Today is the birthday of 20th-Century American writer and Nobel Prize recipient John Steinbeck.
Below is an excerpt from Children’s Literature Review: Volume 195, featuring Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath.
The Grapes of Wrath
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Amnesia Glasscock) American novelist, playwright, screenwriter, short-story writer, and journalist.
The following entry provides criticism of Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). For additional information about the novella Of Mice and Men, see CLR, Volume 172; for additional information about the novella The Pearl, see CLR, Volume 194.
The Grapes of Wrath established the reputation of John Steinbeck (1902-1968) as a leading writer of the twentieth century. During the 1930s, the Great Plains experienced a severe drought, transforming large portions of Colorado, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma into what became known as the Dust Bowl. Powerful windstorms stripped topsoil from cultivated land, rendering farming impossible and creating an economic crisis that caused thousands of families to abandon their homes and travel west in hope of employment in California. However, California was experiencing its own downturn as a result of the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. The majority of the “Okies,” as the migrants were called, arrived in the state only to face the same destitution they were trying to escape. Moreover, the migrants met with hostility from locals, who feared competition for the few available jobs, and were frequently exploited by the corporations that controlled California’s agriculture industry.
The Grapes of Wrath is an account of this exodus, told from the point of view of the dozen members of the Joad family, who leave Oklahoma for California. Steinbeck drew much of the material for his novel from research he conducted in 1936, when the San Francisco News commissioned him to write a series of articles on the living conditions in California’s newly established migrant camps. The resulting seven-part series, titled “The Harvest Gypsies,” describes the exploitative practices of California’s agriculture industry and calls for a complete overhaul of the system. After two unsatisfactory attempts to turn these stories into fiction, Steinbeck composed The Grapes of Wrath during a period of intense effort from May to October 1938. Written in Steinbeck’s characteristically straightforward prose, the novel mixes sociological observation and biblical symbolism in an evocative portrait of the extreme poverty and the brutality of agricultural labor conditions in 1930s California. The novel was immediately successful, becoming the best-selling book of 1939 and winning the Pulitzer Prize. The Grapes of Wrath remains Steinbeck’s best-known work of fiction.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
The novel begins as Tom Joad, the novel’s central character, is arriving home from prison. He has spent four years in jail for killing a man in a fight, but Tom is described as a considerate and likable man. He is reunited with his family, which includes his parents,Ma and Pa Joad; Granma and Grampa Joad; his uncle John; his pregnant sister, Rose of Sharon, and her husband; and several other siblings, and he learns that the bank has driven the family off their farm. Left with no other prospects, the Joads prepare to leave for California, where they believe they will find ample work in the farming industry. Jim Casy, a former preacher, accompanies the Joads on the trip. Subsequent chapters depict the chaos of the Dust Bowl, as thousands of families prepare to leave, pawning their possessions for far less than their value and buying used automobiles at inflated prices from dishonest salesmen. Not far into the Joads’ journey, Grampa Joad dies of a stroke.Without any money to pay to register his death, the family members bury him alongside the road in a quilt donated by a migrant couple.
The Joads travel through Oklahoma and Texas to New Mexico, where a stranger tells them that his wife and children have starved to death due to the lack of work in California. Despite this warning, the family continues through Arizona to California, where one of the Joad brothers parts ways with the family and Granma Joad dies. Upon arriving in the city of Bakersfield, the remaining Joads take up residence on the outskirts of town in a squatters’ camp called a “Hooverville” in mocking reference to Herbert Hoover, who was president at the onset of the Depression. There they meet Floyd Knowles, who explains the deplorable conditions migrant laborers are facing in California. When a contractor arrives at the camp to recruit workers, Knowles demands that the workers be given a set wage and a contract. Incensed, the contractor has Knowles arrested on a trumped-up charge, which sparks a scuffle in the camp. A police officer recklessly fires his gun during the scuffle, hitting a bystander in the hand, prompting Tom and Casy to attack the officer. Knowing that Tom has violated his parole by leaving Oklahoma, Casy takes the blame for the incident and is arrested. Soon after, Rose of Sharon is devastated to discover that her husband appears to have abandoned her, and as the police arrive to burn the camp, the family is forced to leave without him . . .
To read more, see Children’s Literature Review: Volume 195, available in print and through Gale Literary Sources.
Other literary birthdays today include:
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), American poet and author of The Song of Hiawatha
- Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958), African-American playwright and poet during the Harlem Renaissance