 1925. There, as an English-journalism major, he took a short-story writing class from Edith Mirrielees and was published in Stanford’s undergraduate literary magazine, but he never finished his degree. He held a variety of temporary jobs during the next four years (laborer and cub reporter in New York City, resort handyman and watchman in Lake Tahoe), eventually publishing his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929. The novel scarcely sold, but Steinbeck’s choice of vocation was sealed. He never again held a traditional nine-to-five job. Beginning in 1930, with the support and encouragement of his parents and especially of his wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck, whom he had married that year, writing became Steinbeck’s daily occupation and continued so through lean and flush times for the remainder of his life. When Steinbeck died on December 20, 1968, he had managed to support himself and his families (he was married three times and had two sons and one stepdaughter) exclusively on his writing-based income, primarily from the thirty books of fiction, drama, film scripts, and nonfictional prose he published between 1929 and 1966.
His achievement is especially noteworthy because he never thought of himself as a naturally gifted artistic genius and rarely believed he had ever “arrived” as a writer. If it is no longer possible to believe naively in the romantic myth of artistic genius, with its heightened capabilities of transcendence and sovereignty, neither is it possible to accept unhesitatingly the contemporary poststructuralist posture—that a writer is a bloodless cipher, utterly determined by unconscious forces of language, race, gender, and class. Better to think of Steinbeck as walking the line between those positions. He was a self-willed writer who prized the shaping power of imagination (however tenuous and imperfect that proved to be), yet he also realized how indebted he was to a welter of historical particulars, contextual determinants, and other people. “I, as a novelist,” he declared in a letter, “am a product not only of my own time but of all the flags and tatters, the myth and prejudice, the faith and the filth that preceded me. . . . A novelist is a kind of flypaper to which everything adheres. His job then is to try to reassemble life into some kind of order.”
Steinbeck augmented his ability with hard work and repeated practice. Where his characters use tools to elevate work to a dignified level, Steinbeck turned to his “comfortable and comforting” pen, an instrument that became an “extension” of the best part of himself: “Work is the only good thing,” he claimed on July 6, 1938, in Working Days. For Steinbeck, who had a pronounced nesting desire, writing was a kind of textual habitation, a way of building a home in the architectural spaces of his imagination. (This creative and interior level of engagement is the elusive, unacknowledged fifth layer of Steinbeck’s novel.) There was something positively totemic about his daily work routine and the ritual protocols he performed at the scene of his writing. Steinbeck often sequestered himself in the eight-by-eight-foot workroom of Arroya del Ajo (Garlic Gulch), the house he and Carol built in 1936 on Greenwood Lane in Los Gatos: “Just big enough for a bed and a desk and a gun rack and a little book case. I like to sleep in the room I work in,” he told George Albee. Although Steinbeck insisted on effacing his own presence in The Grapes of Wrath, the fact remains that it is a very personal book, rooted in his own compulsion. The “plodding” pace of Steinbeck’s writing schedule informed the slow, “crawling” movement of the Joads’ journey, while the harried beat of his own life gave the proper “feel” and tone to his beleaguered characters. Their unsavory weaknesses and vanities, their struggles for survival, their unsuspecting heroism are Steinbeck’s as well. If The Grapes of Wrath praises the honorableness of labor and ratifies the obsessive quest for a home, it is because the author himself felt these acts were deeply ingrained psychic components.
If The Grapes of Wrath’s communal vision began in the fire of Steinbeck’s own labor, the flames were fanned by numerous people, especially Carol Steinbeck and Tom Collins. Carol Henning Steinbeck (1906-1983), his outgoing first wife, was more politically radical than John (she registered as a Communist on the voting roles of Santa Clara County in 1938 to 1939, though partly as an experiment to test local reaction) , and she actively supported northern California’s fugitive agricultural labor movement. (According to definitive biographer Jackson J. Benson, Steinbeck was not much interested in doctrinaire political theories at this point in his career.) Carol was an energetic, talented person in her own right, who agreed to relinquish a possible career in favor of helping to manage his. Their partnership and marriage was smoother and more egalitarian in the struggling years of Steinbeck’s career; with the enormous success—and pressures—brought first by Of Mice and Men (New York: Covici-Friede, 1937), and then by The Grapes of Wrath, their situation became more tenuous and volatile. Carol was an extremely strong-willed, demonstrative person, and she was often frustrated, resentful, and sometimes jealous; John, inordinately shy, was frequently beleaguered, confused, and demanding. In the late 1930s, whenever John was writing daily, which was much of the time, Carol handled—but didn’t always like—most of the routine domestic duties. She also shielded her husband as much as possible from unwarranted disruptions and intrusions, and she oversaw some of the financial arrangements (an increasingly large job) between Steinbeck and his literary agents. “Carol does so much,” Steinbeck admitted on August 2, 1938.
Carol also served as his cultural envoy and stand-in. In January 1938, on a trip to New York City, she met with documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz (1905-1992), arranging between them his first visit to Los Gatos to discuss a joint Steinbeck-Lorentz movie version of In Dubious Battle (which was never made) and a private showing of The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains. These pioneering documentary films, which Lorentz made for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal-inspired Resettlement Administration (forerunner of the Farm Security Administration) , dealt with human displacement and natural erosion caused by the Dust Bowl and Mississippi Valley floods. After their initial meeting, Lorentz became an increasingly important figure in the novelist’s life, providing everything from practical advice on politics to spirited artistic cheerleading.
Carol left her stamp on The Grapes of Wrath in many ways. She typed the manuscript, editing the text as she went, and she served in the early stages as a rigorous critical commentator (after typing three hundred pages, she confessed to Elizabeth Otis that she had lost “all sense of proportion” and felt unfit “to judge it at all”). In a brilliant stroke, on September 2, Carol chose the novel’s title from Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” perhaps inspired by her hearing of Pare Lorentz’s radio drama, Ecce Homo!, which ends with a martial version of Howe’s song. Steinbeck was impressed with “the looks of it—marvelous title. The book has being at last”; he considered it “Carol’s best title so far.” (“Tell Carol she is a whiz at picking titles and she has done it again with the new one,” his drama agent, Annie Laurie Williams, exulted.) Her role as facilitator is recorded permanently in one half of the novel’s dedication: “To CAROL who willed it.” On February 23, 1939, Steinbeck told Pascal Covici that he had given Carol the holograph manuscript of The Grapes of Wrath: “You see I feel that this is Carol’s book.”
Eventually, however, Carol’s brittle efficiency, managerial brusqueness, and wide mood swings seemed increasingly pronounced. Deeper than that, according to a recent biographer, Jay Parini, Carol resented letting Steinbeck talk her into getting an abortion when she had recently become pregnant (complications later developed that required a hysterectomy, signaling the end of childbearing possibilities). She, too, was exhausted by the novel’s completion and at her wit’s end over its histrionic reception: “The telephone never stops ringing, telegrams all the time, fifty to seventy-five letters a day all wanting something. People who won’t take no for an answer sending books to be signed. . . . Something has to be worked out or I am finished writing. I went south to work and I came back to find Carol just about hysterical. She had been pushed beyond endurance,” Steinbeck told Elizabeth Otis on June 22, 1939. His indulgent involvement with a young Hollywood singer named Gwyndolyn Conger, whom he met in mid-1939 and who quickly came to represent everything Steinbeck felt lacking in Carol, sounded the marriage’s death knell. They separated rancorously in 1941 and divorced two years later.
The second part of the novel’s dedication—“To TOM who lived it”— refers to Thomas Collins (1897?-1961), the novelist’s chief source, guide, discussant, and chronicler of accurate migrant information. Collins not only put Steinbeck in touch with the real-life prototypes of the Joads and Jim Casy, but he himself served as Steinbeck’s real-life prototype for Jim Rawley, the fictional manager of the Weedpatch government camp. That camp, an accurate rendering of Collins’s Arvin camp, became an oasis of relief for the harried Joads and is featured in chapters 22 to 26 of The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck portrayed Collins with photographic accuracy in chapter 22: “A little man dressed all in white stood behind [Ma Joad]—a man with a thin, brown, lined face and merry eyes. He was as lean as a picket. His white clean clothes were frayed at the seams.” Steinbeck also caught Collins’s effective interpersonal technique in having Jim Rawley wear frayed clothes and win over Ma Joad by the simple request of asking for a cup of her coffee.
An intrepid, resourceful, and exceptionally compassionate man, Collins was the manager of a model Farm Security Administration camp located in Kern County at the southern end of California’s Central Valley. The Arvin Sanitary Camp was one of several proposed demonstration camps intended to provide humane, clean, democratic—but temporary— living conditions for the growing army of migrant workers entering California from the lower Middle West and Dust Bowl region. (More than two dozen camps were planned in 1935 by the Resettlement Administration, forerunner of the Farm Security Administration; by 1941, with New Deal budgets slashed by conservatives in Congress, only fifteen were actually completed or under construction; in 1943 the American Farm Bureau ended the FSA’s budget completely.) Collins possessed a genius for camp administration. Labor historian Anne Loftis calls Collins a “hands on” administrator; he had the right mix of fanaticism, vision, and tactfulness. He and Steinbeck hit it off immediately in the late summer of 1936, when the novelist went south on the first of several grueling research trips with Collins during the next two years to investigate field conditions. (One of the many legends that grew up around The Grapes of Wrath purported that Steinbeck traveled with a migrant family all the way from Oklahoma to California; that never happened, though he and Carol did follow Route 66 home on a car trip from Chicago to Los Gatos in 1937.)
Fortunately, Collins was a punctual and voluminous report writer. His lively weekly accounts of the workers’ activities, events, diets, entertainments, sayings, beliefs, and observations provided Steinbeck with a ready documentary supplement to his own research. In a section called “Bits of Migrant Wisdom,” noted in Collins’s “Kern Migratory Labor Camp Report for week ending May 2, 1936,” he records a discussion with two women about how best to cut down on the use of toilet paper: “One suggested sprinkling red pepper through the roll. The other suggested a wire be attached to the roll so that every time a sheet was torn off the big bell placed on the outside of the building for the purpose would ring and let everyone know who was in the sanitary unit and what she was doing.” Steinbeck saw the humor and pathos in the account and utilized some of the original material in chapter 22: “’Hardly put a roll out ’fore it’s gone. Come right up in meetin’. One lady says we oughta have a little bell that rings ever’time the roll turns oncet. Then we could count how many ever’body takes.’” Collins guided Steinbeck through the intricacies of the agricultural labor scene, put him in direct contact with migrant families, and permitted Steinbeck to incorporate “great gobs” of information into his own writing. “Letter from Tom. . . . He is so good. I need this stuff. It is exact and just the thing that will be used against me if I am wrong,” Steinbeck noted in Working Days on June 24, 1938.
In 1939, at Steinbeck’s suggestion, Collins worked as a well-paid technical adviser to John Ford’s 20th Century Fox production of The Grapes of Wrath. (“Tom will howl his head off if they get out of hand,” Steinbeck told Elizabeth Otis.) And later—probably spurred by the success of both novel and film—Collins himself (under the pseudonym of Windsor Drake) wrote an autobiographical-fictional memoir, to which Steinbeck, who appears as a character, added a foreword: “Windsor and I traveled together, sat in the ditches with migrant workers, lived and ate with them. We heard a thousand miseries and a thousand jokes. We ate fried dough and sow belly, worked with the sick and the hungry, listened to complaints and little triumphs.” The book was accepted but never reached print because the publisher reneged on the deal. After that, Collins resigned from the FSA, and he and Steinbeck passed out of each other’s lives.
Clearly, Steinbeck had a knack for associating himself with gifted, generous people. George West, chief editorial writer for the progressive San Francisco News, was the man who instigated Steinbeck’s initial investigations of the migrant labor situation for his paper (to be discussed below) . Frederick R. Soule, the enlightened regional information adviser at the San Francisco office of the Farm Security Administration, and his assistant, Helen Horn, provided statistics and documents for his News reports and otherwise opened official doors for Steinbeck that might have stayed closed. Soule’s colleague Eric Thomsen, regional director in charge of management at the FSA office in San Francisco, personally escorted Steinbeck to the Central Valley and introduced him to Tom Collins at the Arvin camp for the first time. (Biographer Jackson J. Benson was the first to recognize that, in a convoluted and unintentional way, the federal government underwrote Steinbeck’s research.) A continent away, in Manhattan, Steinbeck’s publisher, the intrepid and irrepressible Pascal Covici (1888-1964), kept up a running dialogue with the novelist. In his literary agents he was triply blessed. Mavis McIntosh, Elizabeth Otis, and Annie Laurie Williams not only kept his professional interests uppermost at all times, but did so with the kind of selflessness that made them more like family members than business managers. Of the three women, Elizabeth Otis (1901-1981) became his most trusted confidante.
Steinbeck lived to write. He believed it was redemptive work, a transformative act. Each morning, after warming up with letters to Otis or Covici and an entry in Working Days, he often listened to Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, Stravinsky’s “very fine” Symphony of Psalms, and Beethoven’s symphonies and sonatas, which put him in a conducive mood to create a disciplined working rhythm and maintain what he called a “unity feeling”—a sense of continuity and habitation with his material. “Let the damn book go three hundred thousand words if it wants to. This is my life. Why should I want to finish my own life? The confidence is on me again. I can feel it. It’s stopping work that does the damage,” he admitted in Working Days on July 7, 1938. Ideally, for a few hours each day, the world Steinbeck created took precedence over the one in which he lived. Because both worlds can be considered “real,” at times Steinbeck didn’t know where one began and the other left off; walking back into the domestic world from the world of imagination was not always a smooth shift for him (or for Carol). His work demanded his attention so fully that he finally refused to dissipate his energy in extra-literary pursuits: “I won’t do any of these public things. Can’t. It isn’t my nature and I won’t be stampeded. And so the stand must be made and I must keep out of politics,” he promised himself.
Steinbeck’s doubts about his ability to carry out the plan of his novel surface repeatedly in Working Days, but he rarely questioned the risks involved in bringing his whole sensibility to bear upon it. Steinbeck’s novel had a complicated growth process. The Grapes of Wrath was the product of his increasing immersion in the migrant material, which proved to be a Pandora’s box. It required an extended odyssey before he discovered the proper focus and style to do the topic justice. In one way or another, from August 1936, when Steinbeck discovered a subject “like nothing in the world,” through October 1939, when he resolved in Working Days to put behind him “that part of my life that made the Grapes,” the migrant issue, which had wounded him deeply, remained the central obsession for this obsessive writer. He produced a seven-part series of newspaper articles, “The Harvest Gypsies,” an unfinished novel, “The Oklahomans,” a completed but destroyed satire, “L’Affaire Lettuceberg,” and The Grapes of Wrath.
Each version shares a fixed core of elements: on one side, the entrenched power, wealth, authority, and consequent tyranny of California’s industrialized agricultural system (symbolized by Associated Farmers, Inc.), which produced flagrant violations of the migrants’ civil and human rights and ensured their continuing peonage, their loss of dignity, through threats, reprisals, and violence; on the other side, the powerlessness, poverty, victimization, and fear of the nomadic American migrants whose willingness to work, desire to retain their dignity, and enduring wish to settle land of their own were kept alive by their innate resilience and resourcefulness and the democratic benefits of government sanitary camps. From the moment he entered the fray, Steinbeck had no doubt that the presence of the migrants would change the fabric of California life, though he had little foresight about what his own role in that change would be. His concern was humanitarian: he wanted to be an effective advocate but did not wish to appear presumptuous. “Every effort I can bring to bear is and has been at the call of the common working people to the end that they may eat what they raise, use what they produce, and in every way and in completeness share in the works of their hands and heads,” he declared unequivocally to San Francisco News columnist John Barry in July 1938.
Not counting a scotched plan to edit and publish Collins’s reports, an abandoned play set in a squatters’ camp in Kern County, or a warm-up essay, “Dubious Battle in California” (in the September 12, 1936, issue of The Nation), Steinbeck’s first lengthy excursion into the migrants’ problems was published in the liberal, pro-labor San Francisco News. “The Harvest Gypsies” formed the foundation of Steinbeck’s concern for a long time to come, raised issues and initiated forces, gave him a working vocabulary with which to understand current events, and furthered his position as a reliable interpreter. This stage resulted from the notoriety caused by his recently published strike novel, In Dubious Battle (New York: Covici-Friede, 1936), after which Steinbeck found—often against his will—that he was fast being considered a sympathetic spokesman for the contemporary agricultural labor situation in a state that was primarily pro-management. This was a profound irony, because while In Dubious Battle exposed the capitalist dynamics of corporate farming, it took no side for or against labor, preferring instead to see the fruit strike as a symbol of “man’s eternal, bitter warfare with himself.”
At George West’s invitation, Steinbeck produced “The Harvest Gypsies. ” These articles, peppered with Dorothea Lange’s graphic photographs of migrants, appeared from October 5 to 12, 1936. Steinbeck’s gritty reports detailed the plan of California’s feudal agricultural labor industry. The pieces introduced the antagonists, underscored the anachronistic rift between the Okie agrarian past and the mechanized California present, explained the economic background and insidious effects of the labor issue, examined the deplorable migrant living conditions, and exposed the unconscionable practices of the interlocking conglomerate of corporation farms. (These elements remained central to the core and texture of The Grapes of Wrath.) Primarily, though, Steinbeck’s eye was on the migrants, who were “gypsies by force of circumstance,” as he announced in his opening piece:
And so they move, frantically, with starvation close behind them. And in this series of articles we shall try to see how they live and what kind of people they are, what their living standard is, what is done for them, and what their problems and needs are. For while California has been successful in its use of migrant labor, it is gradually building a human structure which will certainly change the state, and may, if handled with the inhumanity and stupidity that have characterized the past, destroy the present system of agricultural economics.
The immersion experience was invaluable, and the importance of journalism in Steinbeck’s development cannot be underestimated, as William Howarth claims in Wyatt’s New Essays. Written mostly in a measured style to promote understanding and intelligent solutions, Steinbeck’s articles are full of case studies, chilling factual statistics, and an unsettling catalogue of human woes (illness, incapacitation, persecution, death) observed from close contact with field workers he had met. In the spirit of advocacy journalism, Steinbeck concluded with prophetic recommendations for alleviating the conflict with federal aid and local support; this in turn would create subsistence farms, establish a migratory labor board, encourage unionization, and punish terrorism. When they were published in 1936 (and again when they were reprinted verbatim in 1938 as Their Blood Is Strong, a pamphlet by the nonprofit Simon J. Lubin Society that sold ten thousand copies at twenty-five cents each), Steinbeck’s articles solidified his credibility—both in and out of migrant camps—as a serious commentator in a league with Dorothea Lange’s husband, Paul Taylor, and Carey McWilliams, two other influential and respected investigators.
Steinbeck understood that the migrants would not vanish from sight, even though official California hoped they would. He also knew that the subject reached further than he had first imagined. Consequently, Steinbeck built on his News pieces and made at least one more monthlong field trip with Tom Collins in October and November 1937. They started from Gridley, where Collins was managing a new camp, but then roamed California from Stockton to Needles, wherever migrants were gathered at work. His purpose was to gather more research for his next version, the “big” book of fiction that had been in his mind for most of that year. (A letter to Elizabeth Otis, written on January 27, 1937, indicates that he had been wrestling with this version since the previous winter: “The new book has struck a bad snag. . . . The subject is so huge it scares me to death.”) In an interview with Dorothy Steel on November 4, 1937, in the Los Gatos Mail News, Steinbeck told of starting a book whose topic was the Dust Bowl refugees, the “Oklahomans.” Though he was “reluctant to discuss the characters and plot,” he said it was “one-third complete and will be about 1,000 pages in length.” Given his comment to Otis, and the fact that Steinbeck traveled a good deal that year, three hundred pages of completed manuscript may have been wishful thinking on his part, or it may gave represented the total number of pages of reports and research notes he had accumulated thus far.
In a second interview two months later, with journalist Louis Walther on January 8, 1938, in the San Jose Mercury Herald, he apparently had not progressed much, if at all. After hitting several “snags,” he was working on a “rather long novel” called “The Oklahomans,” which was “still a long way from finished.” Steinbeck, generally guarded with interviewers, revealed enough to Walther to indicate that his novel’s focus was the salutary, irrepressible character of the “southern dust bowl migrants” who, he believed, would profoundly alter the tenor of life in California. “Their coming here now is going to change things almost as much as did the coming of the first American settlers.” Furthermore, “the Californian doesn’t know what he does want. The Oklahoman knows just exactly what he wants. He wants a piece of land. And he goes after it and gets it.” (In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck did not relinquish his land hunger theme, or his belief that the migrants formed a specific phalanx group within the large national mass movement of the 1930s, but he dropped his imperious and unironic tone.)
Quietly, as nearly as can be determined, between January and March 1938, Steinbeck stopped work on “The Oklahomans.” He never mentioned it again by name, the manuscript has never been found, and—his boasts of three hundred completed pages aside—it is doubtful that he had actually written a substantial amount at all on it. Its existence is shrouded in tantalizing mystery and conjecture. In the first entry of Working Days, on February 7[?], 1938, he mentioned having written “ten pages” of an otherwise unidentified book. And six weeks later, on March 23, 1938, he again told Elizabeth Otis: “I’ve been writing on the novel but I’ve had to destroy it several times. I don’t seem to know any more about writing a novel than I did ten years ago. You’d think I would learn. I suppose I could dash it off but I want this one to be a pretty good one. There’s another difficulty too. I’m trying to write history while it is happening and I don’t want to be wrong.” These comments in February and March 1938 have long been thought to refer to the beginnings of “L’Affaire Lettuceberg” (discussed below), but they could as easily refer to one (or more) avatars of “The Oklahomans,” the Ur-Grapes of Wrath, which had not yet found its proper impetus or creative urgency. But in mulling over, rehearsing, and living with this big subject for so long, Steinbeck was staking his claim to its imaginative territory and experimenting with a way to fictionalize material that was, until then, the stuff of reportage.
The migrant situation had worsened, and along with it, Steinbeck’s capacity for anger and his need for direct involvement had grown. The misery of the workers’ condition was increasing in the winter of 1938, especially in Visalia and Nipomo, where thousands of families were marooned by floods. From Los Gatos, Steinbeck wrote to Elizabeth Otis in February:
I must go over into the interior valleys. There are about five thousand families starving to death over there, not just hungry but actually starving. The government is trying to feed them and get medical attention to them with the fascist group of utilities and banks and huge growers sabotaging the thing all along the line. . . . In one tent there are twenty people quarantined for smallpox and two of the women are to have babies in that tent this week. I’ve tied into the thing from the first and I must get down there and see it and see if I can’t do something to help knock these murderers on the heads. . . . They think that if these people are allowed to live in camps with proper sanitary facilities, they will organize and that is the bugbear of the large landowner and the corporation farmer.
The states and counties will give them nothing because they are outsiders. But the crops of any part of this state could not be harvested without these outsiders. I’m pretty mad about it.
In late February and early March, Steinbeck witnessed these deplorable conditions firsthand at Visalia where, after three weeks of steady rain, “the water is a foot deep in the tents and the children are up on the beds and there is no food and no fire, and the county has taken off all the nurses because ‘the problem is so great that we can’t do anything about it.’ So they do nothing,” he again informed Elizabeth Otis on March 7, 1938. In the company of Tom Collins, Life photographer Horace Bristol, and other FSA personnel, Steinbeck worked day and night for nearly two weeks, sometimes dropping in the mud from exhaustion, to help relieve the people’s misery, though of course no aid seemed adequate. Steinbeck was supposed to be doing an article for Life magazine (Bristol’s excellent photos later appeared twice in the magazine), but what he encountered was so devastating, he told Otis, that he was utterly transfixed by the “staggering” conditions; the “suffering” was so great that any pretense of objectivity would only falsify the moment.
As a consequence, Steinbeck backed out of the magazine assignment and a collaborative photo/text book project with Bristol. (Years later, Bristol acted as though Steinbeck had betrayed him, but it isn’t entirely clear how well Bristol understood the amount of work Steinbeck had already put into his own migrant research, or the differing views of documentary representation the two men held.) Suddenly, Steinbeck realized that the issue was not as simple as portraying the “naive directness” of the migrants’ desire for land. Indeed, he was beginning to boil with frustration and impotence. Apparently neither “The Oklahomans” nor the proposed magazine article could adequately redress the injustices he had recently witnessed. “When I wrote The Grapes of Wrath,” he declared in a 1952 Voice of America radio interview, “I was filled . . . with certain angers . . . at people who were doing injustices to other people.” (Six years later he told a British interviewer, “Anger is a symbol of thought and evaluation and reaction: without it what have we got? . . . I think anger is the healthiest thing in the world.”)
As a novelist, Steinbeck often experienced a delayed reaction to piercing events. Perhaps as early as February—but certainly no later than early April (“New book goes very fast but I am afraid it is pretty lousy. I don’t care much,” he said to Otis on April 26, 1938)—through approximately mid-May 1938, Steinbeck worked at the third stage of his effort and produced “L’Affaire Lettuceberg.” With this abortive—but necessary— sidetrack venture, Steinbeck’s migrant subject matter took its most drastic turn, inspired by an ugly event in Salinas, California, his hometown. Earlier, in September 1936, Steinbeck had encountered (whether directly or through newspaper and hearsay accounts is uncertain) the vicious clash between workers and growers in a lettuce strike: “There are riots in Salinas and killings in the street of that dear little town where I was born,” he told novelist George Albee. The strike was smashed with “fascist” terrorism, and recollections of the workers’ defeat festered in Steinbeck for more than a year. “I am treasonable enough not to believe in the liberty of a man or a group to exploit, torment, or slaughter other men or groups. I believe in the despotism of human life and happiness against the liberty of money and possessions,” he said in a 1937 statement for the League of American Writers booklet Writers Take Sides (1938).
Perhaps as early as the first week of February 1938—and no later than the first week of April—galvanized by reports of the worsening conditions in Visalia and Nipomo, he felt the need to do something direct in retaliation. John Steinbeck never became what committed activists would consider fully radicalized. His writings stemmed more from his own feelings and humane sensibility than from the persuasiveness of the Left’s economic and social ideas, but by putting his pen to the service of his cause, he was as close to being a firebrand as he ever would. He launched into “L’Affaire,” a vituperative satire aimed at attacking the leading citizens of Salinas, who put together a cabal of organizers called “the committee of seven” to foment the ignorant army of vigilantes (assembled from the common populace of Salinas—clerks, service-station operators, shopkeepers). “L’Affaire” was a “vulgar” tract of seventy thousand words but shortly after mid-May 1938, Steinbeck wrote to Otis and Covici (who had already announced the publication of “L’Affaire”) to inform them that he would not be delivering the manuscript they expected:
This is going to be a hard letter to write. . . . This book is finished and it is a bad book and I must get rid of it. It can’t be printed. It is bad because it isn’t honest. Oh! these incidents all happened but— I’m not telling as much of the truth about them as I know. In satire you have to restrict the picture and I just can’t do satire. . . . I know, you could sell possibly 30,000 copies. I know that a great many people would think they liked the book. I myself have built up a hole-proof argument on how and why I liked it. I can’t beat the argument but I don’t like the book. And I would be doing Pat a greater injury in letting him print it than I would by destroying it. Not once in the writing of it have I felt the curious warm pleasure that comes when work is going well. My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other and then I deliberately write this book the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding. My father would have called it a smart-alec book. It was full of tricks to make people ridiculous. If I can’t do better I have slipped badly. And that I won’t admit, yet.
The final stage of writing culminated in The Grapes of Wrath. His conscience squared, his integrity restored, Steinbeck quickly embarked on the longest sustained writing job of his career. Ridding himself of poison by passing through a “bad” book proved beneficial, he told Otis on June 1, 1938: “It is a nice thing to be working and believing in my work again. I hope I can keep the drive. I only feel whole and well when it is this way.” Naturally, his partisanship for the workers and his sense of indignation at California’s labor situation carried over, but they were given a more articulate, directed shape.
Everything he had written earlier—from his 1936 Nation article, “Dubious Battle in California,” through “Starvation Under the Orange Trees,” an April 1938 essay that functioned as the epilogue to Their Blood Is Strong, and even a poignant short story called “Breakfast” that he included in The Long Valley (New York: The Viking Press, 1938)—became grist for his final attempt. “For the first time I am working on a book that is not limited and that will take every bit of experience and thought and feeling that I have,” he wrote in Working Days on June 11, 1938. From his numerous field travels with Tom Collins, and from countless hours spent talking to migrant people, working beside them, listening to them, and sharing their problems, Steinbeck summoned all the concrete details of human form, language, and landscape that ensure artistic verisimilitude, as well as the subtler imaginative nuances of dialect, idiosyncratic tics, habits, and gestures that animate fictional characterization. “Yesterday it seemed to me that the people were coming to life. I hope so. These people must be intensely alive the whole time,” he wrote on July 8.
From the outset, in creating the Joad family to occupy the narrative chapters of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck endowed his novel with a specific human context, a felt emotional quality, and a dramatic dimension his earlier versions lacked: “Begin the detailed description of the family I am to live with. Must take time in the description, detail, detail, looks, clothes, gestures. . . . We have to know these people. Know their looks and their nature,” he reminded himself in his work diary on June 17. By conceiving the Joads as “an over-essence of people,” Steinbeck elevated the entire history of the migrant struggle into the realm of art, and he joined the mythic western journey with latently heroic family characters, according to this key Working Days notation on June 30:
Yesterday . . . I went over the whole of the book in my head—fixed on the last scene, huge and symbolic, toward which the whole story moves. And that was a good thing, for it was a reunderstanding of the dignity of the effort and the mightyness of the theme. I feel very small and inadequate and incapable but I grew again to love the story which is so much greater than I am. To love and admire the people who are so much stronger and purer and braver than I am.
At times during that summer, though, his task seemed insurmountable, because he kept losing the “threads” that tied him to his characters. “Was ever a book written under greater difficulty?” Nearly every day brought unsolicited requests for his name and his time, including unscheduled visitors, unanticipated disruptions, and reversals. Domestic and conjugal relations with Carol were often strained. House guests trooped to Los Gatos all summer, including family members and longtime friends Carlton Sheffield, Ed Ricketts, Ritch and Tal Lovejoy, plus new celebrity acquaintances—actors Broderick Crawford and Charlie Chaplin, and filmmaker Pare Lorentz. As if that weren’t enough to erode the novelist’s composure, the Steinbecks’ tiny house on Greenwood Lane was besieged with the noise of neighborhood building, which nearly drove them to distraction. By midsummer, hoping for permanent sanctuary, they decided to buy the secluded Biddle Ranch, a forty-seven-acre spread on Brush Road in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Los Gatos. Even though it was the most stunning location they had seen, its original homestead was in disrepair, so besides buying the land they would also have to build a new house, and that too became a source of added distractions. The Steinbecks didn’t move in until November 1938, a month after the novel was finished (final typing of the manuscript and corrections of the typescript and galley proofs took place at the Biddle Ranch from November 1938 to early February 1939), but preparations for its purchase ate a great deal of Steinbeck’s time and energy from mid-July onward.
August proved the most embattled period. Early in the month Steinbeck noted in his journal: “There are now four things or five rather to write through—throat, bankruptcy, Pare, ranch, and the book.” His litany of woes included Carol’s tonsil operation, which incapacitated her; the bankruptcy of Steinbeck’s publisher, Covici-Friede, which threatened to end their only source of income and posed an uncertain publishing future for the novel he was writing; Pare Lorentz’s arrangements for making a film version of In Dubious Battle, the purchase of the Biddle Ranch, which Carol wanted badly and Steinbeck felt compelled to buy for her (they argued over the pressure this caused); and the book itself, still untitled (and therefore without “being”), which seemed more recalcitrant than ever. By mid-August, roughly halfway through the novel, Steinbeck took stock of his situation: The Viking Press had bought his contract, hired Pat Covici as part of the deal, and planned a first printing of fifteen thousand copies for Steinbeck’s collection of short stories, The Long Valley; a string of famous house guests had either just departed or were about to arrive; and he and Carol had closed on the Biddle property for $10,500. “Demoralization complete and seemingly unbeatable. So many things happening that I can’t not be interested. . . . All this is more excitement than our whole lives put together. All crowded into a month. My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. . . . This success will ruin me as sure as hell,” he confided in Working Days. Four days later, on August 20, Lorentz arrived for the weekend. His visit broke Steinbeck’s depression and log jam. Though their film project would fall through, Steinbeck was encouraged by Lorentz’s prescience that his novel would be one of “the greatest novels of the age.” Steinbeck kept up his daily stint (he aimed for two thousand words at each sitting, some days managing as few as eight hundred, some days, when the juices were flowing, as many as twenty-two hundred) through what Carol agreed were the “interminable details and minor crises” of August and September.
In early October, rebuked often by his wife (Ma Joad’s indomitableness owes as much to Carol’s spirit as it does to Briffault’s The Mothers), Steinbeck roused himself from another bout of “self indulgence” and “laziness” to mount the final drive. Like a gift, the last five chapters of the novel came to him so abundantly that he had more material than he could use. Now the full force of Steinbeck’s experience at Visalia eight months earlier came into play, propelling his metamorphosis from right-minded competency to inspired vision. What Steinbeck had witnessed in that “heartbreaking” sea of mud and debris called forth deep moral indignation, social anger, and empathy, which in turn profoundly effected his novel’s climax.
His experience at Visalia created The Grapes of Wrath’s compelling justification, provided its haunting spiritual urgency, and rooted it in the deepest wellsprings of democratic fellow-feeling. Steinbeck’s deep participation at Visalia empowered his transformation of Tom Joad. Tom’s acceptance of the crucified preacher’s gospel of social action, tempered by Ma’s ministrations, occurs just as the deluge is about to begin in chapter 28:
“Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”
In the same way that rain floods the novel’s concluding chapters, so the memory of Steinbeck’s cataclysmic experience, his compensation for the futility and impotency of Visalia, pervades the ending of the book and charges its ominous emotional climate, relieved only by Rose of Sharon’s gratuitous act of sharing her breast with a starving stranger. “It must be an accident, it must be a stranger, and it must be quick,” Steinbeck instructed Covici. “To build this stranger into the structure of the book would be to warp the whole meaning of the book.” This final tableau scene—subversively erotic, mysteriously prophetic, tantalizingly indeterminate—refuses to fade from view; before the apocalypse occurs, before everything is lost in nothingness, Steinbeck suggests, all gestures must pass from self to world, from communication to communion.
Furthermore, in one of those unexplainable transactional moments, Steinbeck believed that his fictive alter ego not only floats above The Grapes of Wrath’s “last pages . . . like a spirit,” but he imagined that Joad actually entered the novelist’s work space, the private chamber of his room: “ ‘Tom! Tom! Tom!’ I know. It wasn’t him. Yes, I think I can go on now. In fact, I feel stronger. Much stronger. Funny where the energy comes from. Now to work, only now it isn’t work any more,” he wrote in Working Days on October 20. With that breakthrough, at once a visitation and a benediction, Steinbeck arrived at the intersection of novel and journal, that luminous point, that fifth layer of involvement, where the life of the writer and the creator of life merge. He entered the architecture of his own novel and lived in its fictive space, where, like Tom Joad, Steinbeck discovered that it was no longer necessary to lead people toward a distant new Eden or illusory Promised Land; rather, the most heroic action was simply to learn to be present in the here and now, and to inhabit the “wherever” as fully and at once as possible.
Steinbeck needed only a few more days to finish his novel. Around noon on Wednesday, October 26, 1938, Steinbeck, “so dizzy” he could “hardly see the page,” completed the last 775 words of the novel; at the bottom of the manuscript page, Steinbeck, whose writing was normally minuscule, scrawled in letters an inch and a half high, “END#”. Having brought the weight of his whole life to bear on the new book should have been cause for wild celebrating, but Steinbeck felt only exhaustion and some numb satisfaction. In The Grapes of Wrath the multiple streams of subjective experience, current history, ameliorism, graphic realism, environmentalism, biblical themes, literary traditions, and symbolic forms gather to create the “truly American book” Steinbeck had planned. “Finished this day,” his simple final journal entry read, “and I hope to God it’s good.”
In 1963 Steinbeck told Caskie Stinnett: “I wrote The Grapes of Wrath in one hundred days, but many years of preparation preceded it. I take a hell of a long time to get started. The actual writing is the last process.” Though Steinbeck actually wrote the novel in ninety-three sittings, it was his way of saying that The Grapes of Wrath was an intuited whole that embodied the form of his devotion. The entire 200,000-word manuscript took up 165 handwritten pages (plus one smaller sheet) of a 12‘ × 18‘ lined ledger book. When he was hot, Steinbeck wrote fast, paying little or no attention to proper spelling, punctuation, or paragraphing. On top of that his script was so small he was capable of cramming more than 1,300 words onto a single oversized ledger sheet (the equivalent of four pages of The Viking Press text). In short, the novel was written with remarkably preordained motion and directed passion; British scholar Roy S. Simmonds says it demonstrates a “phenomenal unity of purpose,” an example of “spontaneous prose,” years before Kerouac’s On the Road. Except for two brief added passages of 82 and 228 words and a deleted passage of approximately 160 words, the emendations are not major or substantive. Ironically, though Steinbeck severely doubted his own artistic ability, and in fact wavered sometimes in regard to such niceties as chapter divisions (he originally conceived the novel in three major books), in writing this novel he was on top of his game. From the vantage point of history, the venture stands as one of those happy occasions when a writer wrote far better than he thought he could.
Steinbeck had lost sight of the novel’s effectiveness and had little grasp of its potential popularity, so he warned Covici and The Viking Press against a large first printing. Viking ignored him and spent $10,000 on publicity and printed an initial run of fifty thousand copies. After recuperating in San Francisco, the Steinbecks moved to their new Brush Road mountain home. It was still under construction, so they camped awhile in the old homestead, where Carol finished typing the 751-page typescript, and together they made “routine” final corrections. At Covici’s badgering (he had read four hundred pages of the typescript on a visit to Los Gatos in late October), Steinbeck gave in and sent the first two chapters to him on November 29. The whole of Carol’s cleanly typed copy, which was actually only the second draft, was sent to his New York agents on December 7, 1938, roughly six months after Steinbeck had started the novel.
Elizabeth Otis visited Los Gatos in late December to smooth out some of Steinbeck’s rough language, like the dozen or so instances of “fuck,” “shit,” “screw,” and “fat ass,” which were the chief offenders (restored, along with other corrections, in the Library of America’s 1996 edition). They reached a workable compromise: Steinbeck agreed to change only those words “which Carol and Elizabeth said stopped the reader’s mind”; otherwise “those readers who are insulted by normal events or language mean nothing to me,” he told Covici on January 3, 1939. The novel’s enthusiastic reception at Viking was spoiled by the wrangling that ensued over the controversial Rose of Sharon ending, which the firm wanted Steinbeck to change. On January 16, 1939, he fired back: “I am sorry but I cannot change that ending. . . . The giving of the breast has no more sentiment than the giving of a piece of bread. I’m sorry if that doesn’t get over. It will maybe. I’ve been on this design and balance for a long time and I think I know how I want it. And if I’m wrong, I’m alone in my wrongness.” The entire post-writing flurry, including proofreading the galleys, struck the novelist, by then suffering from sciatica and tonsillitis, as anticlimactic: “I have no interest . . . whatever now. When the story is told I just can’t work up any more interest.”
Plenty of other people had interest though. The Grapes of Wrath was widely and favorably reviewed and its fidelity to fact discussed and debated in the popular press when it was first published. It had been praised by the left as a triumph of proletarian writing, nominated by critics and reviewers alike as “The Great American Novel,” given historical vindication by Senator Robert M. La Follette’s inquiries into California’s tyrannical farm labor conditions, and validated by Carey McWilliams, whose own great work, Factories in the Field, is the renowned sociological counterpart to Steinbeck’s novel. The Grapes of Wrath was defended on several occasions by President and Eleanor Roosevelt for its power, integrity, and accuracy. For instance, after inspecting California migrant camps in 1940, Mrs. Roosevelt said, “I have never thought The Grapes of Wrath was exaggerated.” (Steinbeck responded gratefully: “I have been called a liar so constantly that . . . I wonder whether I may not have dreamed the things I saw and heard.”)
But The Grapes of Wrath has also been attacked by academic scholars and cultural critics for its alleged sentimentalism, stereotyped characterizations, heavy-handed symbolism, unconvincing dialogue, episodic, melodramatic plot, misplaced Oklahoma geography, and inaccurate rendering of historical facts, and has been banned repeatedly by school boards and libraries for its rebellious theme and frank language, and denounced by right-wing ministers, corporate farmers, and politicians as communist propaganda, immoral, degrading, warped, and untruthful. Oklahoma congressman Lyle Boren, typical of the book’s early detractors, called it a “a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.” A Jesuit priest, Arthur D. Spearman, branded it “an embodiment of the Marxist Soviet propaganda,” and an editorial in the Oklahoma City Times claimed “it has Tobacco Road looking as pure as Charlotte Brontë.” The Associated Farmers and the newly formed California Citizens Association mounted smear campaigns to discredit the book and its author. Rebuttals, designed to whitewash the Okie situation, were published by Frank J. Taylor (“California’s Grapes of Wrath”), by Ruth Comfort Mitchell, Steinbeck’s Los Gatos neighbor (Of Human Kindness), and by M. V. Hartranft, whose slapdash volume Grapes of Gladness was billed as California’s refreshing and inspiring answer to The Grapes of Wrath. None of these reactionary, antiseptic texts had one iota of impact in the long run.
Since then, of course, The Grapes of Wrath has been steadily scrutinized, studied, interrogated, and analyzed by literary critics, scholars, historians, and creative writers. It is no exaggeration to say that, during the past sixty-plus years, few American novels have attracted such passionate attacks and equally passionate defenses. Its commercial success and its popularity with general readers have always made it a suspect text to many intellectuals and/or academicians, a point tellingly established by Mary M. Brown’s essay, “The Grapes of Wrath and the Literary Canon of American Universities in the Nineties,” which appears in The Critical Response to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Indeed, according to the master critical narrative about John Steinbeck (established in part by critics such as Edmund Wilson, Arthur Mizener, and Harold Bloom), The Grapes of Wrath is a deeply problematical novel. It is so flawed, so perplexing, so undisciplinable, that perhaps schizophrenic is a handier term with which to describe its reception during the past seven decades. Depending on which critic we read, a very different version of (and attitude toward) the novel surfaces. In fact, it seems hard to believe that critics have read the same book. Philip Rahv’s complaint in the Partisan Review (Spring 1939) that “the novel is far too didactic and long-winded,” and “fails on the test of craftsmanship” should be judged against Charles Angoff ’s assessment in the North American Review (Summer 1939) that it is “momentous, monumental, and memorable,” and an example of “the highest art.”
This dialectic still characterizes the novel’s critical reception. In a 1989 speech, the prominent cultural critic Leslie Fiedler attacked the novel as “maudlin, sentimental, and overblown”; another review a month later by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy praised it for standing “tall . . . a mighty, mighty book.” The tug-of-war has continued through the recent Steinbeck centenary in 2002: Keith Windschuttle, writing in the conservative journal The New Criterion, proclaims “there is now an accumulation of sufficient historical, demographic, and climatic data about the 1930s to show that almost everything about the elaborate picture created in the novel is either outright false or exaggerated beyond belief.” On the opposite side, liberal novelist Norman Mailer, writing in John Steinbeck: Centennial Reflections by American Writers, says: “I wonder if any of us since have been equal to Steinbeck’s marvelous and ironic sense of compassion . . . daring all the time to go up to the very abyss of offering more feeling than the reader can accept. What a great novel was The Grapes of Wrath.” Harold Bloom, who had qualifiedly praised the novel’s “compassionate narative” in 1988, completely reversed his position during the centenary. In his Chelsea House BioCritique, John Steinbeck (2003), Bloom lambasts the novel, preferring instead Ford’s cinematic version, which he considers “superior.” The lesson here seems to be that readers pay their money and take their pick. In this regard, John Seelye’s claim that “Steinbeck is a gravely misunderstood writer,” is especially accurate and relevant.
The past seven decades have seen little consensus about the exact nature of the novel’s achievement, though most contemporary analysts now treat the book as a legitimate work of fiction rather than a propagandistic tract. As a result, whether Grapes is viewed through a social, historical, linguistic, formal, political, ecological, regional, mythic, psychological, metaphysical, gender, religious, or materialist lens (all examples of recently applied theoretical and critical methods), the book’s textual richness, its many layers of action, language, imagery, theme, and character, continues to repay dividends. As John Ditsky observed, “The Joads are still in motion, and their vehicle with them.” Intellectual theories to the contrary, criticism remains a subjective act, a kind of fiction passing for objective discourse, and perhaps the only sure thing about The Grapes of Wrath is its capacity to elicit powerful responses from its audience. This may have been Steinbeck’s intention from the first. “I don’t think The Grapes of Wrath is obscure in what it tries to say,” he claimed in 1955. “Its structure is very carefully worked out. . . . Just read it, don’t count it!”
As a result of shifting political emphases, the enlightened recommendations of the La Follette Committee (that the National Labor Relations Act include farmworkers), the effects of loosened labor laws (California’s discriminatory “anti-migrant” law, established in 1901, was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1941), the creation of compulsory military service, and the inevitable recruitment of migrant families into defense plant and shipyard jobs caused by the booming economy of World War II that signaled the beginning of their successful assimilation, the particular set of epochal conditions that crystallized Steinbeck’s awareness about the white homeless underclass in the first place passed from his view. (Kevin Starr notes that California growers soon complained of an acute shortage of seasonal labor.) Like other American works that embody the bitter, often tragic transition from one epoch or period or way of life to another, The Grapes of Wrath possessed a certain timeliness as one of several indelible texts that arose from the same historical era—U.S.A., An American Exodus, and Factories in the Field, as well as Erskine Caldwell and Margeret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and novels such as Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, and Richard Wright’s Native Son. In concert with these and other counter-narratives that pull no punches in attempting to document, represent, or interpret “America” as a contested place, The Grapes of Wrath’s appearance helped alter the literary and cultural geography of the United States.
It also changed Steinbeck irrevocably. Many “have speculated,” Jackson Benson writes, “about what happened to change Steinbeck after The Grapes of Wrath. One answer is that what happened was the writing of the novel itself.” The effects of writing 260,000 words in a single year “finished” him, he told Lawrence Clark Powell on January 24, 1939. After his long siege with the “Matter of the Migrants” (“I don’t know whether there is anything left of me,” he confided in October 1939), his “will to death” was so “strengthened” that by the end of the decade he was sick of writing fiction. It was a decision many critics and reviewers held against him for the rest of his life; they wanted him to write The Grapes of Wrath over and over again, which he refused to do. “The process of writing a book is the process of outgrowing it,” he told Herbert Sturz. “Disciplinary criticism comes too late. You aren’t going to write that one again anyway. When you start another—the horizons have receded and you are just as cold and frightened as you were with the first one.”
The unabated sales, the frenzied public clamor, and the vicious personal attacks over The Grapes of Wrath confirmed Steinbeck’s worst fears about the fruits of success and pushed the already hostile tensions between John and Carol to the breaking point, a situation exacerbated by his willful romance with Gwyn Conger (they were wed from 1943 to 1948; the marriage produced two children) and his repeated absences in Hollywood and Mexico. Steinbeck did not quit writing, as he had threatened, but by the early 1940s he was no longer content to be the person he had once been. His letter of November 13, 1939, to former Stanford roommate Carlton Sheffield pulls no punches: “I’m finishing off a complete revolution. . . . The point of all this is that I must make a new start. I’ve worked the novel as I know it as far as I can take it. I never did think much of it— a clumsy vehicle at best. And I don’t know the form of the new but I know there is a new which will be adequate and shaped by the new thinking.”
Steinbeck’s sea change was not caused by bankruptcy of talent, change of venue from California to New York, divorce from Carol, or failure of nerve or integrity (critics offer these reasons to explain his alleged “decline” as a writer). Rather, it resulted from reaching the end of a consciously planned work project that produced his labor trilogy—In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and Grapes—and a subsequent backlash from their unprecedented and unanticipated success, which caused in him a repugnant “posterity.” “I have always wondered why no author has survived a best-seller,” he told John Rice in a June 1939 interview. “Now I know. The publicity and fan-fare are just as bad as they would be for a boxer. One gets self-conscious and that’s the end of one’s writing.”
His new writing lacked the aggressive political bite of his late 1930s fiction, but it had the virtue of being different, varied, and experimental. After 1940 much of his important work centered on explorations of newly discovered topics: ecological issues, scientific discourse, and inter-relatedness of nature and culture in two brilliant books, Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941), written with Ed Ricketts, and Cannery Row (1945); the implications of individual choice, heroism, and moral action in The Pearl (1947), East of Eden (1952), Viva Zapata! (1952), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961); personal nonfiction narratives in Travels with Charley (1962) and America and Americans (1966). A prophetic postmodernist, Steinbeck’s deep subject in Sweet Thursday (1954) and Journal of a Novel (1969) was the paradox of the creative process itself, a reflexive linkage between what Steinbeck (borrowing from philosopher John Elof Boodin) termed the coalescence of the “laws of thought” and the “laws of things.”
The Grapes of Wrath is arguably among the most significant indictments ever made of the privileged myths of American exceptionalism, westering, and of California as a Promised Land/Garden of Eden. Once Steinbeck’s name became inseparably linked with the title of his most famous work, he could never escape the influence of his earlier life, but thankfully neither can we, because in the broadest sense, his novel continues to perform meaningful cultural work in shaping perceptions toward social justice, compassion, and understanding, perhaps more important than ever in the unstable global climate of this new century. Wherever human beings dream of a dignified and free society in which they can live in right relationship with the environment and other humans, and harvest the fruits of their own labor, The Grapes of Wrath’s insistent message is still applicable. Even though, ironically, some Oklahoma migrant families believed the novel demeaned their image, as James Gregory notes in American Exodus, nevertheless as a fabular tale of dashed illusions, thwarted desires, inhuman suffering, and betrayed promises—all strung on the slenderest thread of hope—The Grapes of Wrath summed up the Depression era’s socially conscious art. “Steinbeck shaped a geography of conscience” in The Grapes of Wrath, novelist Don DeLillo claims in his centennial reflection, “for it is a novel in which there is something at stake in every sentence. ” And beyond that—for emotional urgency, evocative power, sensational design, sustained impact, prophetic reach, and continued controversy—The Grapes of Wrath still has few peers in American fiction.
Suggestions for Further Reading
PRIMARY WORKS BY JOHN STEINBECK
Note: John Steinbeck’s San Francisco News investigative reports, “The Harvest Gypsies,” published October 5-12, 1936, and “Starvation Under the Orange Trees,” published April 15, 1938, in The Monterey Trader (both later collected as Their Blood Is Strong, a pamphlet published by San Francisco’s Simon J. Lubin Society in 1938), are reprinted in Robert DeMott and Elaine Steinbeck, eds., The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings 1936-1941 (New York: Library of America, 1996), pp. 990-1027. The News pieces are also reprinted in Charles Wollenberg’s The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to The Grapes of Wrath (Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1988). The Trader piece, Steinbeck’s 1936 Nation piece, “Dubious Battle in California, ” and 1937 statement for Writers Take Sides, are also available in Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson’s edition of Steinbeck’s America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction (New York: Viking Penguin, 2002), pp. 71-77; 83-88. Steinbeck’s handwritten manuscript of his work diary/writing “day book” (composed as he was writing the novel) was unsealed to the public in the early 1990s by the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City. The typed version, included in the archive of Pascal Covici’s papers, is housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. The typescript, differing in some minor points from the handwritten journal, formed the basis of Robert DeMott, ed., Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938-1941 (New York: The
Viking Press, 1989). Sample pages of his autograph journal are published in Robert DeMott, Steinbeck’s Typewriter: Essays on His Art (Troy, NY: Whitston Publishing, 1996), p. 147. Steinbeck’s autograph manuscript of The Grapes of Wrath is in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library, Manuscripts Division, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia. The 751-page typescript is in the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division, Washington, D.C. To view a sample page in Memory Garden C: American Treasures of the Library of Congress, log on at
CORRESPONDENCE, INTERVIEWS, ADAPTATIONS, AND PARODIES
Jacobs, Will, and Gerard Jones. “The Beaver of Wrath.” In The Beaver Papers: The Story of the “Lost Season.” New York: Crown Publishers, 1983.
Siegal, Larry. “The Wrath of Grapes.” In MAD Clobbers the Classics. Illus. by Angelo Torres. New York: Warner Books, 1981.
Steinbeck, John. Conversations with John Steinbeck. Thomas Fensch, ed. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.
——— Letters to Elizabeth: A Selection of Letters from John Steinbeck to Elizabeth Otis. Florian J. Shasky and Susan F. Riggs, eds. Foreword by Carlton Sheffield. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1978.
——— Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, eds. New York: The Viking Press, 1975.
——— The Grapes of Wrath. Play script by Frank Galati. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
BIOGRAPHIES, MEMOIRS, BACKGROUND, AND APPRECIATIONS
Note: An exhaustive chronology of Steinbeck’s life is available in Robert DeMott, ed., Novels 1942-1952 (New York: Library of America, 2001), pp. 949-970. Chief Internet sites devoted to John Steinbeck are