Friday, February 5, 2010

1939: "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck

The Author:
John Steinbeck
Born in Salinas, California in 1902,
Steinbeck attended Stanford University intermittently between 1919 and 1925, before finally leaving without a degree. Four years later, he published his first book—a work of historical fiction about the pirate Henry Morgan. It was his fifth book, however, the novel Tortilla Flat (1935), that brought him his first critical success. Twenty books and more that twenty-five years later, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He died in 1968.

The Text:
The Grapes of Wrath

Set during the Great Depression, the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath focuses on a poor family of sharecroppers, the Joads, driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agriculture industry. In a nearly hopeless situation, they set out for California along with thousands of other “Okies” in search of land, jobs and dignity. The images below are from the celebrated Hollywood film version, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford, which was made in 1940; the endings of the book and the movie differ greatly.

The Reception:
One writer's opinion: “Any reader who has his roots planted in the red soil will boil with indignation over the bedraggled, bestial characters that will give the ignorant east convincing confirmation of their ideas of the people of the southwest. ”

(Shockley, qtd. 353) Many were concerned about the novel's “obscene, vulgar, lewd, stable language.” (354) Some libraries still ban it from their sacrosanct shelves. In spite of this outcry against Steinbeck's portrayal of Oklahomans, book sales escalated. Sales in Oklahoma were second only to Gone With the Wind. One salesman is reported to have said, “people who looked as though they had never read a book in their lives came in to buy it. ” (351)
Despite his sympathy for poor farm laborers, Steinbeck offended many, but any “honest literary interpretation of a region seems to offend the people of that region.”

“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 n’ 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.” (Tom Joad, after the death of Jim Casey)

“An’ now I ain’t ashamed. These folks is our folks—is our folks. An’ that manager, he come an’ set an’ drank coffee, an’ he says, ‘Mrs. Joad’ this, an’ ‘Mrs. Joad’ that—an’ ‘How you getting’ on, Mrs. Joad?’” She stopped and sighed. “Why, I feel like people again.” (Ma Joad)


Shockley, Martin Staples. "The Reception of
The Grapes of Wrath in Oklahoma." American Literature. 15 (1944), pp.351-61.

IMAGE SOURCE:,%20Henry-Annex.htm

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