The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of WrathIntroduction
For Further Study
When The Grapes of Wrath was published on March 14, 1939, it created a national sensation for its depiction of the devastating effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the end of April, it was selling 2,500 copies a day—a remarkable number considering the hard economic times. In May, the novel was a number-one best-seller, selling at a rate of 10,000 copies a week. By the end of 1939, close to a half million copies had been sold.
John Steinbeck was shocked by the tremendous response to his novel. Almost overnight, he was transformed from a respected, struggling writer into a public sensation. Yet The Grapes of Wrath was bound to cause controversy in a country experiencing a decade of major social upheaval during the Depression. With the novel's publication, Steinbeck found himself immersed in a great national debate over the migrant labor problem. Many people were shocked by the poverty and hopelessness of the story, and others denied that such circumstances could happen in America. Admidst the controversy, people who had never read a book before bought a copy of The Grapes of Wrath. At $2.75 per copy, it was affordable and quickly sold out. Libraries had waiting lists for the novel that were months long.
It was perhaps inevitable that such an epic novel would cause a sensation. With the exception of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), The Grapes of Wrath was the publishing event of the decade. Widespread charges of obscenity were brought against the novel, and it was banned and burned in Buffalo, New York; East Saint Louis, Illinois; and Kern County, California, where much of the novel is set. In fact, the novel remains one of the most frequently banned books in the United States, according to school and library associations. The book was denounced in Congress by Representative Lyle Boren of Oklahoma, who called the novel's depiction of migrant living conditions a vulgar lie. Charges were made that "obscenity" had been included in the book in large part to sell more copies. Eventually, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stepped in to praise the book and defend Steinbeck against his critics. In 1940, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. Yet, at the time, such were the pressures of Steinbeck's celebrity that he described fame as "a pain in the ass."
The popularity of the novel has endured. It is estimated that it has sold fifteen million copies since its publication. For almost sixty years, Steinbeck's novel has been a classic in American literature; it has been translated into several languages, including French, German, and Japanese. The Grapes of Wrath has also been an integral part of the school curriculum in America since the end of World War II.
John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He was the third of four children, and the only son born to John Ernst Sr. and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck. A fourth child, Mary, was born in 1909. Olive Steinbeck had been a teacher in one-room schools in Big Sur, California, before her marriage to John Sr. After their marriage, the Steinbecks moved to Salinas in 1894, where John Sr. became a manager at the Sperry Flour Mill and later served as treasurer of Monterey County.
Salinas is located one hundred miles south of San Francisco, near Monterey Bay. At the time of Steinbeck's birth, it was a town with a population of approximately three thousand. During John's early childhood, the first automobiles could be seen rumbling through town. Family life was apparently secure and happy. Steinbeck's father quickly recognized his son's talents and eventually both parents encouraged Steinbeck in his dream to become a writer.
Steinbeck's best-known works of fiction, including The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men(1937), are set in central California, where he grew up. In particular, one of the principal locales in The Grapes of Wrath is the San Joaquin Valley, a fertile farming area which lies east of the Gabilan Mountains. Although Steinbeck's family was solidly middle class, he had to earn his own money during high school. He worked on nearby ranches during the summer and he also delivered newspapers on his bike, exploring Salinas's Mexican neighborhood and Chinatown. Later, he would use his boyhood memories of these places in his stories and novels.
As a child, Steinbeck was shy and often a loner. Other children teased him about his large ears, and he responded by withdrawing into books. He was an excellent storyteller, a lifelong trait that found its natural outlet in his writing. In 1915, Steinbeck entered Salinas High School and began writing stories and sending them anonymously to magazines. He was president of his senior class and graduated in a class of twenty-four students. Steinbeck enrolled in Stanford University in 1919, which he would attend on and off for the next six years. He left Stanford in 1925 without a degree.
During the summers and other times he was away from college, Steinbeck worked as a farm laborer, sometimes living with migrants in the farm's bunkhouse. After leaving school for good in 1925, Steinbeck took a job on a freighter and went to New York City. There he worked in construction and later as a reporter for The American for twenty-five dollars a week. But he was fired because his reporting was not "objective" enough. When he failed to find a publisher for his short stories, he returned to California by freighter. In 1930, Steinbeck married Carol Henning and settled in Pacific Grove. While Carol worked at various jobs to support John's career, he continued to write. Finally, in 1935 his first successful novel, Tortilla Flat, was published. In 1937, Of Mice and Men became an immediate best-seller, and Steinbeck became a respected writer. He adapted this novel into a play, which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1937.
The stress that came with success and fame hastened the collapse of Steinbeck's marriage, which ended in 1942. A year later, Steinbeck married dancer-singer Gwen Conger, with whom he had two sons—his only children—before their divorce in 1948. By 1950, Steinbeck had married his third wife, Elaine Scott.
After leaving California in the early 1940s, Steinbeck lived the rest of his life in New York City and on Long Island in New York. His final novel, published the year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, was The Winter of Our Discontent. The story focuses on the decline of the moral climate in America. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1962, only five other Americans had received the award: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway.
Accepting the Nobel Prize in Sweden, Steinbeck said: "The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement. Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat—for courage, compassion, and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature."
Steinbeck wrote no fiction after receiving the Nobel Prize. His reporting on the Vietnam War for Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, in 1967 caused many people to label him a hawk and a warmonger. Steinbeck died following a heart attack on December 20, 1968. He was sixty-six years old. His ashes were buried in Salinas, California.
Chapters 1-11: Leaving Oklahoma
The Grapes of Wrath follows the trials and tribulations of the Joad family as they leave the dust bowl of Oklahoma for a better life in California. The narrative begins as Tom Joad hitchhikes across the Oklahoma panhandle to his parents' forty-acre farm. Tom has just been paroled after serving four years in prison for manslaughter. He meets ex-preacher Jim Casy, who is alone and singing by the side of the road. Casy recounts his own fall, his doubts about the saving grace of religion, and his growing sense of a collective human spirit. When the two men arrive at the Joad farm, they find it abandoned. A neighbor, Muley Graves, explains how the banks have repossessed the family farms, forcing people to leave. The smell of their dinner brings the sheriff and the men have to hide in the fields.
At the house of Tom's Uncle John, Tom and Casy meet up with the Joads: Granma; Grampa; Ma; Pa; Noah, the eldest son, who is slightly crazy; Al, sixteen, who is a "tomcat" and a mechanic; Rose of Sharon who is four months pregnant and married to Connie Rivers; and Ruthie and Winfield, Tom's younger sister and brother. The Joads have seen handbills announcing work in California and are preparing for their departure by selling their possessions, slaughtering their pigs, and loading a secondhand car. Casy asks to go along and is accepted into the family. When the time comes to leave, Grampa refuses to go. He has lived his whole life in Oklahoma and he can't imagine starting over. At Tom's suggestion, they get him drunk and load him on the truck with the rest of the family.
Chapters 12-21: Into California
Once they leave Oklahoma, Tom becomes a fugitive for breaking the terms of his parole. The Joad family meets the Wilsons, another family traveling west. They camp together, and Grampa dies of a stroke in the Wilsons' tent. The Wilsons and Joads drive west on Route 66 until a rod in the Wilsons' car breaks. Ma refuses to let the families split up, so they wait while the young men search for a wrecking yard and a replacement part. At the California border, the families ready themselves for a night crossing of the Mojave desert. A man and his son, heading east, warn the group about the dire conditions facing migrants in California. Upon crossing the Colorado River into California, things take a turn for the worse. Noah vows to stay and wanders off along the river. The Wilsons decide not to go any farther. As the Joads make their night crossing, Granma dies. Ma, who is lying next to her, refuses to say a word for fear that they will stop.
They leave Granma's body with the local coroner and make their way to a Hooverville, a camp where the migrant workers live. The rumors they have heard are true. There is little or no work. The basic necessities are hard to come by and the residents of the state do not want "Okies" around. A contractor drives up looking for produce pickers. It is a trick—a sheriff's deputy is with the contractor and plans to arrest the "Okies" and clean out the camp. In the ensuing altercation, the deputy is knocked unconscious by Tom. Casy takes the blame and tells Tom to escape so he won't be returned to Oklahoma. Upon hearing about Casy's sacrifice, Uncle John gets drunk to drown his feeling of worthlessness. The family hears a rumor that the Hooverville will be burned to the ground by townspeople who are angry at the migrants. Tom leaves a message at the store for Connie, who has suddenly disappeared, abandoning Rose of Sharon for dreams of a three-dollar-a-day job driving corporate tractors in Oklahoma. As they leave, an angry mob warns them not to return. Tom drives the truck south in search of the government camp, with the glow of the Hooverville burning in the night behind them.
Chapters 22-30: The Reality of California
The Joads are lucky to arrive at the government camp just as a site has opened up. In the morning, neighbors share their breakfast with Tom and together they go to work for a small grower who is forced by the Farmers Association and Bank of the West to offer low wages. The grower warns them about a plot to shut down the government camp that Saturday night. Ma enjoys a tour of the facilities given by the camp's governing committee. Rose of Sharon, abandoned and vulnerable, has two frightening encounters with an evangelist. Pa, John, and Al search for work without luck.
That Saturday night, three outsiders try to start a fight at the dance but their attempt is quickly thwarted. At the same moment, the deputies try to enter the camp under the pretext of restoring law and order. They, too, are turned back.
Although the conditions in the government camp are the best the Joads have encountered, they cannot find work. They pack the car and drive north. A man tells them about work picking peaches. When they arrive, they are escorted by the police into the orchard. They soon realize they have been brought in as strikebreakers. That night, Tom slips under the fence surrounding the orchard and discovers Casy leading the strike. They are ambushed by an agent of the growers and Casy is killed. Tom avenges his friend by killing the agent. He sneaks back to camp and has to hide since the cut on his face will give him away.
With Casy's death, the strike is broken and the pickers' pay is cut in half. The Joads drive north, eventually commandeering half of an abandoned boxcar. Tom hides in the marsh. Ruthie gets in a fight and boasts that her brother has killed two men. Ma goes to the marsh to send her son away. When she expresses her concern for his safety, he soothes her with what he has learned from Casy.
The next day, a torrential rain falls and flood-waters rise. Rose of Sharon's sudden labor prevents the Joads from leaving the boxcar for higher ground. Several families stay to help Pa dig a dike. A giant tree topples, spins slowly through the water, and destroys the dike. The waters quickly rise, eliminating any chance for immediate escape. Rose of Sharon delivers a stillborn child. Eventually, the family is able to leave the boxcar. Al stays behind with his new bride-to-be. The family wades through the flood until they find a barn on higher ground. Inside are a boy and his father who is near death. As they settle in, Ma and Rose of Sharon exchange a look, and the novel ends with Rose of Sharon suckling the starving man with her breast milk.
Inserted into this narrative are sixteen chapters of varying prose styles and subjects. Although they do not directly involve members of the Joad family, these chapters introduce topics that are thematically or symbolically relevant to the main narrative. The first and last interchapters, for example, address the weather and climate: the first announcing the dust and its impact on the land, the last speaking to the California rain and floods. The second interchapter follows a turtle as it patiently makes its way over the land. Other chapters critique ownership, capitalism, and consumerism, or address the social impact of technology, cars and tractors. One provides a history of California that highlights how settlers stole the land from the Mexicans. Another explores how the Oklahomans killed the Indians for their land. Several interchapters fol-low the great westward movement of 200,000 people over Route 66 and chart their social evolution from farmers to migrants and their new relationships to canneries, land owners, and banks.
Jim Casy accompanies the Joad family on their journey from Oklahoma to California. He is a former preacher who has given up both Christian fundamentalism and sexuality, and is ready for a new life dedicated to helping people like the Joads. He is honest, compassionate, and courageous. Casy's new "religion" is based on love and a belief in each person's soul as well as an all-inclusive soul, the "Holy Spirit" of humanity. As critics have noted, these non-secular views of humanity can be traced to the transcendentalist philosophy of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Casy is a new convert to this transcendentalism.
Casy's initials (J. C.) have been cited as evidence that his character is a symbol of Jesus Christ. Moreover, his words and actions in the novel parallel those of Jesus Christ. For instance, he takes the blame for the deputy's beating at the Hooverville, and is taken to jail instead of Tom. His selfless struggle eventually leads him to become a strike organizer and leader. He is killed for this activism, and his last words recall those of Christ on the cross: "You fellas don' know what you're doin'." Through his actions, he helps Tom Joad to choose the same selfless path. Casy's new personal identity is an expression of a larger self, although such self-realization earns society's disapproval and is responsible for his murder.
Muley Graves is a classic example of the stubborn man; even his name is a pun on this trait. At the beginning of the novel, he refuses to leave Oklahoma. He is homeless and his isolation drives him somewhat insane. His pessimism and blind violence against "the Bank" and its representatives are rejected by the stronger Joads, whose essential optimism infuses their journey to California.
Al Joad is the third Joad son; he is younger than Noah and Tom, to whom he looks for guidance. Al is fond of cars and girls. He assumes a greater position in the family because of his mechanical knowledge, but he is not always mature enough to deal with the responsibility. He helps drive the family to California. He wants to leave the family and go on his own, but duty and love force him to stay.
Grampa Joad is rowdy and vigorous, like a "frantic child." He refuses to leave the family's farm in Oklahoma and has to be drugged so that the family can begin their journey. But Grampa's vigor declines drastically when he leaves the land he has grown up on, and he dies on the first night of the trip. Both Granma and Grampa die because they are incapable of absorbing a new, difficult experience. In addition, Grampa's stroke is probably caused in part by the "medicine" that Ma and Tom give him.
Granma Joad is deeply religious and energetic; she has thrived in her war of words with Grampa because "she was as mean as her husband." She is unable to adapt to a new way of life and the loss of her husband. She dies as the family crosses the Mojave Desert, and her burial in a pauper's grave violates her wishes. Her death outweighs the achievement of finally reaching California and foreshadows the reality to come.
Ma Joad is the matriarch and foundation of the Joad family. She is the basis for the family's strength in the face of all their hardships. Ma Joad often behaves heroically for the sake of the family, yet she also expresses her fears. Nonetheless, Ma is brave and intelligent. She is an example of the indestructible woman who at times is ignorant, wary, and suspicious of strangers. She has much family pride and is active and assertive on their behalf.
Ma Joad displays numerous traditionally masculine qualities without losing her femininity or her maternal instinct. She assumes authority to prevent the weakening of the family unit. Once Ma Joad assumes the power as the head of the family, the others do not resist her. She passes her strength and wisdom on to her daughter, Rose of Sharon. Ma's transformation is seen when she finally comes to accept commitments to people beyond her family. As she tells the Hooper store clerk, "I'm learnin' one thing good…. If you're in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help—the only ones."
Noah is the eldest Joad child. Slow, deliberate, and never angry, he is often mistaken as mentally challenged. Pa treats him kindly, because of his guilt over Noah's birth; scared by Ma's struggles, Pa tried to help deliver Noah and injured his head. Midway through the journey to California, Noah gives up the struggle to survive the arduous trip.
Before the Joad family leaves Oklahoma, Pa Joad is considered the head of the clan. As the family travels, however, Pa loses his authority in the family to Ma Joad and his son Al. Ma's enduring faith in the family eventually gives her final say on decisions, while Al's mechanical ability makes him important because the family needs the car for their journey to California. This loss of Pa Joad's authority represents the shift in values within the family. Pa carries the family's burdens, although he is constantly challenged by Ma. Each time Ma asserts her newfound leadership, she meets with Pa's resentment. Nevertheless, he realizes that she has necessarily usurped his authority and does not act out his anger. His powerlessness is somewhat exorcised when he leads the boxcar migrants in a group effort to save their temporary homes from the flood. Throughout the novel, Pa's common sense, dependability, and steadfastness contrast with Uncle John's melancholy and Connie's immaturity.
Twelve years old, Ruthie is the youngest daughter of the Joads. She is a selfish individual who has not learned her correct place in the social group. She learns a hard lesson when she is ostracized by the other children at the government camp for trying to take over their croquet game. In a childish fight, she reveals to another child that Tom has killed a man. This disclosure finally forces Tom to flee the family. Ruthie has a tendency towards cruelty that is aggravated by the family's hard luck. Her childish behavior shows how poverty can make even an innocent person harsh.
Tom Joad killed a man in self-defense and has just been released from an Oklahoma state prison. Tom is depicted as wary, insensitive, skeptical, matter-of-fact, and confident. He has an ability to adapt and is a shrewd judge of character. At the beginning of the novel, Tom is only concerned with survival and keeping his prison record a secret. He is looking for peace and quiet at his family's farm. He undergoes a transformation in the course of the novel; by the end of the story, he believes in the potential of humanity's perfection and universality of spirit. Tom demonstrates this through social action, for instance, as he organizes the migrant farm laborers in California. Although Tom is emotionally numb from his experience in prison, he is by nature inquisitive: he always asks questions and is always seeking answers in life. Tom is forced to leave his family at the end of the novel.
Tom Joad Sr.
Uncle John Joad
John Joad, or Uncle John, is a prisoner of his guilt over his wife's death years before. Uncle John's melancholy balances the family's experiences. His sense of guilt causes him to blame all the family's misfortunes on what he thinks of as his sin: his failure to call a doctor when his wife complained of illness. As a result of this emotional scar, he has become an alcoholic. Uncle John's lifelong sense of guilt is transformed into anger when he sets Rose of Sharon's stillborn baby afloat in a box on the river to remind townspeople that they are starving children by their failure to help the migrants.
William James Joad
Ten-year-old Winfield is the youngest child of the Joad family. He is treated cruelly by his sister Ruthie, yet Winfield retains his innocence. Unlike their grandparents, who die when uprooted from Oklahoma, the youngest Joads are "planted" in California and will perhaps take root there, fulfilling Ma's statement that "the people will go on."
When the Joad family meets him outside of Bakersfield, Floyd Knowles tries to warn Al and the other men about the difficulties they will face in California. After Al helps him fix his car, he tells the family of potential work. When a contractor comes to the Hooverville to look for workers, Floyd's questions lead the police to try to arrest him. During the scuffle, Jim Casy kicks the deputy in the head and takes the blame for the fight.
A small, friendly man, Jim Rawley is the manager of the government camp. He makes Ma feel comfortable her first day at the camp, and his simple kindness almost drives Ma to tears. Even though Pa mistrusts him at first, to Ma he symbolizes the goodness of a community who allows the poor their dignity.
- The Grapes of Wrath was adapted as a film by Twentieth Century Fox in 1940. The film was directed by John Ford and starred Henry Fonda as Tom Joad; Jane Darwell as Ma Joad; Doris Bowdon as Rose of Sharon; and John Carradine as Jim Casy. The screenplay was written by Nunnally Johnson; the cinematography was by Gregg Toland. The film won two Academy Awards: for Best Director (John Ford) and Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell). It also won two awards from the New York Film Critics Circle for 1940: Best Director (Ford), and Best Film. Available from Fox Video, Baker & Taylor Video, Home Vision Cinema.
- The Grapes of Wrath was also adapted as an audio cassette (58 minutes), Dolby processed, published by Harper Audio in New York City. Read by Henry Fonda, who starred as Tom Joad in the 1940 movie, the sound recording contains excerpts from the novel about the plight of the migrants during the 1930s. Harper Audio, 1994.
- The novel was also adapted as a 58-minute audio cassette by Caedmon Inc. in 1978.
Connie is Rose of Sharon's nineteen-year-old husband who is "frightened and bewildered" by the changes his wife's pregnancy has brought upon her. He constantly talks of educating himself by correspondence in order to get a good job, but he is all talk and no action. He often tells Rose of Sharon that he should have stayed behind in Oklahoma and taken a job driving a tractor. Although he is described as "a good hard worker [who] would make a good husband," he eventually deserts Rose of Sharon because he has no faith in the family's struggle to find a better life in California. Connie's values can be connected with those of "the Bank": a focus on acquiring money and learning about technology in order to advance in the world. He also serves as a contrast and warning to Al Joad, whose fondness for the ladies could put him in the same situation. Unlike Connie, Al sticks it out with his family and wife.
Rose of Sharon is the elder Joad daughter. Still a teen, she is already married and pregnant. Throughout most of the novel, she thinks only of herself and her unborn child. She is depicted as a sheltered and thoughtless teenager. Yet Rose of Sharon undergoes a transformation during her pregnancy, which coincides with the difficult journey to California.
With Ma's guidance, she grows from child to adult. As she prepares to change roles from daughter to mother, she becomes "balanced, careful, wise." She endures much hardship, including the birth of her stillborn child, and by the end of the novel, she is ready to take her place with Ma Joad as a pillar of the family. It is clear that Rose of Sharon will succeed Ma as matriarch; in fact, she becomes something of an extension of Ma. Right until the end of the novel, she is referred to as a girl, but in the final scene, Steinbeck makes clear that Rose of Sharon and Ma are equals. He writes, "and the two women looked deep into each other." When Rose of Sharon feeds the starving man from her breast, she takes her place as the indestructible matriarch who, by her selfless act, comes to signify hope and survival of the people. It is through Rose of Sharon's selfless human gesture that the author symbolizes and emphasizes the most effective method of survival against oppression and exploitation: that people must develop compassion for their fellow human beings.
Rosasharn Joad Rivers
Ivy and Sairy Wilson
Ivy and Sairy Wilson are a married couple that the Joads meet on the first night of their journey. They camp next to the Joads, and lend their tent to the sick Grampa, who subsequently dies. The Wilsons split from the Joads at California's Mojave Desert because Sairy Wilson is dying and is in too much pain to continue. That action contrasts with the Joads' choice, which is to turn back in spite of death.
The Joads experience many hardships, deprivations, and deaths, and at the end of the novel are barely surviving. Nevertheless, the mood of the novel is optimistic. This positive feeling is derived from the growth of the Joad family as they begin to realize a larger group consciousness at the end of the novel. The development of this theme can be seen particularly in Ma Joad, from her focus on keeping the family together to her recognition of the necessity of identifying with the group. "Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do," Ma says in the final chapter.
Hope comes from the journey that educates and enlightens some of the Joads, including Ma, Tom, Pa, John, Rose of Sharon, and also Jim Casy. On the surface, the family's long journey is an attempt at the "good life," the American dream. Yet this is not the only motive. In fact, the members of the family who cannot see beyond this materialistic goal leave the family along the way: Noah, Connie, and Al. The Joads travel from their traditional life that offered security, through chaos on the road and on into California. There, they look for a new way of life, and a larger understanding of the world. And whether or not the remaining Joads live or die in California, their journey has been successful. Hope survives, as the people survive, because they want to understand and master their lives in the face of continual discouragement.
The conflict in the novel between the impoverished migrants and the established, secure business people and Californians serves as a strong criticism of economic injustice. In fact, The Grapes of Wrath can be read as a social comment on the economic disasters of the time. The migrants' agrarian way of life has all but disappeared, threatened not only by nature's drought and dust storms, but also by big farms and financial establishments, called "the Bank." At the beginning of the novel, the owners and the banks push the tenants off of their land. Later the arrival of hundreds of thousands of poor people causes conflict in California.
The migrants represent trouble for businessmen in the form of higher taxes, labor unions, and possible government interference. The potential for future conflict is understood by all the business owners: if the migrants ever organize, they will se-riously threaten the financial establishment. The Joads' travails dramatize such economic and social conflicts. In California, the conflict between the two sides grows violent as the migrants' desperation increases. The government camps are harassed or even burned down by angry state residents with financial interests.
There are also conflicts within the family that reflect the materialistic concerns of this class conflict. Rose of Sharon is preoccupied with her pregnancy and daydreams of the future. Her husband, Connie, wanted to stay in Oklahoma, and he does little to help the family on the road. Finally he disappears. Uncle John is consumed with worry and frustration. The children, Ruthie and Winfield, are selfish and restless. The hardships of dispossessed families are made personal and individual in the account of the Joads.
Fanaticism—both as a religious fundamentalism and as a social phenomenon—is condemned in the novel. During Tom's first meeting with Jim Casy, the former preacher talks about his discovery that organized religion denies life, particularly sexuality. He in fact had found a connection between the "Holy Spirit" and sexuality when he was a preacher. Later, in the government camp, Rose of Sharon is frightened by a fanatic religious woman's warning that dancing is sinful and that it means that Rose of Sharon will lose her baby. In addition, the religious fanatic tells Ma that religion approves of an economic class system that incorporates poverty. She tells Ma: "(A preacher) says they's wicketness in that camp. He says, 'The poor is tryin' to be rich.' He says, 'They's dancin' an' huggin' when they should be wailin' an' moanin' in sin.'" This type of religious fanaticism is shown to be a denial of life and is associated with business in its economic deprivation and denial.
One of the most profound lessons from the story of the Joads and their real-life American counterparts is that one of the causes of the crises of the 1930s in California was social fanaticism and prejudice shown to the "Okies." The fear of the migrants, combined with the lack of faith in the government's ability to solve the temporary problems, often caused violence. It also led to such shameful events as starvation, malnutrition, and homeless-ness. In retrospect, it is obvious that World War II "solved" the migrant problem by absorbing the manpower into the war effort. How much better it would have been if California had developed emergency solutions for this period of great social transition that could have served as an historical example.
Topics for Further Study
- Compare and contrast the current conditions of migrant farm workers in California with those of the migrants of the 1930s. Research current labor laws protecting the rights of these workers today. Have conditions improved in the last sixty years?
- Besides drought, one cause for the tragedy of the Dust Bowl was poor farming practices—including overgrazing by cattle and failure of farmers to rotate their crops—which exhausted the land's resources. How have farming practices changed since the 1930s to protect and manage the land to help ensure it will remain fertile for future generations?
- The mass migration of the Okies to California was caused by drought and economic depression. What other important mass migrations have occurred in U. S. history? Research the reasons behind these migrations and discuss the effects they have had on local economies and societies.
Individual vs. Society
The novel demonstrates the individual's instinct to organize communities within the groups of migrants in roadside camps. "In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream." The people cooperate because it is beneficial to their welfare in order to survive. Yet Steinbeck develops the concept of the group beyond the political, social, and moral level to include the mystical and transcendental. Jim Casy reflects this when he says: "Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of." The conversion of Tom, Ma, Rose of Sharon, and Casy to a "we" state of mind occurs over the course of the novel. As they gradually undergo suffering, they learn to transcend their own pain and individual needs. At the end, all four are able to recognize the nature and needs of others. The process of transcendence that occurs in these characters illustrates Steinbeck's belief in the capacity of humanity to move from what he calls an "I" to a "We" consciousness.
The Joads are also on an inward journey. For them, suffering and homelessness become the means for spiritual growth and a new consciousness. Ma sums up this new consciousness and what it means to her when she says: "Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody." Yet although each of the four characters undergoes a spiritual transformation, each also finds an individual way to help others in the world and to take action. At the end, Tom has decided to become a leader in the militant organizing of the migrants. Ma accepts her commitments to people other than her family. Rose of Sharon loses her baby but comes to understand the "we" of the starving man to whom she blissfully gives life as if he were her child. Casy, who has been jailed, reappears as a strike leader and union organizer, having discovered that he must work to translate his understanding of the holiness of life into social action. Casy dies when vigilantes attack the strikers and kill him first.
Steinbeck makes clear that this potential for transcendental consciousness is what makes human beings different from other creatures in nature. In Chapter 14, Steinbeck describes humanity's willingness to "die for a concept" as the "one quality [that] is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe."
Steinbeck develops extensively the theme of social commitment. Both Casy and Tom were inspired to make Christ-like sacrifices. When Jim Casy surrenders to the deputies in place of Tom and Floyd, Jim is acting on his commitment to love all people. He later becomes a labor organizer and dies in his efforts. His statement to Tom, "An' sometimes I love 'em fit to bust…," exemplifies his commitment. In Tom, the development of commitment is even more striking. At the beginning of the novel, Tom is determined to avoid involvement with people. After his experiences on the journey and through his friendship with Casy, Tom becomes committed to social justice. His commitment extends to a mystical identification with the people. When Ma worries that Tom may also be killed like Casy, Tom tells her: "Then I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. Wherever there'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."
Point of View
The novel is narrated in the third-person voice ("he"/"she"/"it"). What is particularly significant about this technique is that the point of view varies in tone and method, depending on the author's purpose. The novel's distinctive feature is its sixteen inserted, or intercalary, chapters (usually the odd-numbered chapters) that provide documentary information for the reader. These chapters give social and historical background of the mid-1930s Depression era, especially as it affects migrants like the Joads.
These inserted chapters range from descriptions of the Dust Bowl and agricultural conditions in Oklahoma, to California's history, to descriptions of roads leading west from Oklahoma. In the more restricted chapters that focus on the Joads, the point of view shifts to become close and dramatic. In addition, many of the inserted chapters contain basic symbols of the novel: land, family, and the conflict between the migrants and the people who represent the bank and agribusiness. The turtle in Chapter 3 symbolizes Nature's struggle and the will to survive. It characterizes the will to survive of the Joads and "the people."
John Steinbeck wrote some of his best fiction about the area where he grew up. The territory that Steinbeck wrote about is an area covering thousands of square miles in central California. He particularly used the Long Valley as a setting in his fiction, which extends south of Salinas, Steinbeck's hometown. The Long Valley, covering more than one hundred miles, lies between the Gabilan Mountains to the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains on the Pacific Coast. The major site of The Grapes of Wrath is the San Joaquin Valley, which lies east of the Long Valley and the Gabilan Mountains. The Long Valley is also the general setting for Of Mice and Men (1937) and East of Eden (1952), two of Steinbeck's other well-known works. This rich agricultural area is an ironic setting for a novel that examines the economic and social problems affecting people during the Depression. It was no promised land for the Joads and others like them.
One of Steinbeck's major achievements is his remarkable descriptions of the environment and nature's effects on social history. He was also ahead of his time in writing about the circumstances of the migrant workers and small farmers fighting corporate farms and the financial establishment decades before such subjects gained national press coverage in the 1970s.
The major symbol in the novel is the family, which stands for the larger "family" of humanity. The Joads are at the center of the dramatic aspects of the novel, and they illustrate human strengths and weaknesses. Dangers in nature and in society disrupt the family, but they survive economic and natural disasters, just as humanity does. At the end, the Joads themselves recognize they are part of a larger family. The land itself is a symbol that is equated in the novel with a sense of personal identity. What the Joads actually suffer when they lose their Oklahoma farm is a sense of identity, which they struggle to rediscover during their journey and in California. Pa Joad, especially, loses his spirit after the family is "tractored off" their land. He must cede authority in the family to Ma after their loss.
There is also a sequence of Judeo-Christian symbols throughout the novel. The Joads, like the Israelites, are a homeless and persecuted people looking for the promised land. Jim Casy can be viewed as a symbol of Jesus Christ, who began His mission after a period of solitude in the wilderness. Casy is introduced in the novel after a similar period of retreat. And later, when Casy and Tom meet in the strikers' tent, Casy says he has "been a-gin' into the wilderness like Jesus to try to find out sumpin." Also, Jim Casy has the same initials as Jesus Christ. Like Christ, Casy finally offers himself as the sacrifice to save his people. Casy's last words to the man who murders him are significant: "Listen, you fellas don' know what you're doing." And just before he dies, Casy repeats: "You don' know what you're a-doin'." When Jesus Christ was crucified, He said, "Father forgive them; they know not what they do." Tom becomes Casy's disciple after his death. Tom is ready to continue his teacher's work, and it has been noted that two of Jesus's disciples were named Thomas.
Biblical symbols from both Old and New Testament stories occur throughout the novel. Twelve Joads start on their journey from Oklahoma, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve disciples of Christ (with Jim Casy, the Christ figure) on their way to spiritual enlightenment by a messiah. Like Lot's wife, Grampa is reluctant to leave his homeland, and his refusal to let go of the past brings his death. Later, the narrative emphasizes this symbolism when Tom selects a Scripture verse for Grampa's burial that quotes Lot. The shifts between the Old and New testaments coalesce with Jim Casy, whose ideas about humanity and a new social gospel parallel Christ's new religion two thousand years ago. Biblical myths also inform the final scene through a collection of symbols that demonstrate the existence of a new order in the Joads' world. As the Joads seek refuge from the flood in a dry barn, the narrative offers symbols of the Old Testament deluge (Noah's ark), the New Testament stable where Christ was born (the barn), and the mysterious rite of Communion as Rose of Sharon breast feeds the starving man. With this ending, it is clear that this is a new beginning for the Joads. All the symbols express hope and regeneration despite the continuing desperate circumstances.
Allusions, or literary references, to grapes and vineyards are made throughout the novel, carrying Biblical and economic connotations. The title of the novel, from Julia Ward Howe's poem "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," is itself an allusion dating back to the Bible's Old Testament. In Isaiah 63:4-6, a man tramples grapes in his wrath: "For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come. I looked, but there was no helper; I stared, but there was no one to sustain me; so my own arm brought me victory, and my wrath sustained me. I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth." Steinbeck's first wife, Carol, suggested the title after hearing the lyrics of the patriotic hymn: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored." Steinbeck loved the title and wrote to his agent: "I think it is Carol's best title so far. I like it 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. And I like it because people know the 'Battle Hymn' who don't know the 'Star Spangled Banner.'"
Indeed, Steinbeck knew that his unfinished novel was revolutionary and that it would be condemned by many people as Communist propaganda. So the title was especially suitable because it carried an American patriotic stamp that Steinbeck hoped would deflect charges of leftist influence. He decided that he wanted the complete hymn, its words and music, printed on the endpapers at the front and back of the book. He wrote his publisher: "The fascist crowd will try to sabotage this book because it is revolutionary. They will try to give it the communist angle. However, the 'Battle Hymn' is American and intensely so. Further, every American child learns it and then forgets the words. So if both the words and music are there the book is keyed into the American scene from the beginning."
An allegory is a story in which characters and events have a symbolic meaning that points to general human truths. The turtle in Chapter 3 is the novel's best-known use of allegory. The patient turtle proceeds along a difficult journey over the dust fields of Oklahoma, often meeting obstacles, but always able to survive. Like the Joads, the turtle is moving southwest, away from the drought. When a trucker swerves to hit the turtle, the creature survives, just as the Joads survive the displacement from their land. Later, Tom finds a turtle and Casy comments: "Nobody can't keep a turtle though. They work at it and work at it, and at last one day they get out and away they go—off somewheres." The turtle is hit by a truck, carried off by Tom, attacked by a cat and a red ant, yet, like the Joads and "the people," he is indomitable with a fierce will to survive. He drags himself through the dust and unknowingly plants a seed for the future.
Troubles for Farmers
The story of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath begins during the Great Depression, but troubles for American farmers had begun years before that. Having enjoyed high crop prices during World War I when supplies of food were short and European markets were disabled, American farmers borrowed heavily from banks to invest in land and equipment. After the war, however, prices for wheat, corn, and other crops plummeted as European farmers returned to their businesses, and American farmers were unable to repay their loans. Thus, in the 1920s, while much of the country was enjoying economic good times, farmers in the United States were in trouble. Banks began to foreclose on loans, often evicting families from their homes. Families who rented acreage from landowners who had defaulted on loans would, like the Joads, be evicted from their homes. The situation, of course, became much worse after the stock market crash of 1929.
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl
In October, 1929, stock prices dropped precipitously, causing businesses and banks to fail internationally and wiping out the savings of many families. Over the next few years, unemployment rates soared up to twenty-five percent. Although there is much disagreement today about the causes of the stock market crash, many analysts feel that the root of the problem was weaknesses in the coal, textile, and farming industries. Forty percent of the working population in America at the time were farmers. When low crop prices made it difficult or impossible for consumers to buy items such as radios and refrigerators, it had a significant impact on the economy. Goods began to pile up in warehouses with no customers to buy them, leading to the sudden devaluation of company stocks.
The resulting pressure on banks to collect on loans caused them to evict many farmers. However, this wasn't the only problem that plagued farm families. Six years of severe droughts hit the Midwest during the 1930s, causing crops to fail. This, compounded by poor farming practices such as overgrazing and failure to rotate crops, caused the land to wither and dry up. Great dust storms resulted that buried entire communities in sand. More than five million square miles of land from Texas to North Dakota and Arkansas to New Mexico were affected. The Midwest came to be called the Dust Bowl. Although no one escaped the economic pain this caused, small farm families similar to the Joads were the hardest hit. Of these states, Oklahoma was especially hard-pressed. Dispossessed farming families migrated from their state to California by the thousands. These people were called "Okies," although many of the migrant workers were from states other than Oklahoma.
Migrant Camps and Labor Unions
Upon taking office in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a comprehensive agenda of government programs to combat the Depression. Collectively called the New Deal, these programs included new federal agencies designed to create employment opportunities and to improve the lot of workers and the unemployed. Among the many such agencies, the one that most directly touched the Okies' lives was the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Operating under the authority of the Department of Agriculture, in 1936 the FSA began building camps in California in which the homeless migrants could live. Ten such camps were finished by the following year. Steinbeck visited several in his research for The Grapes of Wrath. He had the Joads stay at one—the Arvin Sanitary Camp, also called the Weedpatch Camp, in Kern County. The intention was that the orchard owners would follow this example and build larger, better shelters for their migrant workers. This never came about, however, and many families ended up staying at the uncomfortable federal camps for years.
In an attempt to defend their right to earn living wages, migrant workers tried to organize labor unions. Naturally, this was strongly discouraged by the growers, who had the support of the police, who often used brute force. In Kern County in 1938, for example, a mob led by a local sheriff burned down an Okie camp that had become a center for union activity.
When the novel was published on March 14, 1939, 50,000 copies were on order, a remarkable number for a Depression-era book. By the end of April, The Grapes of Wrath was selling 2,500 copies a day. By May, it was the number-one bestseller and was selling 10,000 copies a week. At the end of the year, close to a half-million copies had been sold. It was the top seller of 1939 and remained a best-seller throughout 1940. Since then, the novel has been continuously in print.
Despite its overwhelming popularity, the novel did not receive only favorable reviews. Journalists who wrote early reviews in the newspapers were not particularly impressed with the book. Steinbeck had broken many of the "rules" of fiction writing with his novel. Several reviewers could not understand the novel's unconventional structure. In Newsweek, Burton Roscoe wrote that the book has some "magnificent passages" but that it also contains factual errors (including statements that the Dust Bowl extended into eastern Oklahoma when that region of the state had actually remained fertile) and misleading propaganda. A reviewer in Time magazine criticized the chapters that did not describe the Joads' story, saying they were "not a successful fiction experiment." In the New Yorker, Clifton Fadiman wrote that the novel "dramatizes so that you cannot forget the terrible facts of a wholesale injustice committed by society," yet he also wrote that the latter half of the book was "too detailed."
Similarly, other critics found fault with the structure of the novel. Louis Kronenberger in the Nation and Malcolm Cowley in the New Republic criticized the latter half of the book and particularly the ending. Other magazine reviewers, especially those writing for monthlies and literary quarterlies, did not focus entirely on the sociological aspects of the novel and considered its artistic merit. These reviewers, on the whole, recognized that Steinbeck had written a seminal and innovative novel. The editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Edward Weeks, wrote that it was a "novel whose hunger, passion, and poetry are in direct answer to the angry stirring of our conscience these past seven years." Weeks found the novel almost "too literal, too unsparing," yet he could "only hope that the brutality dodgers will take my word for it that it is essentially a healthy and disciplined work of art."
In the North American Review, Charles Angoff defended the novel: "With his latest novel, Mr. Steinbeck at once joins the company of Hawthorne, Melville, Crane and Norris, and easily leaps to the forefront of all his contemporaries. The book has all the earmarks of something momentous, monumental, and memorable…. The book has the proper faults: robust looseness and lack of narrative defi-niteness—faults such as can be found in the Bible, Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, and Jude the Obscure. The greater artists almost never conform to the rules of their art as set down by those who do not practice it."
One early reviewer who summed up the novel's greatness was Joseph Henry Jackson in the New York Herald Tribune Books. Jackson was the book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and had followed Steinbeck's career. He wrote in his review of April 16, 1939, that the novel was the finest book that Steinbeck had written. The review stated: "It is easy to grow lyrical about The Grapes of Wrath, to become excited about it, to be stirred to the shouting point by it. Perhaps it is too easy to lose balance in the face of such an extraordinarily moving performance. But it is also true that the effect of the book lasts. The author's employment, for example, of occasional chapters in which the undercurrent of the book is announced, spoken as a running accompaniment to the story, with something of the effect of the sound track in Pare Lorentz's The River—that lasts also, stays with you, beats rhythmically in your mind long after you have put the book down. No, the reader's instant response is more than quick enthusiasm, more than surface emotionalism. This novel of America's new disinherited is a magnificent book. It is, I think for the first time, the whole Steinbeck, the mature novelist saying something he must say and doing it with the sure touch of the great artist."
In this overview of The Grapes of Wrath, Henry, a professor at the University of Minnesota, declares that Steinbeck's work still has relevance today, as it addresses the distinct issues of social classes and the importance of community.
The Grapes of Wrath is arguably John Steinbeck's finest novel and the summation of his California experience. His first two novels received little attention from the critics or the public. His third, Tortilla Flat (1935), a novel set in his native Monterey, found a national audience. He followed this success with In Dubious Battle (1936) and Of Mice and Men (1937), novels that explore the conditions suffered by migrant workers in California. These conditions were made worse by the massive influx of Midwesterners who had fled the drought and the economic depression of the 1930s. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) recounts the plight of the underclass in the story of the Joads, a family from Oklahoma, who lose their farm and travel to California, the land of milk and honey, only to find their hopes and expectations dashed. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.
The Grapes of Wrath traces the decline of the family and the rise of the community as the basic unit of social structure in the United States. What precipitated this evolution is a social and economic situation that no longer allowed family farms to provide enough income for a family to survive. With the industrial revolution and the development of tractors, family farms were giving way to factory farming. One of the difficulties Steinbeck faced was how to demonstrate the shared plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced peoples without lapsing into abstractions. On the other hand, were he to tell the story of one person or one family, he would risk obscuring the universal nature of their distress. Steinbeck resolved this problem in several ways. By writing his narrative in the third person and diffusing attention across several characters, he prevents readers from sympathizing too closely with any one individual. To support his universal thesis, Steinbeck intersperses chapters within the Joads' story that move the narrative away from the Joads in order to discuss Judeo-Christian and American sociopolitical traditions that relate to the novel's themes.
Of the novel's thirty chapters, only fourteen tell the story of the Joads. The other sixteen chapters offer thematic or symbolic counterpoints to the story of the Joads. An early chapter, for example, follows a turtle's indomitable progress over the land and across a highway, where it is struck by a passing vehicle. Subsequently, the seeds caught on the turtle's shell are inadvertently planted as they are plowed into the soil. The turtle serves as a sym-bol for the Okies, their movement, and their indomitable will, which tie their destiny to the land.
Other chapters, from descriptions of apocalyptic dust and floods, to the presentation of used-car salesmen, the selling of household items, and the flight of 200,000 migrants over Route 66, expand the focus beyond the particular plight of the Joads. Steinbeck augments this movement from the particular to the universal by employing a diversity of narrative styles, thereby giving voice to a nation in transition. For example, in one chapter he uses the cadences of a used-car salesman trying to fast-talk his customers. In other chapters, he employs the diction, phrasing, and sentence structures of the Bible, of the poets Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, and of the colloquial speech patterns of the Okies. Still other chapters follow the conventions of journalism and documentaries.
What Do I Read Next?
- In Dubious Battle, (1936), is John Steinbeck's first book of a trilogy by the author that looks at the migrant labor problem in the 1930s. The novel focuses on labor organizers and a strike in California's apple fields. The book caused controversy when it was published.
- Of Mice and Men (1937) is the second book in Steinbeck's trilogy of migrant farmers. It is about two migrants, one who is mentally handicapped, and how their dreams of a better life can never be realized because of the oppressive social system.
- Emile Zola's Germinal (1885) is set in a French mining town. The main character in the novel, Etienne Lantier, witnesses how the families of the working class are destroyed by a social environment that sees people only as disposable resources. It is a fate that Etienne is unable to change.
- The Octopus (1901) by Frank Norris, is the first in Norris's "Trilogy of the Wheat." It is set in the San Joaquin Valley of California and addresses the abuses of railroad companies on the local wheat farmers. Norris was concerned with the question of how a Judeo-Christian ethic can exist in a harsh and uncaring world
- In the nonfiction book Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California, (1939) by Carey McWilliams, the author takes a look at the migrant labor problem in his study published the same year as The Grapes of Wrath.
- Justin Kaplan's Lincoln Steffens: A Biography (1974) is a look at one of the most famous muckrakers of American journalism. Steffens wrote a series of articles in 1902–1903 that exposed corruption in various city governments. He was one of America's renowned social critics and a great voice for reform. As an old man living in Carmel, California, in the 1930s, he and John Steinbeck became friends, and Steffens was the link who provided Steinbeck with his knowledge of migrant labor and contacts with union organizers that eventually led to his assignment to cover the migrants for the San Francisco Chronicle. Kaplan's book won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
- James N. Gregory's American Exodus: The Dust Bowl and Okie Culture in California (1989) is an account of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and the migration to California depicted in The Grapes of Wrath.
The novel is divided loosely into thirds, according to the setting of the action. In Oklahoma, the Joads ready themselves for their journey; across Route 66, they flee the Dust Bowl for the promised land; and, in California, they attempt to make a new life for themselves. This division supports a pointed analogy to the Old Testament exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt to Canaan. The Dust Bowl's drought and the banks' persecutions parallel Egypt's plagues and the Pharaoh's oppressions. The journey undertaken by hundreds of thousands of displaced Midwesterners is similar to that of the Hebrews. California is the land of milk and honey, but its citizens are less than welcoming to the migrants. Similarly, Canaan, the promised land of the Old Testament, resisted the influx of Hebrews. More specific parallels follow from the analogy. For example, the family name of Joad invokes Judah; the slaughtering of pigs just before the Joads depart is similar to the sacrifice of lambs; and the grandparents die on the journey, just as do the elders during the exodus. These and other references to the Old Testament help Steinbeck universalize the Joads, though not without cost. Some critics have found that by the end of the novel, Ma, Tom, Rose of Sharon, and the other characters serve little more than an allegorical or symbolic function. They, therefore, seem to lose some of their human appeal.
The novel also has its parallels to the New Testament in its language, imagery, and the values it conveys. Jim Casy's teachings and his self-sacrifice evoke Jesus Christ's teachings and his sacrifice. From this perspective, parallels emerge between the twelve Joads and the twelve apostles. Connie, for example, is a Judas figure who leaves the family for an alleged three dollars a day. As strong as these references to the Judeo-Christian tradition are, however, The Grapes of Wrath is not an exercise in piety. Steinbeck strikes a decidedly anti-religious tone early in the novel, where Casy explains why he has given up his ministry. Moreover, the evangelists who preach sin and damnation in the camps are treated with scorn.
A second major strain of social and political thought comes from nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America. Casy recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson and his theory of the transcendental oversoul when he says that everyone "jus' got a little piece of a great big soul," an idea that is later picked up by Tom. But Emerson's emphasis on individualism falls by the wayside in Steinbeck's novel. When he shares his string of rabbits with Tom and Casy, Muley Graves gives an early nod to the novel's communal undertones: "I ain't got no choice in the matter," he says, "… if a fella's got somepin to eat an' another fella's hungry—why, the first fella ain't got no choice." From the Wilsons' sharing of their resources with the Joads on the road, to the final scene—Rose of Sharon's giving her breast milk to a starving man—the novel displays the importance of a mass democracy.
Ma recognizes that the power of the people is in their community. She worries Tom will do something foolish after learning that the banks have foreclosed on farms throughout Oklahoma: "Tommy, don't you go fightin' 'em alone. They'll hunt you down like a coyote. Tommy, I got to thinkin' an' dreamin' an' wonderin'. They say there's a hun'erd thousand of us shoved out. If we was all mad the same way, Tommy—they wouldn't hunt nobody down—." The novel also demonstrates the pragmatism of philosophers William James and John Dewey, who argued that political, social, or economic ideas are only important or relevant in their practical consequences in the world. The world in The Grapes of Wrath is a world of action.
Although Steinbeck gave a democratic voice to the migrant workers, the emphasis upon community and the general critique of capitalism and exploitation led to early charges that the novel advocated communist principles. Protests followed, fueled in part by the character Jim Casy's rejection of religion. These protests focused attention not on the novel as a work of literature, but on issues of representation and whether it depicted reality or was merely propaganda. There was little doubt that the social and economic conditions of the migrant workers were as Steinbeck reported. He had toured the Hoovervilles and had worked with the migrants in 1936. Issues of representation, therefore, were not about the specific details of the Hoovervilles and the orchards, but about the entire socioeconomic system, whether or not it was failing, and what to do about it. In this debate, the Joads moved from the world of fiction to impact the real world, much as earlier novels (Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example) had forced social change. This debate continues in light of the social, political, and economic changes in the fifty years since the novel's publication. Although the Joads, Jim Casy, and the thousands of migrants are firmly rooted in the circumstances of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath also rewards interpretations informed by more recent trends in criticism. Thus, the novel is still relevant with regard to questions about the role of children in the novel, the distinct issues of class, and the decided victimization of people of other races or nationalities.
Source: Richard Henry, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Burress provides an overview of The Grapes of Wrath and rejects the claims that the novel is sympathetic to atheism and to communism.
Steinbeck's success in creating a potent or powerful novel may be seen in the characters of the novel, in the complete structure of the novel, in the use of symbols especially the contrast of the ani-mal with the mechanical aspects of life, in the powerful and varying prose styles of the novel and finally in a set of themes that reflect traditional American values. Moreover, in several of these aspects of the novel, Steinbeck drew on Biblical and religious materials that add to the richness and depth of the book.
The novel's ability to catch and keep the reader's interest owes much to its characters, whom Steinbeck has endowed with vitality and thematic significance. Many readers have seen embodiments of basic Christian virtues in such characters as Ma Joad, Tom Joad, Jim Casy, and Rose of Sharon. Tom Joad's growth in insight illustrates one of the important themes in the novel. Whether Tom or Jim Casy best illustrates a Christ figure depends on the reader's interpretation of the novel; each character has seemed to some readers to be illustrative of Christ's self-sacrificial life.
The structure of the novel is based on the Joads' journey westward. The journey gives the novel a mythical quality and achieves emotional power by relating the Joads' journey to that of many previous journeys, including the exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egypt to the promised land as well as westward journeys of the American Western myth. The ironic differences between the promised land found by the Hebrews in Palestine and the tragic plight of the Joads in California is not lost on the reader.
Steinbeck's use of a series of interludes as he tells the story of the Joads is an effective method of relating the particularities of the Joad family to a more universal set of realities. There are sixteen of these interchapters; these do not refer to the Joads, Wilsons, or Wainwrights. Instead, Steinbeck uses these chapters to tell of the larger significance of the situation in which the Joads find themselves. The interchapters draw on the material which Steinbeck had found in his visits to the migrant camps and his observations of the general situation of drought and depression.
Several of the memorable features of the novel appear in these interchapters, the turtle in chapter three, the tractor episode in chapter five in which an old farmhouse is destroyed by an enormous tractor. The farmer stands helplessly by with a rifle. The observation that nature imitates art, that life is often parallel to great works of literature, is illustrated by the tragic event in Minnesota in which a farmer, dispossessed of his farm by the bank that owned the mortgage, shot and killed two officials of the bank, then later killed himself. Would that farmer have committed such a violent and useless act if he had read and thought about The Grapes of Wrath?
Chapter eleven describes a vacant house, symbolic of the many vacant houses left across the deserted rural landscape. In other interchapters, Steinbeck discusses land ownership in California, the development of the migratory labor situation, and the accompanying results for society. In the final interchapter Steinbeck describes the rain which sets the scene for the last chapter of the book with its poignant episode of Rose of Sharon feeding the starving old man.
While some readers have felt that scene unrealistic, others have seen in it a poetic, or mythical, or metaphorical effort to realize several themes of the book—especially the traditional Western world theme of the essential oneness of humankind. Rose of Sharon cannot save her own baby, but she can still serve as one who ameliorates suffering and demonstrates the ennobling possibilities for humanity, in even the worst of situations.
The varying prose styles add to the strength of the book. In [A Case Book on "The Grapes of Wrath"] Peter Lisca has shown how the prose has a Biblical ring in several places, for example in the passage comparing horses and tractors. Lisca makes this clear by printing the passage in the style of the Psalms:
The tractor had lights shining,
For there is no day and night for a tractor
And the disks turn the earth in the darkness
And they glitter in the daylight.
And when a horse stops work and goes in the barn
There is a life and vitality left,
There is a breathing and a warmth,
And the feet shift on the straw,
And the jaws champ on the hay,
And the ears and eyes are alive.
There is a warmth of life in the barn,
And the heat and smell of life.
But when the motor of a tractor stops,
It is as dead as the ore it came from.
The heat goes out of it
Like the living heat that leaves a corpse.
In a different style, Steinbeck describes a folk dance in chapter thirteen; "Look at that Texas boy. Long legs loose, taps four times for every damn step. Never see a boy swing aroun' like that. Look at him swing that Cherokee girl, red in the cheeks and her toe points out." Throughout the novel the prose style varies to fit the subject under consideration. Lisca illustrates this point further by reference to chapter seven in which there is a descrip-tion of the sale of used cars: "Cadillacs, LaSalles, Buicks, Plymouths, Packards, Chevvies, Fords, Pontiacs. Row on row. Headlight glinting in the afternoon sun. Good Used Cars. Soften 'em up, Joe. Jesus I wisht I had a thousand jalopies. Get 'em ready to deal, and I'll close 'em."
Steinbeck's use of symbols in the novel is another of the ways in which the Joads' predicament is shown to extend their own limited situation. These include the turtle, the vacant houses, the enormous tractor, the worn out automobiles, Rose of Sharon nursing the old starving man, the grapes, both in the title and throughout the novel as a symbol of plenty and as ironic counterpoint of the denial of plenty to the Joads, Rose of Sharon's stillborn child, set adrift to float down the stream, again in ironic counterpoint to the child Moses in the Bible, who became a saviour of his people. The Joads' journey is itself an archetype of mass migration, as Lisca suggests. These symbolic objects or actions are carefully integrated into the action of the novel, contributing to the artistic success of the whole book.
Symbolic contrasts between animals and machines appear frequently in the book. Generally, the animal references stand for life and the references to machinery stand for depersonalized, inanimate ways of dealing with human problems. "I lost my land, a single tractor took my land." The phrase "tractored out" or "tractored off" appears often. Some animal references are derogatory, as when human beings behave like ants, or fight like a couple of cats. But generally, as in the contrast between horses and tractors quoted above, animal references are hopeful and positive; mechanical references suggest the destructive and negative aspects of contemporary life. The turtle, for example, symbolizes the persistence of living beings in spite of danger or hardship. As machines threaten the turtle, so machines threaten the farmer. As the turtle persists, so will the Joads.
The thematic structure of the book is a major source of its continuing power. In the decades since its publication readers have seen a number of traditional American ideas that complement each other in the texture of the book. While some critics have seen tension in the ideas of the book, on the whole most readers have seen artistic integrity in the book's thematic structure.
Frederick Ives Carpenter [in A Case Book on "The Grapes of Wrath"] suggested, not long after the book's publication, that a number of the most characteristic American ideas appeared in the book—"the mystical transcendentalism of Emerson," "the earthy democracy of Walt Whitman," the "pragmatic instrumentalism of William James and John Dewey." Other readers have seen in the book the agrarian philosophy of Thomas Jefferson—a faith in the small farm that has strongly influenced our society. It was agrarianism that led to the homestead laws passed by the Republican Party when Abraham Lincoln was president, and that lay back of a variety of twentieth-century efforts to assist farmers and protect the family farm.
No feature of the book is better illustrative of the tendency of the American novel to protest the conflict between American ideals and American practice than the novel's agrarianism. The Joads have as a major motivation their desire to own a piece of land, where they can raise the grapes of plenty, enough so that Pa Joad can squash the grapes across his face and feel the juice run down his chin, a destiny he is not to achieve.
The essential reality of the Joads' predicament is demonstrated by the fact that between 1940 and 1980 the number of American farms declined from 6 million to 2¼ million. Millions of Americans in that period left their farms for life elsewhere, as the Joads left their Oklahoma home. That migration of millions of people from rural areas to the city affected the United States in many ways—increasing crime and welfare on the one hand, and providing a ready force of factory workers on the other. Few people note that, as the novel implies, we pay for our food not only at the grocery store, but also in taxes caused by crime and welfare.
It is an ironic possibility that if all the political and editorial language calling for the preservation of the family farm were printed in a single set of volumes, it might exceed the attacks on The Grapes of Wrath. But it is doubtful that any other American novelist has so vigorously upheld the ideal of the American family farm or so artistically protested the failure of our society to make that ideal possible in reality.
The transcendentalism in the book has led to two groundless charges by the critics, first that the book is atheistic, as expressed in the ideas of Jim Casy, and second that the book is collectivist, a code word meaning sympathetic to communism. These misreadings of the book grow out of an ignorance of transcendentalism and a misinterpretation of the call for unified action presented by the book.
The concept of the oversoul, in Emerson and in this book, is an affirmation of the universal pres-ence of deity in all aspects of life. Emerson coined the term "oversoul" to express his understanding of the Christian tradition as he learned it from many Puritan sermons as well as from his reading of Luther, Calvin, Milton, and other theologians, as the literary historian Perry Miller has shown. Though Jim Casy probably had not read any works of theology, he does express the transcendental concept of the oversoul several times in the book in such language as this: "Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of." Transcendentalism has been criticized for its vagueness, but rightly or wrongly, it is an effort to assert that spiritual values are present in, and ultimately control, the material reality of the visible universe. It is clearly not the intent of Emerson nor of Jim Casy to deny the existence of deity. The charge of atheism is often made by those who say, "If you don't accept my definition of God, you must be an atheist." Neither Emerson nor Jim Casy would have agreed that they were atheists.
In fact the four major characters, Ma Joad, Tom, Jim Casy, and Rose of Sharon represent Steinbeck's effort to dramatize Biblical and Christian values in a realistic way among an unlikely group of poor and deprived persons. Ma Joad is one of the few saints in American literature. The qualities of saintliness—a cheerful and self-sacrificial life, and an understanding and consistent love for others—are realistically embodied in this portrait of a poverty stricken Oklahoma farm wife. Ma Joad's family disintegrates, her few possessions are lost, and she finds herself on the brink of starvation. Yet she does not fall into despair or bitterness but continues to respond in a helpful and life affirming way not only to the members of her own family but also to hungry neighbor children and a starving, unknown man. Ma Joad is a vivid dramatization of the "love that passeth understanding." It is hard to imagine what a truly saintly life would be like in the twentieth century. Steinbeck's imagination has given us a believable picture of a saint from an unlikely source—an Okie, an uneducated, migrant fruit picker, driven from her home to wander the land in search of a place to live.
Tom Joad illustrates the Biblical theme of growth, the Biblical assertion that the good life requires continued rebirth. Furthermore, Tom illustrates the Biblical notion that even the most unpromising persons have the possibility of a new life. Tom comes out of prison an unchanged person, selfishly individualistic, primarily interested in sex and drinking, though he does have a strong love for his family. But the events that follow, and the influence of his mother and of Jim Casy, greatly change him.
As the Joads experience the loss of their land, the breaking up of the family, near starvation, brutal treatment by police and landlords, and the death of Jim Casy, Tom grows in "wisdom and stature" to quote the Biblical phrase. When Ma Joad told Tom, "You're spoke for …" she contributed to his growth. When Jim Casy spoke of the Oversoul, Tom listened and grew out of his selfish concerns with his own satisfactions. He became aware, as his mother made clear to him, that he had to be concerned, not only for his own family's welfare, but for the welfare of all families, that the death of his sister's child was loss to all families, that the birth of a healthy child was cause for celebration by all families. He became quite willing to work for other families, even if it cost him his life, as it had cost the life of Jim Casy.
When Tom told his mother goodbye, as he set out to carry on the mission that he had learned from Jim Casy, she spoke with sorrow, "How'm I gonna know about you? They might kill ya an' I wouldn't know." But Tom tells her it doesn't matter. He explained in terms of the lesson he had learned from Casy of the Oversoul, of which all human beings are a part. Though we appear to be isolated individuals, still there is a transcendental unity that joins us:
I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. 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?
Though the dialect is lower class Okie, the ideas are derived from the Gospel of John.
Some would-be censors have mistakenly asserted that Steinbeck is sympathetic to communism. Steinbeck was in fact rather conservative; he supported the war in Vietnam, for example. His insistence in several works of fiction on the right of each person to his own piece of land can hardly be reconciled with communist tendencies toward collectivist forms of agriculture. However, Steinbeck's views outside the book are irrelevant to the implications of the symbols and actions in the book. It is clearly wrong to judge a book by the actual or assumed characteristics of the author.
The call for united action which runs through the book is not to be identified with the term "col-lectivist" as a synonym for communist. There is a tension between the individual and the group in the book, but its reconciliation is in the traditional Western world notion of the oneness of the humankind, as for example in the famous passage from John Donne, "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."
The book calls for unified action that will preserve the right of farmers to their own farms, that will provide food for the hungry, that will subordinate the machine to the needs of the garden and to the needs of the human beings who toil in the garden. The book's call for unified action to meet the disasters of the 1930s is no more collectivist than was the action of the colonists who dumped the tea in Boston Harbor or who took up arms at Concord to fight the redcoats. There are many illustrations in the book of the need and ability of ordinary citizens to work together in solving problems, as for example when the migrants helped each other on the journey, or maintained order in the camp. This aspect of the novel is typical of American pragmatism—not of Marxist ideas.
In the original meaning of the word, a classic is a book taught in the classroom. Steinbeck's book is certainly a classic in this sense of the word. As with a number of other classics, it is likely that many people read this book in high school. This use is appropriate because the book lends itself well to studying many aspects of American literature and life. The Grapes of Wrath won a Pulitzer prize in 1940 and is one of the major works of an American novelist who won the Nobel prize in 1962. It is difficult to understand how any American high school or college could forbid the teaching or use of the book while maintaining a claim to act as a proper agency for the education of the young in this democratic republic.
Source: Lee Burress, "The Grapes of Wrath: Preserving Its Place in the Curriculum," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 278-86.
In the following excerpt, Levant discusses Steinbeck's individual and universal characterizations of the Joads.
[In The Grapes of Wrath, function], not mere design, is … evident in the use of characterization to support and develop a conflict of opposed ideas—mainly a struggle between law and anarchy. The one idea postulates justice in a moral world of love and work, identified in the past with "the people" and in the present with the government camp and finally with the union movement, since these are the modern, institutional forms the group may take. The opposed idea postulates injustice in an immoral world of hatred and starvation. It is associated with buccaneering capitalism, which, in violent form, includes strikebreaking and related practices that cheapen human labor.
The Joads present special difficulties in characterization. They must be individualized to be credible and universalized to carry out their representative functions. Steinbeck meets these problems by making each of the Joads a specific individual and by specifying that what happens to the Joads is typical of the times. The means he uses to maintain these identities can be shown in some detail. The least important Joads are given highly specific tags—Grandma's religion, Grandpa's vigor, Uncle John's melancholy, and Al's love of cars and girls. The tags are involved in events; they are not inert labels. Grandma's burial violates her religion; Grandpa's vigor ends when he leaves the land; Uncle John's melancholy balances the family's experience; Al helps to drive the family to California and, by marrying, continues the family. Ma, Pa, Rose of Sharon, and Tom carry the narrative, so their individuality is defined by events rather than through events. Ma is the psychological and moral center of the family; Pa carries its burdens; Rose of Sharon means to ensure its physical continuity; and Tom becomes its moral conscience. On the larger scale, there is much evidence that what happens to the family is typical of the times. The interchapters pile up suggestions that "the whole country is moving" or about to move. The Joads meet many of their counterparts or outsiders who are in sympathy with their ordeal; these meetings reenforce the common bond of "the people." Both in the interchapters and the narrative, the universal, immediate issue is survival—a concrete universal.
On the other hand, the individualized credibility of the Joads is itself the source of two difficulties: the Joads are too different, as sharecroppers, to suggest a universal or even a national woe, and they speak an argot that might limit their universal quality. Steinbeck handles these limitations with artistic license. The narrative background contains the Joads' past; their experience as a landless proletariat is highlighted in the narrative foreground. The argot is made to seem a typical language within the novel in three ways: It is the major language; people who are not Okies speak variations of their argot; and that argot is not specialized in its relevance, but is used to communicate the new expe-riences "the people" have in common as a landless proletariat. However, because these solutions depend on artistic license, any tonal falseness undermines severely the massive artistic truthfulness the language is intended to present. So the overly editorial tone in several of the interchapters has a profoundly false linguistic ring, although the tonal lapse is limited and fairly trivial in itself.
The Joads are characterized further in comparison with four Okie types who refuse to know or are unable to gain the knowledge the family derives from its collective experience. They are the stubborn, the dead, the weak, and the backtrackers; they appear in the novel in that order.
Muley Graves is the stubborn man, as his punning name suggests. He reveals himself to Tom and Casy near the beginning of the novel. His refusal to leave Oklahoma is mere stubbornness; his isolation drives him somewhat mad. He is aware of a loss of reality, of "jus' wanderin' aroun' like a damn ol' graveyard ghos'," and his blind violence is rejected from the beginning by the strongest, who oppose his pessimism with an essential optimism.
Deaths of the aged and the unborn frame the novel. Grandpa and Grandma are torn up by the roots and die, incapable of absorbing a new, terrible experience. Rose of Sharon's baby, born dead at the end of the novel, is an index of the family's ordeal and a somewhat contrived symbol of the necessity to form the group.
The weak include two extremes within the Joad family. Noah Joad gives up the struggle to survive; he finds a private peace. His character is shadowy, and his choice is directed more clearly by Steinbeck than by any substance within him. Connie has plenty of substance. He is married to Rose of Sharon and deserts her because he has no faith in the family's struggle to reach California. His faith is absorbed in the values of "the Bank," in getting on, in money, in any abstract goal. He wishes to learn about technology in order to rise in the world. He does not admire technique for itself, as Al does. He is a sexual performer, but he loves no one. Finally, he wishes that he had stayed behind in Oklahoma and taken a job driving a tractor. In short, with Connie, Steinbeck chooses brilliantly to place a "Bank" viewpoint within the family. By doing so, he precludes a simplification of character and situation, and he endorses the complexity of real people in the real world. (In Dubious Battle is similarly free of schematic characterization.) In addition, the family's tough, humanistic values gain in credibility by their contrast with Connie's shallow, destructive modernity. The confused gas station owner and the pathetic one-eyed junkyard helper are embodied variations on Connie's kind of weakness. Al provides an important counterpoint. He wants to leave the family at last, like Connie, but duty and love force him to stay. His hard choice points the moral survival of the family and measures its human expense.
The Joads meet several backtrackers. The Wilsons go back because Mrs. Wilson is dying; the Joads do not stop, in spite of death. The ragged man's experience foreshadows what the Joads find in California; but they keep on. Some members of the Joad family think of leaving but do not, or they leave for specific reasons—a subtle variation on backtracking. Al and Uncle John wish deeply at times to leave, but they stay; Tom leaves (as Casy does) but to serve the larger, universal family of the group. Backtracking is a metaphor, then, a denial of life, but always a fact as well. The factual metaphor is deepened into complexity because the Joads sympathize with the backtrackers' failure to endure the hardships of the road and of California, in balance with where they started from—the wasteland—while knowing they cannot accept that life-denying solution. All of these choices are the fruit of the family's experience.
A fifth group of owners and middle-class people are accorded no sympathetic comprehension, as contrasted with the Joads, and, as in In Dubious Battle, their simply and purely monstrous characterization is too abstract to be fully credible. The few exceptions occur in highly individualized scenes or episodes (Chapter XV is an example) in which middle-class "shitheels" are caricatures of the bad guys, limited to a broad contrast with the good guys (the truck drivers, the cook), who are in sympathy with a family of Okies. This limitation has the narrative advantage of highlighting the importance and vitality of the Okies to the extent that they seem by right to belong in the context of epic materials, but the disadvantage of shallow characterization is severe. Steinbeck can provide a convincing detailed background of the conditions of the time; he cannot similarly give a rounded, convincing characterization to an owner or a disagreeable middle-class person.
On the whole, then, fictive strength and conviction are inherent in the materials of The Grapes of Wrath. The noticeable flaws are probably irreducible aspects of the time context and of narrative shorthand counterpointed by a complex recognition of human variety in language and behavior.
Source: Howard Levant, The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study, University of Missouri Press, 1974, pp. 104-108.
Charles Angoff, review of The Grapes of Wrath, in North American Review, Summer, 1939, p. 387.
Malcolm Cowley, review of The Grapes of Wrath, in New Republic, May 3, 1939, p. 382.
Clifton Fadiman, review of The Grapes of Wrath, in New Yorker, April 15, 1939, p. 101.
Joseph Henry Jackson, review of The Grapes of Wrath, in New York Herald Tribune Books, April 16, 1939, p. 3.
Louis Kronenberger, review of The Grapes of Wrath, in Nation, April 15, 1939.
Burton Roscoe, "Excuse It, Please," Newsweek, May 1, 1939, p. 38.
Edward Weeks, review of The Grapes of Wrath, in Atlantic Monthly, June, 1939.
Frederick I. Carpenter, "The Philosophical Joads," in College English, Vol. 2, January, 1941, pp. 324-25.
Carpenter describes the origins of Steinbeck's social philosophy in American thought from Ralph Waldo Emerson to William James.
Chester E. Eisinger, "Jeffersonian Agrarianism in The Grapes of Wrath," in University of Kansas City Review, Vol. 14, Winter, 1947, pp. 149-54.
The critic discusses the relationships between people and the land and how these relationships have changed in the twentieth century.
Joseph Eddy Fontenrose, John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation, Barnes & Noble, 1963.
The critic discusses the novel's biblical references, its relation to myth, and its stylistic devices.
Warren French, editor, A Companion to The Grapes of Wrath, Penguin, 1989.
A selection of criticism and interpretations of the novel.
Howard Levant, The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study, University of Missouri Press, 1974.
A collection of essays on Steinbeck's novels. Levant examines the role of symbolism and allegory in The Grapes of Wrath.
Peter Lisca, The Wide World of John Steinbeck, Rutgers University Press, 1958.
Lisca is an important critic of Steinbeck and is knowledgeable about his life and works. His readings of the novel range from Steinbeck's use of symbols and political thought to his work with the migrants.
Paul McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Ungar, 1980.
Among other things, the critic discusses Steinbeck's biblical references and the styles of discourse he uses in the novel.
Harry Thornton Moore, The Novels of John Steinbeck: A First Critical Study, Kennikat Press, 1968.
Moore discusses how the novel helped the migrant workers and compares this to other works of literature that have had social impact.
Martin Staples Shockly, "The Reception of The Grapes of Wrath in Oklahoma," in American Literature, Vol. 15, January, 1954, pp. 351-61.
The critic notes how and why the citizens of Oklahoma were offended by the novel.
John Steinbeck, Working Days: The Journals of "The Grapes of Wrath," edited by Robert DeMott, Penguin, 1989.
Steinbeck's journal entries recording his thoughts and the physical exhaustion he endured while writing his novel.
David Wyatt, New Essays on "The Grapes of Wrath," Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Wyatt provides an overview of criticism on the novel from 1940–1989.
The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of WrathINTRODUCTION
The Grapes of Wrath (1939) shines light into the darkest corners of the American dream. It is John Steinbeck's greatest novel and an undisputed American classic, but upon publication, the book garnered immediate attention and fierce controversy. It soared to the top of bestseller lists, sold almost half a million hardcover copies, and received scores of positive reviews. A year later, the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. An indicator of its enduring significance is the fact that, since its publication, The Grapes of Wrath has sold more than fifteen million copies.
Steinbeck was inspired to write the novel after researching and producing a series of articles for the San Francisco News about migrant workers in California. He reported on the hundreds of thousands of families that fled drought- and dust-ravaged farms in the Midwest to earn money as fruit, vegetable, and cotton pickers in California's fertile fields. Masses of fleeing workers endured a treacherous trek west only to find little work and unfair wages when they arrived. The onslaught of desperate, poverty-stricken people created a situation of unrivaled tension, violence, and want. Steinbeck saw the germ of an epic story and began taking notes and plotting its development while he wrote the seven newspaper articles he had been assigned to write.
Steinbeck's masterpiece is more than a tale of the plight of migrant farm workers, though. It is, according to critic Robert DeMott, "part naturalistic epic, part labor testament, part family chronicle, part partisan journalism, part environmental jeremiad, part captivity narrative, part road novel, part transcendental gospel." In the introduction to the 2006 Penguin Classics edition, DeMott quotes a radio interview in 1939, in which Steinbeck explained,
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.
Part of what makes The Grapes of Wrath such an enduring success is the fact that as history and culture evolve and change, Steinbeck's novel, an ode to the gallant struggling poor, remains steadily and forcefully relevant. Americans still go hungry in a land of great riches. Americans still seek spiritual comfort and the hope that it brings. Americans still understand that if one human suffers, we all suffer. More specifically and somewhat shockingly, migrant farm workers still struggle to make ends meet by doing backbreaking work in unsafe conditions for very little money. Over the decades, The Grapes of Wrath has been named by such cultural luminaries as Edward R. Murrow, César Chávez, and Bruce Springsteen as a critical influence on their professional and personal lives. Gerald Haslam, a California writer, says, "The great, the ennobling theme of Steinbeck's work—we are a human family, together in this, and collectively we can transcend life's challenges—reached into me and stretched my soul."
In fact, the novel had an immediate and intense impact on American political affairs at the time of its publication. Steinbeck was branded a communist and a troublemaker by California landowners seeking to discredit his work. Oklahoman political leaders sought to ban The Grapes of Wrath for its supposed derogatory view of migrant workers. Others saw the raw, rough language spoken by its protagonists as profane and attempted to censor it. Despite what its detractors had to say, and continue to say about it, The Grapes of Wrath is etched into America's collective literary and cultural conscience, while the controversy it once created is little more than a footnote.
John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, to parents of modest means. Steinbeck spent childhood summers working as a hired ranch hand, which gave the future author a profound appreciation for the California landscape and its people. Although he took a series of writing and literature courses at Stanford University from 1919 until 1925, he never earned a degree. While living in New York City and working on his first novel, Cup of Gold, Steinbeck worked as a laborer and journalist. After the novel was published in 1929, Steinbeck and his new wife moved to Pacific Grove, California, where the author continued to write and publish. Not until the publication of Tortilla Flat in 1935 was Steinbeck able to claim financial security and popular success as a writer. The late 1930s found the author writing about the California labor class in In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the novel many consider his finest work, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and served as the basis for the decision to award Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He wrote a total of seventeen novels and was nominated for an Academy Award for screenwriting in his career. Steinbeck died on December 20, 1968, of heart disease in New York City.
The Oklahoma soil becomes cracked and parched during a long summer drought. The cornfields dry up and the wind fills the air with dust. The ruined crops lay covered in dust and the men become silent. Their wives and children look to see if the men will break and are relieved to see that they are "hard and angry and resistant," a sure sign that they will not break.
Tom Joad has just been released from the McAlester State Penitentiary where he served four years for killing a man. Wearing stiff new clothes, he convinces a driver with a "No Riders" sign on his car to drive him a short way to his family's farm. Having been away and out of touch with his family for the length of his sentence, he is unaware of the fact that most farmers in the area have either been "dusted out" or "tractored out" of their farms. The driver tells him, "Croppers going fast now…. One cat' takes and shoves ten families out." The driver talks about how lonely it gets on the road and asks Tom about himself. Tom admits that he has been in prison. "Homicide…. That's a big word—means I killed a guy. Seven years. I'm sprung in four for keepin' my nose clean." The driver lets him out along a dirt road leading to the Joad farm.
A turtle makes its way along the scorching highway. A woman swerves to avoid the creature, but a man in a truck aims to hit it. The turtle flips over, rolls off the highway, and resumes its journey.
Tom discovers the turtle, wraps it in his coat, and carries it with him. He comes upon a tattered old man that he recognizes as Jim Casy, the preacher who baptized Tom when he was a boy. Casy relates the story of how he decided to stop preaching, saying that his habit of taking girls "out in the grass" after church caused him to feel so conflicted, he began to doubt his faith. After much thought, Casy decides, "Maybe all men got one big soul ever 'body's a part of."
Tom tells Casy why he went to jail: "I killed a guy in a fight. We was drunk at a dance. He got a knife in me, an' I killed him with a shovel that was layin' there. Knocked his head plumb to squash." He talks about the niceties of prison, clean clothes and regular meals, and tells a story about a fellow inmate who preferred the conveniences of the jail to life on the outside. When Tom prepares to move on, Casy asks if he can come along. Tom welcomes him, saying his family always thought highly of the man when he was their preacher. When they get to the Joad place they find it deserted.
Because the farms are tenant-farmed, they are not owned by the farmers that live on them. This means that the landowners and the banks have the right to evict the farmers from the land. They come onto the land and tell the "tenant men" they have to get off the land. "The tenant system won't work any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families," the narrator explains. Some owners are cruel, some are kind, but they all come bearing the same bad news. When the farmers ask what they are supposed to do, the owners suggest they head west to California where there is work. Tractors driven by neighbors earning three dollars a day arrive on the land. They have orders to plow down the property, including the house, whether the farmers have left or not. When the displaced farmer asks who gave the orders to plow his land, that he wants to shoot him, he is told, "I don't know. Maybe there's nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn't men at all. Maybe, like you said, the property's doing it."
When Tom and Casy find the Joad homestead untouched they assume the neighbors have abandoned the area, too. Muley Graves comes along and explains what has happened to the Joad homestead. He tells Tom that some company has bought up all the land in the area and kicked out all the farmers. He says that Tom's whole family is living with Tom's Uncle John, picking cotton in hopes of earning enough money to buy a car and drive to California. Muley shares the rabbits he has caught with Tom and Casy and, after they eat, they go to the cave where Muley sleeps. They have to be careful the police do not catch them on the land and arrest them for trespassing. Tom is bewildered by the idea of being arrested for sleeping on his own farm and Casy is unable to sleep for thinking of all he has learned that night.
This section is narrated by a used car salesman. He describes the many ways he cheats poor families seeking transportation for their trek westward. He brags about filling engines full of sawdust to hide transmission problems and replacing working batteries with cracked ones. The farmers are easily duped as they know little about cars and are desperate to buy.
Casy, Muley, and Tom walk the several miles to Uncle John's house. On the way, Tom describes his uncle's guilt about not calling a doctor when his pregnant wife complained of stomach pains many years prior. When she died, he blamed himself and has never been able to get over the loss. To repent, he performs random acts of generosity, like giving candy to children and bags of meal to needy neighbors. These acts do nothing to assuage his guilt.
Tom is reunited with his family at Uncle John's. Neither of his parents recognizes him at first, and both then express their fear that he has broken out of jail. He explains that he has been paroled and that he will be able to join them on their trip to California. His mother asks, "They didn't do nothin' in that jail to rot you out with crazy mad?" He answers, "I was for a little while. But I ain't proud like some fellas. I let stuff run off'n me." He greets fiery Grampa and Granma Joad and slow brother Noah and they gather to share a breakfast that Casy blesses with a non-traditional prayer. After they eat, Pa Joad shows Tom the truck Tom's younger brother Al helped him pick out. The sixteen-year-old arrives soon after, full of admiration for Tom. Tom learns that his youngest siblings, Ruthie and Winfield, have gone to town with Uncle John and that their sister, Rose of Sharon, has married a neighbor boy, Connie, and is expecting her first child.
This very short chapter describes how "tenant people" go about preparing for the trek to California. They face the heartbreaking task of deciding which of "their belongings and the belongings of their fathers and their grandfathers" to leave behind or sell to raise money for the trip. The farmers are forced to accept ridiculously low sums for farm equipment and good work horses because the buyers understand that the desperate men are in no position to demand more. Even the most sentimental items must be left behind, sold, or destroyed before the families leave their farms for good.
Ma Joad tells Tom she is worried about what the family will find in California, although she trusts what the handbill she read says about their being able to find work. Pa Joad returns from town feeling dejected after selling off the family's belongings for a mere eighteen dollars. The family gathers and decides to take Casy with them on the trip. They do not see any point in waiting to pack, so they set about the task immediately. First, they slaughter the pigs and pack the meat in salt. Casy offers to help Ma pack the meat, but she claims it is woman's work. He replies, "They's too much of it split it up to men's or women's work. You got stuff to do." Connie and Rose of Sharon arrive, and the family prepares to leave, then Grampa claims he plans to stay and live off the land. The family laces his coffee with a sleeping tonic, waits until he has fallen asleep, then loads him onto the truck along with the rest of the family and all that they own. Their journey westward begins.
The land is vacant once the farmers abandon it. Men on tractors come and work the land, but they have no connection to it. "The machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself." Gophers, field mice, weasels, cats, and brown owls take over the abandoned farmhouses, which quickly fall apart.
Highway 66 is packed with families headed to California. They are cheated by salesmen when they try and buy car parts and are met with hostility when they stop at service stations for gas and water. But they also witness moments of hopeful beauty. "The people in flight from the terror behind—strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever."
Tom's brother Al, a skilled mechanic, drives the battered and overloaded Hudson, "every nerve listening for weaknesses, for the thumps or squeals, hums and chattering that indicate a change that may cause a breakdown." Al becomes "the soul of the car." When the family stops to rest, their dog gets hit by a car. Rose of Sharon worries that witnessing something so violent will hurt her unborn child. At the end of a long first day of driving, the Joads pull into a ditch to camp beside Ivy and Sairy Wilson, a couple whose car has broken down. The couple is hospitable and warm, and the Joads are grateful for their kindness. Sairy invites Grampa, who has taken ill, to come and rest in their tent. He dies of a stroke while Casy prays over him and the family is forced to bury the old man along the roadside. Al fixes the Wilsons' car and the two families agree to travel to California together.
Westerners are nervous about the change they feel coming. The "hunger in the stomach, multiplied a million times" is the cause; the result is a mass migration upon their land. The influx of hundreds of thousands of hungry farmers threaten those "who hate change and fear revolution" because they know that the weak, when united with others like themselves, become strong. "The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one."
A waitress named Mae and a cook named Al work at a coffee shop along Highway 66. Mae looks forward to the truckers who stop, for they make her laugh, do not steal, and leave the biggest tips. Two of her favorites stop in for pie and coffee and they talk about the mass migration of Midwesterners on the road. A ragged man and two small boys come in asking to buy a loaf of bread for a dime. Mae initially rebuffs the man, saying she needed the bread for sandwiches. Besides, the loaf would cost him fifteen cents. After Al growls at her to give him the loaf, she gives in and takes ten cents for it. The grimy, tired children eye the candy case and their father asks if the "stripy ones" are penny candy. She gives him two for a penny even though they really cost a nickel each. The truck drivers notice her generosity and leave her a huge tip.
The Joads and the Wilsons drove for so long, "the highway became their home and movement their medium of expression." After three days on the road, the Wilsons' car breaks down again. Tom and Al leave the family to wait for them while they find parts in a car lot in town. Once they find the parts and fix the car, they make their way to a campsite where everyone can rest for the night. A ragged, bitter man tells an assembled group of campers that he is on his way back East after a disastrous experience in California. Although they've been warned they will not find work, Casy tells Pa that the Joads' experience will be different.
The many families driving the same road and camping along the same springs begin to form little communities. "In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all." Codes of behavior, laws, and leaders emerge as well as methods of enforcing those laws.
The Joads and the Wilsons arrive in Needles, California, and pull up to an encampment beside a river. They still have to make their way across the desert before they get to fertile picking fields, so they decide to stop and rest before moving on. While bathing in the river, a father and son tell the men that they are headed back to where they came from as they cannot earn a living in California. They warn the newcomers that the natives will treat them badly and call them "Okies," which "use' ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you're a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you're scum." Noah tells Tom that he is not leaving the river, that he will "catch fish an' stuff" to survive. Ma Joad and Rose of Sharon watch over Granma in a makeshift tent because she is sick and hallucinating. A policeman pokes his head in and rudely demands that they move on. The intrusion is very upsetting to Ma, who becomes even more upset after Tom tells her that Noah has left the family to live by the river. When the Joads pack up to cross the desert that night, they are forced to leave the Wilsons behind due to Sairy's failing health. When the family is stopped for a routine inspection, Ma begs the officer to let them go on as her mother is deathly ill. Once they arrive in the valley, Ma tells the family that Granma died early on in the journey. She had lain with the body all the way through the night.
Once California belonged to Mexico, but American squatters, hungry for land, stole it away from the Mexicans. Once they owned it, they "imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos," to work it, then paid them slave wages. Then the Okies came and the "soft" California landowners became afraid and their fear turned to hate for the "strong" Okies: "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." But the Okies only want to feed their families. They plant secret gardens in fallow fields so their children can eat, but when the plants are discovered by deputies, they are destroyed.
Ma and Pa Joad are forced to leave Granma's body at the coroner's office because they cannot afford to give her a proper burial. They set up camp at a "Hooverville" where they are treated rudely. Tom meets Floyd, who echoes what Tom has heard all along the way: There are no jobs. Floyd warns Tom that anyone who suggests organizing against the landowners will be arrested, labeled a "red," and placed on a blacklist, which ensures the agitator will never find a job. When a contractor arrives seeking workers, Floyd demands a guaranteed wage and a signed contract, an act of defiance that gets him arrested. When he runs off, the deputy shoots, and hits a woman's hand. Casy knocks the deputy unconscious and takes the blame for the scuffle when the police arrive. Casy is taken to jail and the sheriff tells everyone they have to clear out as the camp is scheduled to be burned that night. Connie leaves without telling the family, Uncle John gets drunk, and the family prepares to depart. Rose of Sharon is heartbroken that they have to leave without her husband.
"The moving, questing people were migrants now." The hostility they face in this new land unites them. The Californians band together in an effort to keep the Okies in their place, but that only makes the migrants angrier.
The remaining Joads find Weedpatch camp, a government facility where migrants live and govern themselves. Exhausted by the events of the day, they settle into their assigned spot in the dark of night. Tom wakes up first, has breakfast with his neighbors, and walks to their worksite where he is hired to dig a ditch with them. When the rest of the family wakes up, they find their new "home" boasts clean grounds and working toilets and showers, niceties the family has never before experienced. The camp manager visits Ma Joad after the men leave to find work. He is very kind to her, which lifts her spirits and makes her feel like a human being again. The Ladies Committee welcomes Ma and Rose of Sharon to the camp by showing them around and explaining the rules. Pa, Uncle John, and Al look for work all day, but return home unsuccessful.
Migrant people, despite their many hardships, find little ways to amuse themselves and find some semblance of pleasure. They tell stories and jokes, play music, get drunk, and attend prayer meetings. "The migrant people looked humbly for pleasure on the roads."
Weedpatch camp officials have been warned that the Farmers' Association plans to infiltrate the Saturday night dance, start a riot, and shut the camp down. The chairman of the camp committee hires a band of men to preempt the riot. Tom is one of those men. The night of the dance, the riot is successfully squelched before it has a chance to start and the guilty instigators are thrown out of the camp without incident. Pa says, "They's change a-comin'. I don' know what. Maybe we won't live to see her. But she's a-comin'." To that, one of the campers relates a story about how when five thousand mountain men in Akron, Ohio, joined a union, the city people threatened to run them out of town. The mountain men demonstrated by marching through town with their rifles on the way to a turkey shoot, and marching back through town when they were finished. "Well, sir, they ain't been no trouble sence then." The storyteller suggests they "git up a turkey shootin' club an' have meetin's ever' Sunday," but nobody responds.
When large landowners monopolize farming, they ruin more than the lives of the migrants. Unable to compete, small local farmers watch their crops fail or go unpicked because they cannot afford to pay anyone to do it. Their debts mount as the crops decay on the ground. "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."
The Joads have lived in the government camp for almost a month. Work and food are scarce, so Ma Joad decides the family should leave the next morning and look for work elsewhere. While preparing to leave, a man stops to tell them of peach-picking work up the road. When they arrive, they find mobs of angry people and are told they will be paid just five cents for each box of peaches picked. They are desperate, so they take the job. The entire family picks all day and earns a dollar, which must be spent on food for their dinner that evening. After a meager meal, Tom goes to see what the commotion along the roadside is all about. He finds Casy, who explains that workers are striking in opposition of the two-and-a-half cent per box wage they were being paid. The police come, recognize Casy as the leader of the workers, call him a communist, and kill him by smashing his head with a pick handle. Enraged, Tom picks up the weapon, hits Casy's murderer, then flees after being hit in the face. He makes it back to the family tent and relates the story of what happened when they wake up and discover his wounds the next morning. He is afraid he may have killed Casy's attacker. Ma Joad hides Tom in the back of the truck and they leave the peach farm. About twenty miles down the road, Al sees a sign that says, "Cotton Pickers Wanted." They park the truck in a ditch away from a row of railroad boxcars that cotton pickers live in. Tom leaves the family to hide out in a culvert down the way and tells Ma to leave food for him whenever she can.
Migrants hired to pick cotton must buy cotton-picking sacks for a dollar. Before they even pick one boll, they are already in debt. Sometimes there are so many pickers in one field, workers are unable to pick enough to pay for the sack. To counter the crooked owners who rig the scales, workers sometimes load their sack with rocks.
The job picking cotton provides the Joads a boxcar to live in and more money than they have had in some time. They have enough to buy new clothes, a tin stove, and meat for supper every night. Ruthie accidentally reveals to another child that her brother killed a man and is hiding out in the woods. Afraid that word will get around, Ma Joad finds Tom and tells him that his secret has been exposed. Although it breaks her heart, she is afraid he will be caught and urges him to leave. He tells her he has decided to organize the people like Casy was doing when he was killed, and for her not to worry about him. The Wainwrights and the Joads celebrate the news that Al Joad and Agnes Wainwright plan to wed. The next morning, the two families arrive at a fresh, twenty-acre cotton field only to find a huge gathering of migrants ahead of them. The entire crop is picked before noon. It begins to rain.
A gusty downpour soaks the land. Unable to work, people sit in wet clothes waiting for the deluge to end. The water gets into the cars, fouling the carburetors. Some are washed away. Sick, hungry, and cold, the people seek relief by huddling in barns, crouching under sheds, and lying under wet hay. Word comes that there will be no work until spring. The women watch their men's faces, looking to see if they will break. They are relieved to see anger there instead.
The rains continue. Three days into the storm, Rose of Sharon goes into labor. Pa convinces the men to build a dam to keep the rising water from flooding the boxcar. After an uprooted tree destroys the dam, Pa Joad retreats into the boxcar to find that Rose of Sharon has delivered a stillborn child. After six days of rain, the boxcar begins to flood. The family abandons it and goes in search of dry land. They find a barn sheltering a dying man and a small boy. The man has not eaten in six days and is unable to digest solid food. Ma gives Rose of Sharon a look, and the girl immediately understands that only she can save the man. After asking everyone else to leave, the young girl waves off the starving man's protests, and lovingly suckles him.
The Grapes of Wrath is, at its heart, a protest novel. Steinbeck wrote the book after witnessing firsthand the deplorable situation Dust Bowl migrant families faced in the 1930s. Fueled by outrage, he recorded what he saw. By honestly portraying the situation for what it was, he forced American readers of the late 1930s and early 1940s to see what they would rather turn away from. By framing the characters as archetypes and ordinary heroes, he transformed a particular event in a particular moment in time into a universally moral lesson, one that contemporary readers continue to be influenced by today.
Protest as a way of invoking social and political reform is an inherent American ideal. Examples of individual Americans rebelling against authoritarian forces for the sake of improving society can be traced all the way back to Thomas Paine, one of the first Americans to speak out against injustice. Had Paine and other American revolutionaries not stood up for the greater good, the American colonies would not have become the United States of America. Just as Paine argued for independence from Great Britain, Tom Joad pledges to serve the disenfranchised by standing up to the police and the landowners, just as Jim Casy did. In his famous farewell to his mother, Tom tries to explain what he plans to do now that he understands that "a fella ain't got a soul of his own, but only a piece of a big one." He tells her, "I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. 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." She says she does not understand, and he cannot really explain it, but the reader knows that once Tom leaves his family, he will go on to become an activist, protesting against the indignities forced on desperate workers by forces so large they cannot be seen. Kurt Hochenauer writes in the Midwest Quarterly,
Tom's transition from the private to the public, from an inner, intuitive sense of morality to an outward expression of that morality, parallels the exemplary American man embedded in the rhetoric of one of America's first social rebels, Thomas Paine. As an augmentation of Paine's rhetoric, Tom further mythologizes rebellion and protest as the natural right of all Americans.
In chapter 14, Steinbeck writes, "This is the beginning—from 'I' to 'we.'" This phrase expresses the foundation of organized protest, the transformation of individual anger into community action. When Tom, like Paine, recognizes that he is merely a part of a larger whole, and that the whole shares his frustrations, his pain and anger, he understands that he is no longer alone. Although the forces against him loom large and are, for the most part, invisible, he has dignity and justice on his side. In chapter 20, Tom becomes incensed after Casy is unfairly taken to jail:
"Ma," he said, "if it was the law they was workin' with, why, we could take it. But it ain't the law. They're a-workin' away at our spirits. They're a-tryin' to make us cringe an' crawl like a whipped bitch. They tryin' to break us. Why, Jesus Christ, Ma, they comes a time when the on'y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin' a sock at a cop."
Tom refers to the larger family of man when he refers to "us" in this passage. As the narrator points out in chapter 17, "twenty families become one family" on the road to California. Once they get there, the families seem to multiply to include the entire human race. By the end of the novel, Tom has become Paine's American man, a man that, according to Paine's The Crisis (1776), "can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection … but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct will pursue his principles unto death." Thanks in large part to the examples set by the quietly rebellious Ma Joad and obviously moral Jim Casy, Tom's new identity is forged by his experiences as well as the influence of his activist mentors.
Tom Joad's transformation is based on his newfound belief that every man, woman, and child deserves to live in dignity, no matter how rich or poor they may be. But Tom is not the only character bent on rising above the shame of his situation. The theme of human dignity is a constant thread running through The Grapes of Wrath, and indeed, through the American dream. The Joads and their cohorts do not ask for favors—in fact, many firmly resist favors—but they all stand firm in their belief in their basic human rights to decency, dignity, and pride.
America's Founding Fathers stated the American ideal plainly when they declared independence from Great Britain in 1776: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." They defined the ideal of human rights more clearly in 1789 with the Bill of Rights, including the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Together, the self-evident truth that all are created equal, the right to pursue happiness, and the protection from cruel punishment guarantee every American the right to stand tall and expect fair treatment; while the Okies get no such treatment, they refuse to bow.
Although they are bewildered and confused, they refuse to be beaten by the unseen forces that have stripped them of their homes and futures. Instead, the migrants infuse their every action with decency and pride, refusing to let their dignity be taken from them, too. When Grampa dies in a stranger's tent on the side of the road, Granma summons all the pride she can muster rather than let the situation defeat her:
Sairy took Granma by the arm and led her outside, and Granma moved with dignity and held her head high. She walked for the family and held her head straight for the family. Sairy took her to a mattress lying on the ground and sat her down on it. And Granma looked straight ahead, proudly, for she was on show now.
The frequent use of the words pride or proud signals its increased currency among folks with very little to offer. Without money, prospects, or food, pride is one of the few things the migrants possess. It may sound generic, the same as if a stranger says, "Pleased to meet you" or "It's my pleasure," when these characters say they are "proud." The difference is, when they say they are proud, it is a deep, genuine expression of pride at still being able to do something for another, even (or especially) when they can do so little for themselves. When the Wilsons provide some meager comfort to Grampa and Granma, the two families exchange thanks and pride:
Pa said, "We're thankful to you folks."
"We're proud to help," said Wilson.
"We're beholden to you," said Pa.
"There's no beholden in a time of dying," said Wilson, and Sairy echoed him, "Never no beholden."
Al said, "I'll fix your car—me an' Tom will." And Al looked proud that he could return the family's obligation."
Later, when Ma thanks Sairy for helping when Grampa died, Sairy says, "You shouldn't talk like that. We're proud to help. I ain't felt so—safe in a long time. People needs—to help." When Ma and Sairy talk about Granma's reaction to her husband's death, Ma says, "Maybe she won't really truly know for quite a while. Besides, us folks takes a pride holdin' in. My pa used to say, 'Anybody can break down. It takes a man not to.' We always try to hold in."
While they value their pride, they do not confuse it with their dignity or decency, which come from a deep sense of righteousness. Early in the novel, Tom explains to his mother how he stayed sane in jail, saying, "I ain't proud like some fellas. I let stuff run off'n me." Later, he tells her, "Ma, they comes a time when the on'y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin' a sock at a cop." More than once in the migrant camps, desperate women seem to prefer suffering in proud, stoic silence to admitting her children are hungry and accepting help. The others do their best to preserve those mothers' pride while doing the decent thing and feeding the hungry:
"Ain't you got no money, Mis' Joyce?"
She looked ashamedly down. "No, but we might get work any time."
"Now you hol' up your head," Jessie said. "That ain't no crime."
The most striking act of human dignity is illustrated in the final scene, when Rose of Sharon offers of her own body to feed a starving man. The man must relinquish his pride to be saved, but Rose of Sharon is transformed by the act, growing from a selfish child into a life-giving woman in a single, humble, show of kindness. By behaving decently and taking pride in helping others when they have and can do so little for themselves, the migrants maintain their dignity in the face of daily hardships, which gives them the strength to carry on.
The Great Depression
On October 29, 1929, the New York Stock Exchange crashed. This event caused a worldwide economic collapse whose effects would be felt for the next decade. The crash left banks insolvent, caused a drastic downturn in consumer confidence, and left 25 to 30 percent of the workforce unemployed. Economists still speculate about the cause of the Great Depression, though there are obvious contributors. Herbert Hoover, American president at the time, blamed it on the aftereffects of World War I, the unstable American banking structure, rampant stock speculation, and the fact that Congress failed to back many of his economic proposals. Others blamed the crash on too many banks and a glut of production that eclipsed demand due to stagnant workers' wages.
After the crash, the economy was further hampered by a severe drought that laid waste to America's agricultural center. Unemployment continued to rise, foreign banks collapsed, destroying world trade, and American spending came to a screeching halt. The Great Depression and its attendant poverty and desperation provide the historical context for The Grapes of Wrath, which was written toward the end of the worst economic period in American history.
The Dust Bowl Years
Concurrent with the Great Depression were the Dust Bowl Years, the decade beginning in 1930 that saw profound agricultural devastation along the southern plains of the United States. Unsound farming practices and years of drought in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado removed groundcover that served to hold the soil in place. Plains winds whipped the soil into great, billowing dark clouds of dust that would sometimes hang in the air for days. The dust covered everything. It found its way through the doors and windows of homes and blanketed the furniture. Children wore masks on their way to school just so they could breathe. The dirt and dust got into farming equipment, trucks, and automobiles, rendering them useless. Nothing could grow, so farmers wound up losing their farms. Families began packing their belongings and heading west to California where they believed they could find employment as migrant farm workers. Most dreamed of earning enough money to buy a piece of land to replace the farms they were forced to abandon.
The mass migration of unemployed, desperate, poverty-stricken Midwesterners overwhelmed the infrastructure of California. Government relief in the form of housing, food, and medical care was limited and resources were strained. In 1933, in California's San Joaquin Valley, cotton workers joined with the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union in the largest agricultural strike in American history. After three people died and hundreds were injured, workers were granted a 25 percent raise. On April 14, 1935, the worst "black blizzard" happened; the day is still remembered as Black Sunday. That year, Congress established the Soil Conservation Service, which began developing conservation programs to safeguard topsoil and prevent over-farming. By this point, an estimated 850 million tons of topsoil had blown off the southern plains. Farmers were offered incentives for practicing soil conservation farming techniques. By 1936, the migration of workers into California had become so overwhelming policemen began patrolling the borders of Arizona and Oregon in an effort to keep the "undesirables" from entering the state.
In 1939, the year The Grapes of Wrath was published, the country began to see its way out of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl Years. In the fall it began to rain, which brought the lengthy drought to an end. World War II, just a few years away, boosted the American economy by providing jobs to the millions who had been out of work for almost a decade.
The Grapes of Wrath became an overnight literary sensation during a particularly troubling and turbulent moment in U.S. history. The country was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, yet nearly ten thousand copies a week, at $2.75 each, flew off bookstore shelves for the first year of its publication. The consensus among critics, even those who had problems with the book, was that The Grapes of Wrath was a great American epic and a triumphant effort. Some readers, though, found the graphic descriptions of the struggles of migrant farm workers difficult to take. These people accused Steinbeck of fabricating the circumstances he described, so horrified were they by the thought that Americans could be made to suffer so completely at the hands of their own people.
The book, which placed Steinbeck squarely in the middle of the national debate over migrant workers, was also considered to be filthy and profane. In the introduction to the 2006 edition, Robert DeMott quotes Oklahoma Congressman Lyle Boren saying in 1940, "Take the vulgarity out of this book and it would be blank from cover to cover." Steinbeck was committed to representing the migrants authentically, including their rough language and manner of speaking. Having them talk any other way would have drained the book of much of its power, he argued. His portrayal of Californians angered still others. His authentic renderings of the locals and the migrants caused many to ban The Grapes of Wrath in libraries and schools across the country. One of the first libraries to call for its censorship was the Kern County Free Library in Kern County, California. According to the resolution drawn up by its board of supervisors,
John Steinbeck's work of fiction … has offended our citizenry by falsely implying that many of our fine people are a low, ignortant [sic], profane and blasphemous type living in a vicious and filthy manner,… Steinbeck presents our public officials, law enforcement office and civil administrators, business men, farmers, and ordinary citizens as inhumane vigilantes, breathing class hatred and divested of sympathy or human decency or understanding toward a great, and to us unwelcome, economic problem brought on by an astounding influx of refugees,… The Grapes of Wrath is filled with profanity, lewd, foul, and obscene language unfit for use in American homes, therefore, be it resolved, that we … request that … The Grapes of Wrath … be banned from our library and schools.
The points made in the Kern County resolution were echoed by other civic leaders, and the book was banned in several states. The next year, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came forward, praised the book, and defended it against such bitter criticism, telling an interviewer, "I have never believed that The Grapes of Wrath was exaggerated." In 1940, The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. It later served as the cornerstone for the decision to award Steinbeck with the Nobel Prize in 1962. According to Robert DeMott's introduction of the Penguin Classics 2006 edition,
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.
The flaws DeMott refer to include the book's "alleged sentimentalism, stereotyped characterizations, heavy-handed symbolism, unconvincing dialogue, episodic, melodramatic plot, misplaced Oklahoma geography, and inaccurate rendering of historical facts." He includes a sampling of the negative reviews, including Philip Rahv in the Spring 1939 Partisan Review who concludes, "the novel is far too didactic and long-winded," and cultural critic Leslie Fiedler, on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, who calls it "maudlin, sentimental, and overblown."
Whatever the objections to structure, language and topic, critics then and now note the importance of the work as a champion for Americans in need. In 1939, Charles Lee lauds the book:
In The Grapes of Wrath, [Steinbeck] has written as memorable an American novel as I have ever read. Long, superbly angry, lashing with sus tained indignation, his story towers above the work of others who have essayed to translate the desperations and dreams of the sharecrop per into words … had he been a novelist Whitman might have told such a story as this.
Another early critic, Fritz Raley Simmons, fears that the now-classic's legacy would collapse under its own weight:
The Grapes of Wrath … is not the kind of book that usually makes a best seller. It is terrific writing, but it is the kind of writing that makes one think and think hard. And it is especially disturbing to the kind of people who can afford to buy books.
Despite critical objections and worries for the novel's future, Steinbeck's masterpiece has maintained an unthreatened place among the classics of American literature since it first appeared. Linda Pelzer celebrates its power and relevance in 2000:
Fifty years after its first publication on 14 April 1939, The Grapes of Wrath still gives voice to America's dispossessed. They may no longer be Okies set adrift by dust and Depression, but whether Hispanic migrants working the California fields or Midwestern farmers battling bankruptcy, their plight is no different from the Joads', and no less poignant…. [Tom Joad's] words resonate to the deep heart's core of our common humanity, moving us not only to feel the numbing poverty, the torturous suffering, the callous anonymity that constitute life for a vast American underclass but to recognize as well the quiet dignity with which they endure such indignities. Fifty, indeed sixty, years after its first publication, The Grapes of Wrath remains a powerful testament to human resilience and solidarity.
John J. Conder
In the following excerpt, Conder argues that in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck endorses the philosophy that economic, legal, religious, and societal forces largely control individual destiny, but lays out a philosophy to rise above those forces and achieve personal freedom.
The interchapters of Steinbeck's novel create a network of interlocking determinisms through their emphasis on the operations of abstract, impersonal forces in the lives of the Oklahomans. Chapter 5 is especially effective both in capturing the poignancy of the human situation created by such forces and in pointing to the kind of deterministic force underlying the others in the novel. In one fleeting episode a nameless Oklahoman who threatens the driver of a bulldozer leveling his house is told that armed resistance is futile, for the driver acts in the service of the bank, and "the bank gets orders from the East." The Oklahoman cries, "But where does it stop? Who can we shoot?" "I don't know," the driver replies. "Maybe there's nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn't men at all. Maybe … the property's doing it." Or at least the Bank, the monster requiring "profits all the time" in order to live and dwarfing in size and power even the owner men, who feel "caught in something larger than themselves."
The vision that appears here has a name: economic determinism. This view does not say that man has no free will. One might indeed find among a group of bank presidents a corporate Thoreau who prefers jail (or unemployment) to following the demands of the system. It merely asserts that most men charged with the operation of an economic structure will act according to rules requiring the bank's dispossession of its debtors when a disaster renders them incapable of meeting payments on their mortgaged property. Far from denying free will, such determinism fully expects and provides for the willed resistance of the Oklahomans. The police take care of that. Nor is this vision without its moral component, though neither the police nor the owner men can be held individually responsible. "Some of the owner men were kind," Steinbeck writes, "because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold." These anonymous men are not devil figures but individuals performing functions within a system, so the work indicts the system rather than individuals who act in its service. In the case of the Oklahomans, the indictment is founded on a fundamental irony: societies, designed to protect men from nature's destructive features—here a drought—complete nature's destructive work, expelling men from the dust bowl into which nature's drought has temporarily transformed their farms.
The Grapes of Wrath was adapted as a film by Nunnally Johnson in 1940. Legendary director John Ford won an Academy Award for Best Director. The movie stars Jane Darwell, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ma Joad, Henry Fonda, John Carradine, and Charley Grapewin. It is available on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox.
The Grapes of Wrath was released as an unabridged audiobook in 1998; Dylan Baker narrates the story and voices the characters in this twenty-one-hour recording. It is available on audio cassette from Penguin Audio.
By virtue of the instinct for self-preservation, in the camps twenty families become one large family, sharing a single instinct. The animal can come to life on this instinctual level because the animal's anlage is in the separate family, the basic unit through which man fulfills his needs, and the instinctual sense of unity is strengthened by a common set of threatening circumstances issuing in shared emotions: first fear, then anger. In this condition, the "school intelligence" directing its drives is instinctual alone, and hence the human group is more like the school of fish to which Steinbeck refers. Guided solely by instinct, the human group-animal achieves a measure of protection from a hostile social environment, but with instinct alone, it can no more transcend the social determinism of the body politic than the turtle (which in the novel symbolizes it in this condition) can transcend the machinations of the drivers eager to squash it. Chance alone can save the group or the turtle as both walk, like Tom, one step ahead of the other, living from day to day.
But the group changes, and in this respect the plot goes one step further than the interchapters, which halt with the fermenting of the grapes of wrath. For the plot shows the emergence of a rational group consciousness, first in Casy, then in Tom, whose final talk with his mother, representing the principle of family, discloses that his own consciousness has transcended such limitations. In fact it is mainly in Tom that the group develops a head for its body; for he survives the murdered Casy, and he was from the beginning more clearly a member of the de facto group than Casy, who owned no land. And by stressing how the animal that is the group achieves rational consciousness and (hence) freedom, Steinbeck harmonizes freedom and determinism in his most important way. The group determined by instinct and circumstance in the interchapters achieves both rational self-awareness and freedom in the person of a member who substitutes the consciousness of a group for a private consciousness and thus gives the group access to the faculty of human will. Tom thus enables it to move from instinct to reason and to that freedom which reasoned acts of the will provide. By having the group consciousness mature in the plot section of his novel, Steinbeck thus unites it to the interchapters structurally and harmonizes his novel philosophically.
And he provides a triumph for the group within the context of determinism, for their attainment of rational group consciousness is itself a determined event because such potential is inherent in the species. Their achieved freedom of will as a group thus is the final term of a socially determined sequence of events that leads to the group's creation, and the group's exercise of it to attain its ends fulfills the historical determinism of the novel. Yet this is not the only hope in these pages, for the prospective triumph of the group provides hope for the triumph of the individual as a whole person.
The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the exploitation of a dispossessed group, and it is difficult not to feel that it will always engender sympathies for the dispossessed of the earth wherever and whenever they might appear. But the novel's indictment of society for what it does to individuals should have an equally enduring appeal; for here its message goes beyond the conditions of oppressed groups and addresses individuals in all strata of complex societies. The condition of individual Oklahomans in fact is an extreme representation of the condition of social man, and in the capacity of individual Oklahomans to change lies the hope for social man.
The migrants' achievement of rational freedom speaks for more than freedom for the group. It tells readers of a vital difference in kinds of freedom. Steinbeck has written, "I believe that man is a double thing—a group animal and at the same time an individual. And it occurs to me that he cannot successfully be the second until he has fulfilled the first." Only the fulfilled group self can create a successful personal self; only freedom exercised by a personal self in harmony with a group self can be significant.
This aspect of the novel's vision depends upon Steinbeck's fuller conception of an individual's two selves. One is his social self, definable by the role he plays in society and by the attitudes he has imbibed from its major institutions. The other is what is best called his species self. It contains all the biological mechanisms—his need for sexual expression, for example—that link him to other creatures in nature. And by virtue of the fact that he is thus linked to the natural world, he can feel a sense of unity with it in its inanimate as well as its animate forms. But the biological element in this self also connects him to the world of man, for it gives him an instinctive sense of identification with other members of his species, just as the members of other species have an instinctive sense of oneness with their own kind.
The species self thus has connections to non-human and human nature, and Steinbeck refers to the latter connection when he speaks of man as a "group animal." He views a healthy personal identity as one in which the species self in both its aspects can express itself through the social self of the individual. But society thwarts, or seeks to thwart, the expression of that self. It seeks not only to cut man off from his awareness of his connections to nonhuman nature, it seeks also to sever him from the group sense of oneness with the human species that the individual's species self possesses. Ironically, therefore, purely social man loses a sense of that unity with others which society presumably exists to promote.
The novel's social criticism rests on this view, and its emphasis on grotesques, purely social beings cut off from their connections to nature, both human and nonhuman, portrays an all-too-familiar image of modern man. In too many instances, by imposing mechanical rhythms on human nature, society creates half-men. Its repeated attempts to distort the individual's identity is emphasized by numerous dichotomies between social demands and instinct. Tom tries to comprehend the meaning of his imprisonment for killing in self-defense. Casy tries to understand the meaning of his preaching sexual abstinence when he cannot remain chaste himself. And the point is made by the basic events that set the story moving. A mechanical monster, indifferent to the maternal instincts of the Ma Joads who exercise their species selves in the interest of family solidarity, expels families from their land. The social mechanism thus tries to thwart the demands of the group aspect of the self to remain together. And the same mechanism is responsible for sowing what has become a dust bowl with cotton, rendering it permanently useless for agriculture, thus showing its indifference—nay, hostility—to the connections with nature that the species self feels.
Tom finds no meaning, at the novel's outset, in a system that imprisons him for killing in self-defense, and he discovers the true meaning of the system only after he kills the deuty who murders Casy—a nice bit of symmetry that illustrates his growth in awareness as he perceives, like Casy, that his second killing is also an instinctual response, one of self-defense against the true assaulter, the system, which so thwarts man's instinctual life that it leaves him no choice other than to strike back. This line of meaning is echoed by others: by Ma, who says of Purty Boy Floyd, "He wan't a bad boy. Jus' got drove in a corner"; by the nameless owner men who tell the tenants early in the novel, "You'll be stealing if you try to stay, you'll be murderers if you kill to stay." And it is implicit in Tom's own position at the beginning of the plot: to leave the state violates the conditions of his parole, yet to stay means to break up the family and to face unemployment and possible starvation.
Under such circumstances, it is not surprising to discover that the true prison in The Grapes of Wrath is the world outside the prison walls, the real point of Tom's story of a man who deliberately violated parole to return to jail so that he could enjoy the "conveniences" (among them good food) so conspicuously absent in his home. "Here's me, been a-goin' into the wilderness like Jesus to try to find out somepin," Casy says. "Almost got her sometimes, too. But it's in the jail house I really got her." He discovers his proper relationship to men there because it is the place of the free: of men who exercised the natural rights of nature's self only to be imprisoned by the society that resents their exercise. And in fact he can see how the law violates self because he has already seen how religion does. Without the revelations of the wilderness, he would not have had the revelation of the jailhouse; the first is indispensable to the second. Together, they make him the touchstone for understanding the novel's philosophy of self and for measuring the selves of the novel's other characters.
Just as the species self is the ultimate source of freedom for a group, it is the same for an individual. If man can recognize that he is a part of nature by virtue of that self's existence—if he can affirm for this aspect of a naturalistic vision—he can liberate himself from the condition of being a grotesque and, in recognizing his oneness with others, escape the tentacles of economic determinism as well.
Source: John J. Conder, "Steinbeck and Nature's Self: The Grapes of Wrath," in Naturalism in American Fiction: The Clasic Phase, University Press of Kentucky, 1984, pp.142-59.
The Charters of Freedom," U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/charters/charters.html (October 29, 2006).
DeMott, Robert, "Introduction," in The Grapes of Wrath, Penguin Books, 2006, pp. ix-xlv.
"First Lady's Week," in Time Magazine, April 15, 1940, www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,789721,00.html (October 31, 2006).
Haslam, Gerald, "Grapes of Wrath: A Book That Stretched My Soul," CaliforniaAuthors.com, www.californiaauthors.com/essay_haslam.shtml (October 31, 2006).
Hochenauer, Kurt, "The Rhetoric of American Protest: Thomas Paine and the Education of Tom Joad," in the Midwest Quarterly, Summer 1994, pp. 392-404.
Kern County Board of Supervisors, Resolution 21 August 1939,; quoted in Lingo, Marci, "Forbidden Fruit: The Banning of the Grapes of Wrath in the Kern County Free Library," in Libraries & Culture, Fall 2003, September 29, 2006.
Lee, Charles, "The Grapes of Wrath: The Tragedy of the American Sharecropper," in the Boston Herald, April 22, 1939; reprinted in The Critical Response to John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath, edited by Barbara A. Heavilin, Greenwood Press, 2000, p. 47.
Paine, Thomas, "December 26, 1776," The Crisis, www.ushistory.org/Paine/crisis/c-01.htm (November 2, 2006).
Pelzer, Linda C., "Honoring an American Classic: Viking's 1989 Edition of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (Review)," in The Critical Response to John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath, edited by Barbara A. Heavilin, Greenwood Press, 2000, p. 309.
Simmons, Fritz Raley, "Farm Tenancy Central Theme of Steinbeck," in the Greensboro Daily News, July 1939; reprinted in The Critical Response to John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath, edited by Barbara A. Heavilin, Greenwood Press, 2000, p. 55.
Steinbeck, John, The Grapes of Wrath, Viking Press, 1939; reprint, Penguin Classics, 2006.
The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath
The punk rock movement of the mid 1970s gave birth to numerous sub-genres and musical offshoots such as New Wave, goth, alternative, and grunge. Almost every popular musical group that emerged after punk rock invaded the mainstream has owed a debt to this seminal musical force of the late twentieth century.
By 1977 the punk rock phenomenon had infiltrated Canada. Small towns and big cities alike had begun to attract homegrown bands and performers who were steeped in the nascent punk tradition. The tiny western Canadian town of Kelowna, British Columbia, was no exception. In 1977 schoolmates Chris Hooper and Kevin Kane, who were both in their early teens, joined up with Hooper‘s little brother Tom, who was barely 11 years old, to form a punk band.
The newly formed trio began to jam together at their parents‘ homes. They covered punk tunes along with staples of the classic-rock canon before they moved on to playing their own songs. They broke up a short while later. According to the 1991 biography of Grapes of Wrath on the Capitol Records website, “the Hoopers continued to pursue their punk fixation with a group called Gentlemen of Horror, while Kane played in an art-rock outfit [called] Empty Set.”
In 1983 the Hooper brothers decided to hook up with Kane again. They formed what was supposed to be a one-night-only cover band called Honda Civic. After the show, the Hoopers and Kane realized that, in order for them to achieve their goals and satisfy themselves both musically and creatively, they were going to have to come together for good this time. The creative spark of their collaborations along with their love of cutting-edge music were the forces that initially brought the Hooper brothers and Kane together in 1977; they served to bring them back together some six years later.
The summer of 1983 saw the trio drop the name Honda Civic in favor of something more substantial. They decided on Grapes of Wrath, a name suggested by the film lover, Chris. They soon began practicing at home under their new name.
With money saved up from various part-time jobs and yard sales, among other things, the Grapes of Wrath traveled to Vancouver in 1984 to record their first record—a four-song self-titled EP. The Grapes of Wrath was released on the Vancouver-based Nettwerk label. Soon after the EP‘s release, the band relocated to Vancouver, picking up a new member around the same time: keyboard player Vincent Jones.
The positive regional support that the Grapes of Wrath‘s debut EP garnered helped to propel their next release into the musical consciousness of the Canadian nation as a whole. The band‘s second album, September Bowl of Green, was released in 1985. It was this album, their first full-length release, that earned them critical acclaim and national interest, helped along by significant radio airplay throughout Canada.
After capturing the national attention of their homeland, the Grapes of Wrath turned their attention toward the United States to see if they could work their magic south of the border. In 1986 September Bowl of Green was released in both America and Europe, thanks to a global distribution deal brokered between Nettwerk and Capitol Records. Unlike the situation in Canada, the record did not cause much of a stir in the United States. Undaunted by this, the Grapes of Wrath entered the studio to record their second full-length album, Treehouse, which was released in Canada in 1987. The album was not the breakthrough smash hit everyone in the band had hoped for, but it did yield “Peace of Mind,” the Grapes of Wrath‘s first hit single in Canada. The album did not fare well in America when it was released one year later.
Early 1989 saw the Grapes of Wrath return to the United States, specifically Woodstock, New York, to record the sessions that would eventually become their third album, Now and Again. This album evokes the melodies of the Byrds along with the jangly sounds of such college and alternative rock stalwarts as R.E.M., the Connells, and Let‘s Active. Now and Again struck a responsive chord in the record-buying and music-listening public in Canada: the album went gold in Canada after less than two months. The Grapes of
Members include Matt Brain (joined group, c. 2000), drums; Chris Hooper (left group, c. 1998), drums; Tom Hooper, bass, vocals; Vincent Jones (joined group, c. 1985), keyboards; Kevin Kane, vocals, guitars.
Group formed in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, 1983; moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and signed with Nettwerk Records; released Grapes of Wrath (EP), 1984; signed to Capitol Records, released September Bowl of Green, 1985; disbanded, 1992; reformed, 1998; released Field Trip on Song Recordings, 2000.
Awards: Canadian platinum sales certification, Now and Again, c. 1990; Canadian platinum sales certification, These Days, C. 1992.
Addresses: Business— -P.O. Box 57128, 2480 E. Hastings St., Vancouver, BC, Canada V5K 5G6. Website — Grapes of Wrath Official Website: http://www.thegrapesofwrath.com.
Wrath also scored their first top-ten hit single in Canada, the lilting ballad “All the Things I Wasn‘t.” The success of Now and Again helped to push the Grapes of Wrath out of the clubs and into the concert halls as they toured Canada. While Now and Again was achieving platinum sales certification in Canada, the Grapes of Wrath began touring Europe and the United States.
Touring in support of Now and Again took up most of 1990, and the Grapes of Wrath‘s fourth album did not see the light of day until 1991. Like its predecessor, These Days was certified platinum in Canada. The sales of the album were bolstered by the fact that it yielded two top-ten hit singles, “I Am Here” and “You May Be Right.” Concerts sold out all over Canada, and Europe began to warm up to the charms of the Grapes of Wrath. In Europe the Grapes of Wrath began to see their first chart appearances outside their native land.
Unfortunately, the success and accolades were to be short-lived for the Grapes of Wrath. On October 30, 1992, the band dissolved. According to the official Grapes of Wrath website, “though never officially ‘breaking up, ‘ the Grapes of Wrath were pretty much over: the Hoopers and Jones attempted to have Kane removed from the band and Kane took legal action against his former band mates.” The Hooper brothers and Jones went on to form the band Ginger, releasing two albums in the mid 1990s. Kane pursued a solo career and released an album around the same time.
Almost four years after the band had broken up, Tom Hooper sent Kane a letter about the split. According to the official Grapes of Wrath website, the “letter suggested] that the two of them try and resolve matters once and for all. Meeting at a ‘neutral‘ Vancouver location, the old Grapes business [was] essentially ‘put to rest‘ in barely over an hour, [and] talk turned to playing together again.”
They decided to play small shows and began to record some tracks in the studio in the late 1990s. By the summer of 2000, Kane, along with his songwriting partner Tom Hooper and new drummer Matt Brain, had released the fifth Grapes of Wrath record, Field Trip, on Song Recordings. Commenting on Field Trip —the first Grapes of Wrath record in nine years—on the Chartat-tack website, Hooper said, “Time goes by. You‘d hope that you wouldn‘t sound exactly the same that you did 15 years ago. It‘s whatever comes naturally. We‘re better players now, we‘re better everything.”
The Grapes of Wrath (EP), Nettwerk Records, 1984.
September Bowl of Green, Capitol Records, 1985.
Treehouse (includes “Peace of Mind”), Capitol Records, 1987.
Now and Again (includes “All the Things I Wasn‘t”), Capitol Records, 1989.
These Days (includes “I Am Here” and “You May Be Right”), Capitol Records, 1991.
Field Trip, Song Recordings, 2000.
Graff, Gary and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
“The Grapes of Wrath,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 10, 2001).
Grapes of Wrath Official Website, http://www.thegrapesofwrath.com (April 10, 2001).
“Grapes of Wrath‘s Magic Mushroom Experience,” Chartattack, http://www.chartattack.com (April 10, 2001).
Additional information was taken from Capitol Records press materials for These Days, 1991.
—Mary Alice Adams
The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in the Great Depression of the 1930s; published in 1939.
After losing their Oklahoma farm, a family journeys to California, where they face hardship and injustice as migrant workers.
Born and raised in California, John Stein-beck portrays in many of his writings the beauty and agricultural promise that attracted thousands to that state during the Great Depression. He also examines the social tensions resulting from the rapid growth in this state. The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the plight of new-comers who, promised plentiful jobs as farm workers, instead find themselves competing desperately for few jobs at rock-bottom wages.
Most Americans think of the Great Depression as beginning with the stock market crash of 1929. For some, however, like dry farmers in the southern Plains states, it started earlier. Dry farming—agriculture without irrigation—had boomed in the region since the railroad arrived in the late 1800s. Wheat and corn were the favorite crops, and wheat prices soared with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. But farmers in Europe returned to their fields when the war ended in 1918, and American wheat exports dropped. Suddenly American farmers were getting much less for their crops. In the 1920s, an agricultural depression set in, contributing to the more serious economic downturn that followed.
Throughout the 1920s, farmers struggled to keep their farms going. Some had bought new land and equipment during the war years, thinking that the good prices and high demand were going to continue. Others had taken out mortgages on property. Many (like the fictional Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath) rented their land from a landlord, usually a bank that had taken the property when an earlier owner couldn’t pay off a mortgage. Whether bound by loans, mortgages, or rent, many farmers in the 1920s faced mounting debts that were growing harder to pay. Just maintaining the payment schedule was worrisome and often difficult, and most hoped that better days were around the corner.
Instead, the whole economy took a nose dive beginning with the stock market crash in October 1929. The already low prices farmers were paid for their crops sank even lower as the en-tire nation plunged into economic depression. The landlords and banks, in trouble themselves, now pressed harder than ever for the money the farmers owed them.
At this critical point, nature, too, added to the farmers’ troubles. From the early days of settlement through the 1920s, rain had
generally been plentiful in the Plains states. Beginning in 1931, however, six years of severe drought struck the region, quickly draining its ground water supply. In addition, poor farming practices were taking a heavy toll on the land. Overgrazing by livestock, failure to rotate crops so that fields could recover, allowing animals to graze on the crop stubble instead of plowing it back under—these and other practices had robbed the soil of nutrients.
DUST BOWL DIARY
APRIL 25, 1934, WEDNESDAY:
Last weekend was the worst dust storm we ever had.... Many days this spring the air is just full of dirt coming, literally, for hundreds of miles. It sifts into everything, After we wash the dishes and put them away, so much dust sifts into the cup-boards that we must wash them again before the next meal. Clothes in the closets are covered with dust.
(Low, Dust Bowl Diary, p. 95)
Without mountains or even many trees to provide cover, the Plains region has always been very windy. Now, in the hot, dry weather, the winds helped evaporate what little water was left in the soil. As the farmers tried to grow their crops in the poor, dry earth, it turned to dust. The winds picked up the dust, creating huge black clouds that darkened the sky for miles. A part of the natural ecosystem, such dust storms were not new to the Great Plains. During the 1930s, though, worsened by the farmers’ abuse of the soil, they struck harder and more often than ever before. Fences, equipment, trucks, even whole buildings could be covered in a matter of hours. And when there were no storms, the constant winds piled the dust in deep drifts. Soon, the whole area— over 5 million square miles, from North Dakota to Texas, from Arkansas to New Mexico—became known as the Dust Bowl.
The worst storms in the Dust Bowl happened in a roughly four-hundred-mile-wide circle. Centered on the Oklahoma panhandle, this circle included parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado. But the dirt blizzards affected the whole eastern half of the nation as well. Bad storms in 1933 and 1934 dropped dust as far east as New York and Philadelphia. The worst of all came on Sunday, April 14, 1935, “Black Sunday,” when thick, black clouds hid the sun over the Plains states. In hours, temperatures plunged fifty degrees in some places.
The harsh conditions of the Dust Bowl squeezed everybody, but they hit the small farmers hardest. Those who owed money on loans or mortgages couldn’t pay when crops failed year after year. They lost their land to the banks. And the banks, which now owned more land than ever before, had to wring every penny of profit out of it. It was cheaper to have one man with a tractor visit many farms than to allow families of tenants to operate them. So the banks “tractored” the families off the land, as happens to the Joads in the novel’s early pages. Often this meant literally driving a tractor through the home of the protesting family to make them leave.
Thus, thousands of families, already ground down by years of poverty and hardship, now found themselves homeless as well. For most, the future appeared bleak, but word spread that un-limited opportunity awaited in the far west, in the golden state of California. As Grampa Joad puts it, “’Course it’ll be all different out there— plenty work, an’ ever’thing nice an’ green, an’ little white houses an’ oranges growing all around” (Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, p. 141).
This tempting vision was reinforced by the appearance of numerous leaflets sent out to the stricken Plains region by California growers. The leaflets commonly stated that thousands of workers were needed at such-and-such a farm or orchard. Packing everything they could into their old cars or trucks, selling the rest at a loss, the homeless families began a great migration westward. Between half a million and a million people made the journey between 1933 and 1940, one of the biggest mass movements in U.S. history.
Like the Joads, nearly all took Route 66, which runs from Oklahoma City almost 2,000 miles straight west, through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to California. They optimistically called it the “Mother Road,” but upon reaching California their joy died quickly. Instead of steady jobs, they found hostility and exploitation. Dirty from living in cars and tents, uneducated, and having their own seemingly peculiar ways and customs, they were despised and often attacked by local people. No longer were they farmers or landowners. Nor were they even seen as respectable citizens. Instead, since many came from Oklahoma, all were scornfully labeled “Okies,” and the makeshift community camps they lived in were called “Okievilles.”
Growers and migrants
The Okies had been farmers, familiar with the ways of the land, but they met an entirely new kind of agriculture in California. Instead of small family farms raising a variety of crops and animals, California agriculture was increasingly dominated by large, single-crop farms run by corporations. By 1935, 10 percent of the farms grew over 50 percent of the total crops produced in the state.
Work for these single-crop growers was pretty much limited to a short period at harvest time, when the crop had to be picked. These were the “jobs” promised in the leaflets, which the Okies thought were year-round, full-time positions. That assumption was wrong, for California agri-culture needed migrant labor, workers for brief jobs who would then travel to the next job. While corn and wheat can be harvested by a single farmer with a tractor, California crops like fruits and cotton required large teams to pick them by hand quickly, before spoilage set in. The workers followed these crops, moving on to a new farm as its crop grew ready for picking. Outside of harvest time, there was no place in the economic system for them.
Earlier migrant workers in California had included Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Mexican immigrants. Whatever their origin, California’s migrant workers were at the mercy of the growers. Outsiders, often homeless and desperate for work, migrants usually arrived in numbers greater than the available jobs. At no time was this surplus of workers greater than with the influx of Dust Bowl refugees.
The growers had hoped for such a surplus when they sent out the leaflets, which might advertise for perhaps 800 workers when there was work for only 500. Several thousand men might see the leaflets and respond. More workers meant lower wages—and thus higher profits for the grower. Early in their journey west, the Joads meet a ragged, dirty man who has returned from California and warns them. “The more fellas he gets, an’ the hungrier, less he’s gonna pay” (The Grapes of Wrath, p. 244). The man’s wife and children have died of starvation and disease; by the end he is willing to work “jus’ for a cup a flour an’ a spoon a lard” (The Grapes of Wrath, p. 245).
Attempting to organize
Like other migrant workers before and after them, the Okies tried to organize labor unions that would help them stand up to the growers. Steinbeck portrays such attempts, and the growers’ responses, when the Joads find work at a peach orchard where, unknown to them, other migrants are on strike. As the Joads arrive, they are escorted by police past some shouting people and into the camp. Tom Joad, in some ways the novel’s central character, sneaks out of the orchard to dis-cover what is going on. He finds out that the men and women he’d seen earlier were striking workers. Tom comes across his old friend Jim Casy, now the strikers’ leader. Their peaceful meeting is then broken up by two club-wielding policemen, one of whom kills Casy with a blow to the head.
THEIR BLOOD IS STRONG
John Steinbeck had already won recognition for his earlier novels Tortilla Flat In Dubious Battle, and Of Mice and Men. Published in the 1930s, they had dealt with farming and labor issues in California during the Depression. In 1936 Steinbeck became concerned about the plight of the Okies, who by that time had been streaming into the state for several years. That fall, he began spending time among them, talking, hearing their stories, and observing their living conditions. He then wrote a series of newspaper articles for the San Francisco News, which were later collected in a book, Their Blood is Strong. The book is often seen as a nonfiction forerunner of The Grapes of Wrath, which was written two years later, in 1938.
The episode shows how local institutions of power like the police worked on the side of the growers. Such incidents were not uncommon. In 1938, for example, a mob headed by a local sheriff burned down an Okie migrant camp in Kern County, a leading farming area where antimigrant feelings were especially strong. The penniless migrants, by contrast, had only their own unity on which to rely. But this unity was tenuous. With so many hungry, the growers could always find those desperate enough to work, even if it meant going against a strike. For example, the Joads are offered the same wage—five cents a box—that the strikers had demanded. Once the strike is broken, Casy tells Tom, the wage will go back down to two-and-a-half cents. The growers were willing to pay the higher wage for a short period in order to break the strike.
Upon taking office in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a comprehensive agenda of government programs to combat the Depression. Called the New Deal, these programs included new federal agencies designed to create employment opportunities and to improve the lot of workers and the unemployed. Among the many such agencies, the one that most directly touched the Okies’ lives was the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Operating under the authority of the Department of Agriculture, in 1936 the FSA began building camps in California in which the homeless migrants could live. Ten such camps were finished by the following year, and Steinbeck visited several in his research for The Grapes of Wrath. In the novel the Joads stay at one, the Arvin Sanitary Camp, also called the Weedpatch Camp, in Kern County.
The FSA camps were meant not as permanent homes, but as models for the larger growers to use in building similar living quarters for the migrants. Far from luxurious or even comfortable, they provided only basic necessities: rough shelter, and “sanitary units” in which to shower, wash, use the toilet, and do laundry. The growers, however, generally failed to build actual living quarters for the migrant farm workers, so many of them ended up staying in the camps for longer periods than was originally intended.
Tom Joad, about thirty, is hitchhiking home to his family’s Oklahoma farm after being paroled from prison, where he was serving a sentence for killing a man (though he acted in self-defense). While on the road, Joad hooks up with a former preacher, Jim Casy, who also is returning to the area after a long absence.
On reaching the Joad farm, they find it and neighboring farms strangely deserted. Told that the family is with Tom’s Uncle John, they find them at his place and soon learn that the Joads and other local families have been “tractored off” the land by the banks. The Joads are packing their truck to leave—like others, they have heard that sunshine and plentiful work are waiting in California. Before they leave, they go into town to sell their remaining farm equipment, horses, and furniture for the paltry sum of $18. It was far less than the goods were worth, but they had no choice.
It is agreed that Jim Casy will come with them, which makes thirteen in all: Grampa and Granma Joad, Uncle John, Pa and Ma Joad, Tom, his older brother Noah and teenage brother Al, their pregnant sister, Rose of Sharon, and her husband, and the youngest children, Ruthie and Winfield. After slaughtering their two remaining pigs and salting down the meat in barrels to preserve it, they set off early the next morning. At the last minute, Grampa refuses to leave the land and has to be drugged with a big dose of cough syrup. That night, as the Joads camp out with the Wilsons, another uprooted family whom they have befriended, Grampa dies of a stroke.
Traveling together, the two families reach California, but soon after they cross the border Mrs. Wilson falls ill and Mr. Wilson insists that the Joads go on by themselves. The trip has taken its toll on Granma Joad, who never recovered from her husband’s death. As they cross the California desert at night, Granma dies. Ma Joad, who has been caring for her, hides her death from the others until the family is safely across the desert.
Their money nearly gone, the Joads reach a migrants’ camp (an “Okieville”) near Bakersfield, the major city at the southern end of California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley. Men in the camp have been unable to find work. A man representing a grower arrives, however, and says that he’ll be hiring many pickers shortly, further north in the valley.
He mentions the tempting wage of thirty cents an hour—but when Floyd, a new acquaintance of Tom’s, tries to get the man to put it in writing, the man grows angry. He summons his companion, a deputy, and accuses Floyd of being a “red.” The deputy harasses Floyd, then tries to arrest him. When Floyd hits him and runs, the deputy shoots and hits a nearby woman. As he is about to shoot again, Casy knocks him out. More deputies arrive. They arrest Casy, and the sheriff warns the migrants that they must leave.
Hearing of the federal camp at Weedpatch, the Joads go there and find a place in the crowded facility. There they find temporary respite from the harshness of life on the road, but work in the area is scarce and their money is running out. Leaving Weedpatch Camp, they head north and find a job picking peaches at an orchard where other workers are striking. The strike had come about when the grower had halved the workers’ wages, to two-and-a-half cents a box. Casy, re-leased from jail, is leading the strike. Tom is with him when the police raid the strikers and kill Casy; Tom, enraged, kills one of the policemen and goes into hiding. The family leaves the orchard, smuggling Tom out under a mattress.
They find work picking cotton, camping in an empty boxcar that the grower has provided as living quarters. While Tom hides in the bushes nearby, Ma brings him food. But when Ruthie brags that her brother killed a man, Ma tells Tom that he must go before he is found. Tom says that he wants to try organizing other migrants, as Casy was doing when he was killed. Ma gives him a few of her hard-earned dollars before he departs.
Just as the cotton harvest is ending, heavy rains begin. During the rains, Rose of Sharon gives birth, but her baby is born dead. Soon the rains flood the boxcar floor and the family has to pile up their belongings and perch on the pile. Ma Joad insists that they get out of the wet boxcar. They wade through the torrent to the highway and find a barn. Inside are a boy and his father. The father is starving because he has given all his food to the boy, who begs the Joads for food to feed his father. The destitute Joads have nothing to offer—until Rose of Sharon gives the starving man milk from her breast, milk her body had produced for her dead child.
NEEDED AND HATED
The unique nature of California agriculture requires that these migrants exist, and requires that they move about. Peaches and grapes, hops and cotton cannot be harvested by a resident population of laborers.... Thus, in California we find a curious attitude toward a group that makes our agriculture successful. The migrants are needed, and they are hated. Arriving in a district, they find the dislike always meted out by the resident to the foreigner, the outlander,
(Steinbeck, Their Blood is Strong, p. 1)
“I” and “we.”
The Grapes of Wrath addresses problems that concerned the whole nation in the period of the Depression: poverty, economic in-justice, and the rights of workers against those of employers. In his approach to these issues, Steinbeck draws on a literary tradition with roots deep in American history, a tradition whose ideas go back to early American writers like Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Steinbeck uses Jim Casy, the former preacher, to present these ideas, and then has Casy pass them on to Tom Joad.
Casy, the former preacher, quit preaching because his beliefs no longer fit in with those of the church. Yet he continues to consider himself a religious man. Instead of believing in a Holy Spirit separate from humanity, he has come to believe that somehow all of humanity together makes up the Holy Spirit. As he tells Tom, “Maybe that’s the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of (The Grapes of Wrath, p. 31).
Putting financial profit ahead of this “one big soul” goes against Casy’s new beliefs, which is why he becomes a labor organizer. By contrast, working for society’s common good becomes in Casy’s eyes a religious aim:
I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing. An’ it got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth and run off his own way, kickin’ an’ draggin’ an’ fightin’. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they’re all working together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang—that’s right, that’s holy.
(The Grapes of Wrath, p. 105)
Okie children, uprooted from their homes and living on the road, faced great difficulties in getting an education. Often formal learning came second to the need to contribute to the family’s income. When they were lucky enough to make it to school, they were teased, bullied, and attacked by the local children. Leo Hart, Superintendent of Education for Kern County, saw the problems the Okie children at the Weedpatch Camp were having in local public schools. In 1940, he and his wife Edna founded a school for the camp’s children. The Harts, a few teachers, and the children themselves built the school with locally donated supplies. Under Hart’s leadership, the school thrived, giving the children self-respect as well as an education. In a few years, local parents were trying to get their children into the “Okie school.”
Even employing others for your own profit (”one fella for another fella”) goes against this view of what is “holy.”
Such ideas clearly clash with the traditional American values of free enterprise and individualism. Charges of being a “red” (a socialist or communist) have been commonly leveled against labor organizers, playing on the nation’s traditional distrust of socialist ideas to fight against the labor movement. For example, when Floyd tries to hold the employer to his promise, the man accuses him of “talkin’ red, agitatin’ trouble” and then has him arrested (The Grapes of Wrath, p. 339). While Floyd was merely trying to obtain a written agreement, in some ways Casy’s ideas do in fact have strong elements of socialism.
So did Steinbeck’s, for The Grapes of Wrath is indeed a radical political document, a warning against the dangers of unrestrained capitalism. The wrath of the title refers to the anger of people who have lost even the basic necessities of survival. Their wrath threatens to overthrow those who possess society’s wealth. “If you who own the things people must have could understand this,” Steinbeck writes in a short descriptive chapter, “you might preserve yourself.... But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into the T and cuts you off forever from the ‘we’” (The Grapes of Wrath, p. 195). Thus Steinbeck’s novel attacks the very cornerstone of capitalism, the idea of ownership itself.
Steinbeck dedicated The Grapes of Wrath to his wife, Carol, and to Tom, who lived the novel. This Tom refers to Tom Collins, whom Steinbeck met in 1936. In August of that year, Steinbeck was visiting the federal camps for the migrants in California’s Central Valley, doing re-search for his newspaper articles. Collins was in charge of Weedpatch Camp, which Steinbeck later featured in the novel. He was also the model for the sympathetic and understanding camp manager in the book, Jim Rawley. Through Collins’s tireless efforts, and aided by the plentiful notes Collins kept, Steinbeck gained great in-sight into the migrants’ world.
The character Jim Casy, too, has qualities in common with Tom Collins. Like Casy, Collins had a religious background, having trained as a priest. As a friend described him, “There was al-ways something about Tom of the missionary. He had that... look in his eye, a way of smiling when you talked. You knew he had your better interests at heart” (Parini, p. 179). Also at Weedpatch was Sherm Easton, head of the camp’s governing committee. According to a later manager of the camp, Easton and his family were the models for the Joads. Yet the Joads clearly sprang largely from Steinbeck’s imagination, perhaps as mixtures of people he had met in his travels or seen elsewhere.
Steinbeck’s attacks against capitalism provoked outrage, as did his portrayals of circumstances in both Oklahoma and California. A congressman from Oklahoma, for example, called the book “a lie, the black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind” (Parini, p. 236). Growers in California claimed that it was unfair to them. School boards across the country banned it, claiming that it was obscene. It was not only banned but also publicly burned in Kern County, California, where much of it is set.
Yet within a few weeks of its publication, The Grapes of Wrath shot to the top of the bestseller lists and stayed there; it was 1939’s top seller. Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, praised it publicly and defended Steinbeck against his attackers. In 1940, the book won a Pulitzer Prize, and it is considered largely responsible for Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature. Taking its place as a classic of American literature, it has since sold an estimated 15 million copies. An even wider audience has been introduced to the Joads through director John Ford’s highly praised 1940 film adaptation.
The Grapes of Wrath, of course, also drew public attention to the plight of the migrants. Its success gave Steinbeck a national voice, and he used it. It also won him several meetings with President Roosevelt. In the end, though, what put a halt to the Okies’ nightmare of poverty was the same thing that ended the Depression as a whole: the nation’s entry into World War II in 1941.
Andryszewski, Tricia. The Dust Bowl: Disaster on the Plains. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook, 1993.
Low, Ann Marie. Dust Bowl Diary. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl; The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp. New York: Crown, 1992.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. 1939. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 1976.
Steinbeck, John. Their Blood is Strong. San Francisco: Simon J. Lubin Society of California, 1938.
The Grapes of Wrath
THE GRAPES OF WRATH
Director: John Ford
Production: Twentieth Century-Fox; black and white, 35mm; running time: 128 minutes, some prints are 115 minutes. Released 24 January 1940, New York. Filmed late Summer-early Fall 1939 in Twentieth Century-Fox studios and lots; with some footage shot on location on Highway 66 between Oklahoma and California. Cost: $750,000 (estimated).
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck; screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, from the novel by John Steinbeck; photography: Gregg Toland; editor: Robert Simpson; art directors: Richard Day and Mark Lee Kirk; music arranger: Alfred Newman; special sound effects: Robert Parrish.
Cast: The Joad Party: Henry Fonda (Tom); Jane Darwell (Ma); Russell Simpson (Pa); Charley Grapewin (Grampa); Zeffie Tilbury (Granma); Frank Darien (Uncle John); Frank Sully (Noah); O. Z. Whitehead (Al); Dorris Bowdon (Rosasharn); Eddie Quillan (Connie Rivers); Shirley Mills (Ruthie); Darryl Hickman (Winfield); Others: John Carradine (Casey); John Qualen (Muley Graves); Ward Bond (Policeman); Paul Guilfoyle (Floyd); Charles D. Brown (Wilkie).
Awards: Oscars for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Darwell), 1940; New York Film Critics' Awards for Best Picture and Best Direction, 1940.
Johnson, Nunnally, The Grapes of Wrath, in Twenty Best Film Plays, edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols, New York, 1943.
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Reed, Joseph W., Three American Originals: John Ford, WilliamFaulkner, Charles Ives, Middletown, Connecticut, 1984.
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Gallagher, Tag, John Ford: The Man and His Films, Berkeley, 1986.
Stowell, Peter, John Ford, Boston, 1986.
Lourdeaux, Lee, Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford,Capra, Coppola & Scorsese, Springfield, 1990; revised, 1993.
Davis, Ronald L., John Ford: Hollywood's Old Master, Norman, 1997.
Levy, Bill, John Ford: A Bio-Bibliography, Westport, 1998.
Eyman, Scott, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, New York, 1999.
Benton, Thomas, in Life (New York), 22 January 1940.
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New York Times, 25 January 1940.
Mok, M., "Slumming with Zanuck," in Nation (New York), 3 February 1940.
Ferguson, Otis, in New Republic (New York), 12 February 1940.
Griffith, Richard, "The Film Since Then," in The Film Till Now by Paul Rotha, revised edition, New York, 1949.
Bluestone, George, Novels into Films, Baltimore, 1957.
Hill, Derek, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1957.
Springer, John, "Henry Fonda," in Films in Review (New York), November 1960.
Cowie, Peter, "Fonda," in Films and Filming (London), April 1962.
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Fonda, Henry, "Fonda on Fonda," in Films and Filming (London), February 1963.
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Place, J., "A Family in a Ford: The Grapes of Wrath," in FilmComment (New York), September-October 1976.
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Boyero, C., in Casablanca (Madrid), January 1983.
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* * *
A pet project of Darryl Zanuck's, The Grapes of Wrath exercised the packaging talents of Fox's studio head for a large part of 1939 as he put together a team appropriate to a book with the stature of Steinbeck's novel. John Ford was an obvious choice to direct, Dudley Nichols to write the script, and Henry Fonda to star as Tom Joad, the uneducated ex-convict "Oakie" who becomes the personification of flinty Midwestern integrity and moral worth. Knowing Fonda's wish to play Joad, Zanuck lured him into signing an eight-picture contract by advertising his intention to cast in the role either Don Ameche or Tyrone Power.
Ford, Nichols, Fonda and the supporting cast translated Steinbeck's novel to the screen with proper fidelity, the distortions far outweighed by the spectacular rightness of Fonda's casting and the remarkable cinematography of Gregg Toland, clearly influenced by the dust bowl photographs of Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White. The film's opening image of Tom Joad walking with tireless application out of the flat Midwestern landscape against a counterpoint of leaning telephone poles, suggests the themes of society confronted by an ecological and historical disaster against which it is helpless to act. Accustomed to such material from his frontier films, Ford took instinctive and instant command.
Clearly he felt an affinity with the plight of the dispossessed Kansas farmers of Steinbeck's story, which mirrored that of his Irish forebears turned off the land in the potato famine of the 19th century. And he had already established in films like Four Men and a Prayer the image of the family as not only unbreakable but an instrument for change, an institution that could act to improve social conditions. Throughout the film, it is the independents like John Carradine's itinerant preacher Casey and the half-mad fugitive Muley (John Qualen) who seem lost, desperate for companionship, while Jane Darwell and Russell Simpson as Ma and Pa Joad exhale a sense of calm and confidence. As Ma affirms at the end of the film, in a scene added by Zanuck to underline the moral and blunt the harsh dying fall of the novel, no force can destroy the will of people who are determined to live.
The picture Ford and Nichols draw of Depression America pulls few punches. Disinterested banks employ local strong-arm men to dispossess the share croppers and evict farmers unable to keep up mortgage payments on their own over-used, poorly maintained properties. Muley's futile stand against the bulldozers wilts when he recognizes one of his neighbors in the drivers seat. One has to eat even if it means betraying one's own kind. Deprived of his sacred kinship with the earth, sanctified by "living on it and being born on it and dying on it," Muley becomes "just an ol' graveyard ghost" flitting about his crumbling house in the light of Tom Joad's lamp.
The Joads set out for California, their lurching truck loaded up with possessions, relatives and, in a touching gesture, the preacher Casey, invited along after a brief and hurried calculation of the vehicle's strength. Casey is a classic Fordian figure, a religious madman who acts as custodian of principles, the celebrant of rituals like Mose Harper (Hank Worden) in The Searchers. He says the brief funeral oration over Grandpa Joad when he succumbs to the trials of the journey. He also turns into a primitive union organiser when greedy employers exploit the itinerants desperate for work as fruit-pickers. He's no natural radical—just a man with a proper sense of right and wrong. Amused, he says of the bosses' thugs who hunt him, "They think I'm the leader on account of I talk so much." When he dies, murdered by the employers, it is Tom who carries on his duty, instinctively sensing his destiny. "Maybe it's like Casey says. A feller ain't got a soul of his own, but only a piece of a big soul." And he walks off again, as he entered the story, undramatically spreading the gospel of social reform.
The Grapes of Wrath abounds with examples of Ford's skill in visual language. Poor talkers, the Joads express much in a way of standing, looking, responding to the land through which they pass. Ma Joad's cleaning up of the old house is shown largely without dialogue, but her careful turning out of a box of mementoes, the discovery of a pair of earrings and her action of putting them on her ears and looking up into the dark at some half-forgotten moment of youthful pleasure could hardly be bettered with words. Jane Darwell is perhaps too plump, matriarchal, too Irish for her role, and Ford's first choice, Beulah Bondi, has a greater physical claim to the part with her gaunt, stringy resilience, but so effective is Ford's use of the actress that one can no longer imagine anyone else playing it.
Fonda remains the focus of the film, his clear-eyed sceptical gaze reaching out to the camera no matter where he stands in the frame. The strength of his moral convictions is all the more striking for the imperfection of the character which supports them. Just released from jail for a murder, Tom is unrepentant: "Knocked his head plumb to squash," he recalls to an alarmed truck driver who gives him a lift. He has little understanding of politics ("What's these 'Reds' anyway?"), enjoys a drink and a dance, but has no time for abstract discussions. That such a man can be roused to moral wrath by injustice dramatizes the self-evident corruption of the system, and the belief in his conviction carries an audience to a conclusion startlingly radical by the standards of the time. Ford's reactionary politics, his populism and republicanism, must have stood in direct contradiction of the book's harsh message, which may explain his acceptance to the final suger-coated scene. Yet in Ford's world, to keep faith meant more than any political creed; better to believe in an error than not to believe at all. When Ma Joad at the end of The Grapes of Wrath professes the absolute faith of a peasant people in simple survival, one hears Ford's voice as clearly as that of writer, producer or star.
The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath
Written by John Steinbeck and published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath describes the Depression era journey of the fictional Joad family from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to the agricultural fields of California. A film version of the novel, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, followed in 1940. Together with evocative photographs by Dorothea Lange, the novel and film focused national attention on the plight of migrant farm workers in California and earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1940.
The novel recounts the westward journey of the Joads, a three-generation Oklahoma family pushed off their land through a combination of dust storms and foreclosures. Eldest son Tom returns home from the state penitentiary to find the family preparing to head to California in the hopes of obtaining work and eventually a farm of their own. Tom, along with parents, grandparents, an uncle, siblings, and a brother-in-law, are joined in their trek by Jim Casy, an ex-preacher looking to fill the void left by his loss of "the Holy sperit." After leaving Oklahoma, they discover that California is not the land of milk and honey where they can become independent farmers, but rather it is a cold, harsh, uninviting environment, in both the towns and the countryside. Through their journey, Tom and Casy learn about the exploitative practices of landowners and the avenues open to farm laborers to challenge the power of the farm owners. Ma Joad learns, over the course of the novel, that her responsibilities extend beyond the limits of the "fambly" to "the people." She learns the importance of solidarity in regaining and maintaining human dignity, just as Tom learns the value of solidarity in gaining respect in labor. This message is reinforced in the novel's final scene, in which Tom's sister, Rosasharn (Rose-of-Sharon), having just given birth to a stillborn child, gives her maternal breast to a dying man. By the end of the novel, the Joad family has grown to include the family of man.
The Grapes of Wrath is a prime example of the proletarian novel that was popular during the Great Depression in which ordinary working class families (especially agricultural workers) became the focus. Steinbeck strongly believed in the power of literature to bring about change in society through education and example. By exposing the corrupt ways of agribusiness and the benefits of government intervention into the agricultural economy, Steinbeck sought to bring about the creation of a farm labor proletariat. The novel ignited an explosion of controversy over the problems of migrant labor. Accusations about the novel's accuracy led to debates such as the 1940 radio broadcast of "America's Town Meeting of the Air," which addressed the issue "What should America do for the Joads?" Criticisms about the representations of California growers and Oklahoma natives resulted in bans on the book in communities across the nation and most publicly in Kern County, California, a heavily agricultural region of the state.
Stylistically, the novel also recalls the documentary movement of the 1930s in its use of interchapters which depart from the narrative of the Joad family and describe phenomena representative of the migrant population as a whole. The interchapters authenticate the narrative by placing the plight of the Joads within the larger context of Dust Bowl migrants, the agricultural economy, and the American proletariat. Steinbeck portrayed the "Okie" migrants as uneducated, unsophisticated, earthy, and decent folk whose humanity provided a counterpoint to the inhumanity of industrial/agribusiness exploitation. Much like the photography of Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans; and documentary books like Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell's You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), Lange and Paul Taylor's An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939), and Evans and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), The Grapes of Wrath sought to improve society through the presentation of information in a highly emotionally charged narrative.
Upon publication, Daryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox studios acquired the rights to the novel and set screenwriter Nunnally Johnson to the task of adapting Steinbeck's prose into a screenplay. Production proceeded under tight security conditions as controversy over the novel mounted. Renowned western director John Ford gathered together a cast of actors including Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), Jane Darnwell (Ma Joad), and John Carradine (Preacher Casy). The film's look, through the stark cinematography of Greg Toland, recalls the documentary vision of government photographers like Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, and Dorothea Lange. While more optimistic in tone than the novel, the film presents a bleak look at the conditions of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression. John Ford received the Academy Award for Best Director for The Grapes of Wrath.
—Charles J. Shindo
Benson, Jackson J. "'To Tom Who Lived It': John Steinbeck and the Man from Weedpatch." Journal of Modern Literature. Vol. 5, April 1976, 151-224.
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Wyatt, David, ed. New Essays on "The Grapes of Wrath." New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath
America in the 1930s was in the midst of the Great Depression (1929–41), a period of severe economic downturn and high unemployment. The southern Great Plains region, particularly western Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle, was hit at the same time by a devastating drought. Most of the region's residents were farmers who depended on the land for their livelihood. Without rain, crops failed; without crops, there were no roots in the ground to anchor the topsoil. Huge dust storms formed on the prairies, at times so violent that the sun was blocked and daytime turned to night. Dust covered everything inside and out; it filled the noses, eyes, and mouths of people as well as animals, many of whom died. Because of the dust storms, the region became known as the Dust Bowl .
John Steinbeck (1902–1968) wrote several novels in the late 1930s that focused on the lives of migrant workers, those who traveled from place to place in search of work. The life of a migrant worker was hard under the best of circumstances, but during the 1930s, it was simply a matter of survival. Jobs were scarce, and those who left the Dust Bowl for better prospects in California were treated with prejudice. Many starved to death. The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, is the most famous of Steinbeck's migrant worker novels.
The plot revolves around an ex-convict named Tom Joad, who returns to his family's Oklahoma farm in the late 1930s. He meets former preacher Jim Casy along the way, and Casy accompanies Tom to his home. The men find all the farms in the area, including Tom's, deserted. An old neighbor happens by and explains that most families have taken off for California. Tom and Jim catch up with the Joad family, and together they begin the journey west.
The travelers encounter hostility in California. The migrant worker camps are overflowing with starving people. Tempers flare, and soon landowners begin to worry that the workers will rise up against them. When the workers get into an argument with a deputy sheriff over
whether or not workers should organize into a union, Jim accidentally knocks the sheriff unconscious and is arrested. The Joads move to a government-controlled work camp.
Although conditions are better at that camp, the family still cannot find steady work. The Joads move on and find work picking fruit. They learn that the reason they are making good money is because they were hired as strikebreakers, workers who take over the jobs of those who refuse to work until conditions and wages are improved. Tom runs into Jim, who has been released from jail. Jim is now a labor organizer with many enemies among the wealthy and powerful landowners. When Jim is killed in front of Tom, Tom seeks revenge and kills a police officer. He goes into hiding, but then takes over where Jim left off.
As the picking season ends, the rest of the Joad family suffers. There is no work to be found for three months. A flood forces the family to seek shelter in a barn, where they find a young boy kneeling over his father, who is dying of starvation. The cycle of death and suffering continues.
Steinbeck's woeful story depicts human suffering at the hands of fellow humans. The powerful rely on violence and tyranny to keep the powerless lower classes down. Society is divided into those who have and those who have not.
The theme of dignity also runs through the novel. Although the Joads are treated like animals and experience terrible injustice, they refuse to be broken. They have suffered numerous losses, yet they do not let hate make them hate. Jim Casy is Steinbeck's most moral character; when he dies, Tom evolves into a man who, despite the wrongs that have been done to him, will choose to fight for justice. He declares, “Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there.” Tom will use his rage to help the downtrodden retain their dignity.
Another dominant theme of The Grapes of Wrath is the power of family—both the Joads themselves and the larger collective family of migrant workers. As they left their homes for life on the road, “twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.” Every worker faced adversity to one degree or another, and to survive each individual had to learn to embrace the other as family.
Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as a Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, which remains on the reading lists of American high school and college English classes.
The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath
Published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1902–1968) is one of the most celebrated Great Depression era (1929–41; see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2) novels. It tells the story of the fictional Joad family. Following the loss of their crops during the dustbowl, the Joads leave their Oklahoma farm and head west to California. The novel won Steinbeck the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1940. Written in the tradition of the documentary movement of the late 1930s, the novel alternates narrative chapters with descriptive passages. An Oscar-winning film of the novel appeared in 1940, starring Henry Fonda (1905–1982) and directed by John Ford (1895–1973). Between them, the novel and film began a national debate about migrant workers and farming.
Steinbeck believed in the power of literature to change society for the better. The Grapes of Wrath is both a human story and a political statement. It exposes the short-term thinking at the heart of the agricultural economy of the time. It also reveals the terrible working and living conditions of migrant workers in California. Packed into camps with little running water, the Joads struggle to find low-paid work on fruit farms. The documentary sections of the novel are similar to documentary books of the time such as You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) by Margaret Bourke-White (1906–1971) and Erskine Caldwell (1903–1987) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) by Walker Evans (1903–1975) and James Agee (1909–1955). Steinbeck heightened the effect of his documentary by adding a powerful emotional story.
The "Okie" migrants in Steinbeck's novel are presented as uneducated but decent folk, betrayed by big business and an indifferent government. In Kern County, California, agricultural business and community leaders were outraged. The novel's criticism of California growers and other questions of its accuracy soon led to it being banned across America. As a result, Ford's film was produced under tight security. It has a brighter outlook than the novel, but still presents a bleak, unforgiving view. Despite this wretched situation, and although the Joads suffer terribly, they remain decent people, ready to help others. In the end, Steinbeck's novel is a celebration of the strength and goodness of ordinary people.
For More Information
French, Warren G., ed. A Companion to the Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 1963.
Steinbeck, John. Working Days: The Journals of "The Grapes of Wrath." New York: Viking, 1989.
Wiener, Gary. Readings on the Grapes of Wrath. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999.
The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath ★★★½ 1940
John Steinbeck's classic American novel about the Great Depression. We follow the impoverished Joad family as they migrate from the dust bowl of Oklahoma to find work in the orchards of California and as they struggle to maintain at least a little of their dignity and pride. A sentimental but dignified, uncharacteristic Hollywood epic. 129m/B VHS, DVD . Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Zeffie Tilbury, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan, O.Z. Whitehead, Grant Mitchell; D: John Ford; W: Nunnally Johnson; C: Gregg Toland. Oscars ‘40: Director (Ford), Support. Actress (Darwell); AFI ‘98: Top 100, Natl. Film Reg. ‘89;; N.Y. Film Critics ‘40: Director (Ford), Film.