John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck

Excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath
published in 1939; excerpt taken from 1955 reprint

The Grapes of Wrath">

"They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless—restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do—to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut—anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry."

from the grapes of wrath

During the 1930s migrant workers poured into California in search of work. Most of them had been farmers in the Dust Bowl or sharecroppers or tenant farmers on cotton farms in the southern central states. John Steinbeck tells their story in his 1939 book The Grapes of Wrath. To describe the plight of migrants moving west into California, Steinbeck decided to concentrate on the story of one family, the Joads, and their struggles while traveling from the Dust Bowl region of Oklahoma to the promised land of California. Ultimately, the story is about the courage and passion of men and women who are able to overcome hardships and endure.

Born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902, John Steinbeck was the son of a farmer and a schoolteacher. His mother, the schoolteacher, read to John extensively from literature from around the world. His childhood days were spent in an intellectually stimulating environment—and outdoors in the beautiful Salinas valley. Steinbeck entered Stanford University in California in 1920 and remained at that school until 1925. Always committed to learning and to pursuing life on his own terms, Steinbeck left Stanford without earning a degree and moved to New York City. His stay there was short-lived; he felt more at home in the California countryside than on the streets of New York. Returning to California, he began to write. During the 1930s he produced a number of remarkable novels that portray the conditions that agricultural workers labored under in the Salinas valley—conditions Steinbeck had observed firsthand. His decidedly proletarian works (books about working-class conditions) include Pastures of Heaven (1932), Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), andThe Grapes of Wrath (1939). The Grapes of Wrath won a 1940 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Pulitzer Prizes, named for Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911), are given each year for outstanding works in literature, journalism, drama, and music.

Steinbeck believed he could write best about the people he best knew. Therefore, before writing a novel, he would spend time observing firsthand the living and working conditions of the people he wanted to write about. In preparation for writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck spent eight weeks working in the fields as a pea picker.

In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck tells the story of the Joads in a straightforward narrative (direct storytelling) style. However, he intermixes the narrative chapters with chapters that are intended to inform the reader about the social and factual background against which the story is set. The following excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath is taken from one of these informational chapters.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath:

  • None of the main characters, the Joads, appear in the excerpt, but they are closely tied to the situations described in the excerpt.
  • Writers of proletarian literature of the 1930s observed their fellow Americans struggling and suffering under an unequal social and economic order. In turn, they exposed the inequalities that they saw to the general public. In this spirit, Steinbeck wrote so the public could get to know a migrant family.
  • The Grapes of Wrath was a call for California landowners to extend more tolerance and fairness to their workers.

Excerpt from Chapter 19 of The Grapes of Wrath

And then the dispossessed were drawn west—from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless—restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do—to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut—anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.

We ain't foreign. Seven generations back Americans, and beyond that Irish, Scotch, English, German. One of our folks in the Revolution, an' they was lots of our folks in the Civil War—both sides. Americans.


Dispossessed: People who had lost their farms and homes.


Okies: The term "Okies" was originally short for the migrants from Oklahoma but soon came to refer to all impoverished migrants.


Owners: Established landowners in California.


Soft: Living well and not desperate for anything.

They were hungry, and they were fierce. And they had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred. Okies —the owners hated them because the owners knew they were soft and the Okies strong, that they were fed and the Okies hungry; and perhaps the owners had heard from their grandfathers how easy it is to steal land from a soft man if you are fierce and hungry and armed. The owners hated them. And in the towns, the storekeepers hated them because they had no money to spend. There is no shorter path to a store-keeper's contempt, and all his admirations are exactly opposite. The town men, little bankers, hated Okies because there was nothing to
gain from them. They had nothing. And the laboring people hated Okies because a hungry man must work, and if he must work, if he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him less for his work; and then no one can get more.

And the dispossessed, the migrants, flowed in California, two hundred and fifty thousand, and three hundred thousand. Behind them new tractors were going on the land and the tenants were being forced off. The new waves were on the way, new waves of the dispossessed and the homeless, hardened, intent , and dangerous.


Intent: Determined.


Barbarians: The migrants.


Nebulous: Vague.

Beside the roads

Beside the roads: Refers to the fields alongside the roads.


Coveted: Desired.

And while the Californians wanted many things, accumulation, social success, amusement, luxury, and a curious banking security, the new barbarians wanted only two things - land and food; and to them the two were one. And whereas the wants of the Californians were nebulous and undefined, the wants of the Okies were beside the roads , lying there to be seen and coveted : the good fields with water to be dug for, the good green fields, earth to crumble experimentally in the hand, grass to smell, oaten stalks to chew untilthe sharp sweetness was in the throat. A man might look at a fallow field and known, and see in his mind that his own bending back and his own straining arms would bring the cabbages into the light, and the golden eating corn, the turnips and carrots.

And a homeless hungry man, driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat, could look at the fallow fields which might produce food but not profit, and that man could know how a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against the thin children . And such a man drove along the roads and knew temptation at every field, and knew the lust to take these fields and make them grow strength for his children and a little comfort for his wife. The temptation was before him always. The fields goaded him , and the company ditches with good water flowing were a goad to him.

And in the south he saw the golden oranges hanging on the trees, the little golden oranges on the dark green trees; and guards with shotguns patrolling the lines so a man might not pick an orange for a thin child, oranges to be dumped if the price was low.

He drove his old car into a town. He scoured the farms for work. Where can we sleep the night?

Well, there's Hooverville on the edge of the river. There's a whole raft of Okies there.

He drove his old car to Hooverville. He never asked again, for there was a Hooverville on the edge of every town.

The rag town lay close to water; and the houses were tents, and weed-thatched enclosures, paper houses, a great junk pile. The man drove his family in and became a citizen of Hooverville—always they were called Hooverville. The man put up his own tent as near to water as he could get; or if he had no tent, he went to the city dump and brought back cartons and built a house of corrugated paper. And when the rains came the house melted and washed away. He settled in Hooverville and he scoured the countryside for work, and the little money he had went for gasoline to look for work. In the evening the men gathered and talked together. Squatting on their hams they talked on the land they had seen.

There's thirty thousan' acres, out west of here. Layin' there. Jesus, what I could do with that, with five acres of that! Why, hell, I'd have ever'thing to eat.

Fallow field

Fallow field: Land that remained unplowed and unplanted.

A fallow field is a sin…

A fallow field is a sin…: If the land were planted, it could produce food for his hungry children.

Goaded him

Goaded him: Urged him to find some way to grow food on the fields.


Scoured: Searched.


Hooverville: A community of makeshift shacks—made of cardboard boxes, scrap lumber, and scrap metal—that sheltered the homeless.

Notice one thing? They ain't no vegetables nor chickens nor pigs at the farms. They raise one thing - cotton, say, or peaches, orlettuce. 'Nother place'll be all chickens. They buy the stuff they could raise in the dooryard.

Jesus, what I could do with a couple pigs!

Well, it ain't yourn, an' it ain't gonna be yourn.

What we gonna do? The kids can't grow up this way.

In the camps the word would come whispering. There's work at Shafter. And the cars would be loaded in the night, the highways crowded—a gold rush for work. At Shafter the people would pile up, five times too many to do the work. A gold rush for work. They stole away in the night, frantic for work. And along the roads lay the temptations, the fields that could bear food.

That's owned. That ain't our'n.

The Federal Writers' Project

Starting in 1935 the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) aided over six thousand novelists, journalists, poets, and other professionals such as lawyers, ministers, teachers, and anyone else willing to work in the publication field. The program was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of President Roosevelt's New Deal agencies, which were designed to rebuild America and return the nation to prosperity. Under the direction of Henry Alsberg (1881–1970), the FWP hired unemployed writers to produce a series of state and city guides, to write histories of immigrant groups, to identify and write about types of food in different regions of the country, and to record folklore stories from across the nation. Between 1935 and 1939 the FWP produced 378 books and pamphlets. The FWP's American Guide Series included a guidebook for each state.

One of the FWP's most important publications was a collection of thirty-five stories about the lives of ordinary people from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia; titled These Are Our Lives, the book was published in 1939. FWP writers who worked on the project used a new technique to research traditions and life histories: They collected their information through personal interviews, recording with pen and paper the personal experiences and memories of local citizens. This type of information is known as oral history. Richard Wright (1908–1960) and John Steinbeck (1902–1968), two authors who went on to fame, were supported by the FWP in the 1930s.

Well, maybe we could get a little piece of her. Maybe—a little
piece. Right down there—a patch. Jimson weed now. […] I could git enough potatoes off'n that little patch to feed my whole family!

It ain't our'n. It got to have Jimson weeds.

Now and then a man tried; crept on the land and cleared a piece, trying like a thief to steal a little richness from the earth. Secret gardens hidden in the weeds. A package of carrot seeds and a few turnips. Planted potato skins, crept out in the evening secretly to hoe in the stolen earth.

Leave the weeds around the edge—then nobody can see what we're a-doin'. Leave some weeds, big tall ones, in the middle.

Secret gardening in the evenings, and water carried in a rusty can.

And then one day a deputy sheriff: Well, what you think you're doin'?

I ain't doin' no harm.

I had my eye on you. This ain't your land. You're trespassing.

The land ain't plowed, and I ain't hurtin' it none.

You […] squatters. Pretty soon you'd think you owned it. You'd be sore as hell. Think you owned it. Get off now.

And the little green carrot tops were kicked off and the turnip greens trampled. And then the Jimson weed moved back in. But the cop was right. A crop raised—why, that makes ownership. Land hoed and the carrots eaten—a man might fight for land he's taken food from. Get him off quick! He'll think he owns it. He might even die fighting for the little plot among the Jimson weeds.

Did ya see his face when we kicked them turnips out? Why, he'd kill a fella soon's he'd look at him. We got to keep these here people down or they'll take the country. They'll take the country. [Stein-beck, pp. 207–210]

What happened next…

Few of the 1930s proletarian novels got very high on the best-seller lists, but The Grapes of Wrath was an exception. It topped the New York Times best-seller list in 1939 and remained eighth on the list in 1940. A film version of the book was made by Twentieth Century Fox in 1940 and directed by John Ford (1895–1973).

The novel and movie stirred up considerable controversy. Both in Oklahoma and California, citizens claimed that most of what Steinbeck had written was lies. Many of those citizens were ashamed that such conditions existed in their states. However, many government agents and sociologists confirmed Steinbeck's description of the horrid conditions. Life, a new photojournalism magazine, ran stories that also supported Steinbeck's portrayal of the migrant workers' existence.

Only about half of the migrants settled in the farming valleys of California. The rest went to San Francisco, Los Angeles, or San Diego. As the economy revived with the U.S. buildup for World War II in 1940 and 1941, most of the migrants quickly acquired new skills and found regular jobs. Former migrants settled permanently in the California valleys as an increased demand for food created more jobs in farming.

The authors of 1930s proletarian literature began an American tradition: Since the 1930s, writers in the United States have continued to address class issues and political problems from all points of view. In 2000 The Grapes of Wrath was still considered one of the most important proletarian novels ever written.

Did you know…

  • For years The Grapes of Wrath was spoken of only as a protest novel, and readers took sides over its message. Only after several decades was the book studied for its artistic literary qualities, such as superb character development.
  • Steinbeck received support from the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), which was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency established by President Roosevelt.
  • In 1962 Steinbeck was honored with the Nobel Prize for literature. Nobel Prizes, named for Alfred Nobel (1833–1896), are awarded yearly to people who have made valuable contributions to humankind. Prizes are awarded in the fields of chemistry, economics, literature, medicine, physics, and world peace. Nobel Prizes include both a medal and a cash award.

Consider the following…

  • Why did Californians not welcome the migrants into their state?
  • What did Steinbeck mean when he said, "a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against the thin children."?
  • Reread the last portion of the excerpt. Side with either the deputy sheriff or the migrant who illegally planted the little patch of land. Defend your stance.

For More Information

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York, NY: Bantam Press, 1955. Reprint.

Swados, Harvey, ed. The American Writer and the Great Depression. New York, NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.

Terkel, Studs. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1979.