Grapes of Wrath synopsis:
The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the struggles of the Joad family as they leave their home in Sallisaw, Oklahoma to find work in California. Forced off the land that the family had share-cropped for two generations, the Joads, including elderly Granma and Grampa and fugitive son Tom, become one more family packed into a ramshackle truck heading west on Route 66, expecting plentiful jobs picking fruit or cotton in the fertile valleys of California.
Despite the myth that has grown up around the composition of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck never made the trip with a real-life Joad family from Oklahoma to California in order to do research for his novel. Indeed, the only time the Steinbecks drove Route 66 was after the last leg of their European vacation. Carol Brown, Steinbeck's wife at the time of the novel's publication, states that her husband hardly discouraged the myth of his firsthand migrant experience: “several years later when acquaintances might mention 'the Oklahoma trip,' Steinbeck would only smile, without comment. Many years later he began to talk of the trip with the migrants of Oklahoma as if he had actually made it.” (Benson 153).
However, in his research for The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck did rely on the stories and experiences of a real-life Tom: Tom Collins, manager of a migrant camp run by the Farm Security Administration, who Steinbeck met on a research trip to the Central Valley to gather material for a series of articles (later published as The Harvest Gypsies). (Benson 152). Collins spearheaded the “demonstration camps” that were intended to model the feasibility of sanitary, efficient, and primarily self-governing housing for migrant laborers. Sanitary migrant camps prior to Collins's development of “demonstration camps” in 1935 were nearly impossible to find. Migrant families and single men packed into “Hoovervilles” on the outskirts of California agricultural communities, and scraped out a living without access to toilets, running water, shelter, or, often, food: as Benson explains, “the rationale for this treatment was that the 'bindlestiffs,' or the single, white American males who made up one part of the migrant working force, were tramps and deserved no better, and that the racial groups (the Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, Filipinos, and Mexicans), who at various times made up most of the farm laborers, knew no better.” (157). 200,000 to 300,000 “Okies,” or refugees from the American midwest agricultural regions of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Nebraska, are estimated to have traveled to California looking for work in the decade between 1930-1940. By some estimates, half a million people fled the midwest during the depression years. (Benson, 158)
Besides providing sanitary living conditions that were so lacking in other labor camps, Collins' “demonstration camps” were intended to restore the migrants' dignity. As Steinbeck describes in one of the articles he wrote for The San Francisco News, Collins's management style reflected his empathy for the migrants:
From the first, the intent of the management has been to restore the dignity and decency that had been kicked out of the migrants by their intolerable mode of life... A man herded about, surrounded by armed guards, starved, and forced to live in filth loses his dignity; that is, he loses his valid position in regard to society, and consequently his whole ethics toward society. Nothing is a better example of this than the prison, where the men are reduced to no dignity and where crimes and infractions of the rules are constant.
Collins gave most of the daily responsibilities of running the camps to the residents. Each camp was governed democratically by an elected Camp Committee, made up of representatives from each section of the camp. Depictions of this system of governance figure predominantly in The Grapes of Wrath, when the Joad family lives in the government camp called Weedpatch outside Bakersfield, California.
In addition to his research trips to the Weedpatch government camp, Steinbeck had agricultural labor experience of his own: during the summers of Steinbeck's college years he had worked for Spreckels Sugar Company in Salinas, both as a laborer and crew boss. He worked with the bindlestiffs that he would use as inspiration for Of Mice and Men. In 1934-35, Steinbeck heard of two fugitive labor organizers hiding out in the attic of a house near Monterey. He went to see them, and discovered they were willing to sell their story. Steinbeck turned their story into In Dubious Battle, his short novel about a labor strike in the apple orchards of Northern California. (Benson 173).
Because of the reputation Steinbeck received from the publication of In Dubious Battle, George West, editor in chief of the San Francisco News, asked Steinbeck to report on the migrant situation in California in a series of articles. These articles would later be published as “The Harvest Gypsies” and would form the basis for The Grapes of Wrath.
From its release to the present day, The Grapes of Wrath has enjoyed tremendous popular and critical success. The New York Times records that The Grapes of Wrath was the best-selling book of 1939, and by February, 1940, 430,000 copies had been printed. The novel won the National Book Award in 1940, and soon claimed the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
As popular as The Grapes of Wrath quickly became, the work was equally controversial: Steinbeck's sympathy for the plight of migrant laborers put him in hot water with the Associated Farmers of California, and with the large growers in his home region of the Salinas Valley. The controversy even made it to Washington, D.C. with the Honorable Lyle Boren of Oklahoma declaring on the floor of the House of Representatives, “'I cannot find it possible to let this dirty, lying, filthy manuscript go heralded before the public without a word of challenge or protest.'” (Shockley 357). Alternatively, President Roosevelt and the first lady defended the accuracy and value of Steinbeck's descriptions. (Wyatt, 3)
Although Steinbeck was accused as a propagandist for the left, the controversy did not, in fact, hurt the popularity of the novel: as Lisca explains, “[The Grapes of Wrath] was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national talk radio; but above all, it was read.” The tremendously popular 1940 film directed by John Ford also broadened the novel's audience. While the film drastically alters the novel's ending sequences, it still reflects the social themes of the novel. The film stars Henry Fonda, and was nominated for four Oscars.
Benson, Jackson. “’To Tom, Who Lived It’: John Steinbeck and the Man from Weedpatch.” Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 5, No. 2 (April, 1976) pp. 151-210
Shockley, Martin. “The Reception of The Grapes of Wrath in Oklahoma.” American Literature. Vol. 15, January, 1944.
Wyatt, David. “Introduction.” New Essays on Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.” ed. Wyatt, David. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge: 1990. pgs. 1-24
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Group. New York: 2002.
Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick: 1958.
Zirakzadeh, Cyrus Ernesto. “John Steinbeck on the Political Capacities of Everyday Folk: Moms, Reds, and Ma Joad’s Revolt” Polity, Vol. 36, No. 4 (July, 2004) pp. 595-618
Zirakzadeh examines the effectiveness of Steinbeck's political agenda in The Grapes of Wrath by analyzing Steinbeck's political education and influences, and his “philosophic orientations” at the time he wrote the novel. While Zirakzadeh's formal analysis includes some questionable interpretations of scenes in The Grapes of Wrath itself, he effectively places the novel within the political climate of its time, and posits reasonable assertions about Steinbeck's personal politics.
Hendersen, George. “John Steinbeck’s Spatial Imagination in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’: A Critical Essay.” California History, Vol. 68, No. 4, Envisioning California (Winter, 1989-1990) pp. 210-223
Hendersen argues that the characters in The Grapes of Wrath must be understood in relation to the places they move: identification with the land is intrinsic to the identities of Steinbeck's “Okie” characters. Hendersen cites Steinbeck's meticulous mapping of the Joad's journey as evidence for Steinbeck's primary thesis that “you cannot understand what is going on inside of California unless you understand what is going on outside.” (213) The novel contains clear geographic demarcations between the spheres of the townspeople—banks, growers, employers--and the spheres of the Okies on the outskirts of town, relegated to decrepit Hoovervilles and migrant camps. Henderson argues that these geographical markers help power the novel's social commentary and reinforce class divisions.
McKay, Nellie. “'Happy[?]-Wife-and-Motherdom': The Portrayal of Ma Joad in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.”
McKay argues that Steinbeck writes in a tradition that affords women “natural” propensities “of a productive, nurturing earth” and elides female biological and social function. (50) She sees Steinbeck's women as having undergone a total death of self, living through service to their families alone.