Friday, April 14, 1989

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath: Published 50 Years Ago Today

Updated 12/7/2020.

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck

First Publication: April 14, 1939

Category: realist novel

Sales: 15 million


About the Book:

“At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s powerful landmark novel,” AZ it is “perhaps the most American of American Classics.” AZ The book chronicles “what happens when growing things…turn brown and create an ecological disaster;” SS-17 that is, the period during the Great Depression in the 1930s when hundreds of thousands of migrant workers flooded into California looking for work and a new life after drought had decimated their farms and livelihoods.

The novel “probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.” AZ “Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.” AZ

The story focuses on the Joad family, who are driven out of Oklahoma “by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work.” WK They set out for California on “a slow journey toward the dream that America holds out for its people” SS-38 through “jobs, land, dignity, and a future.” WK “Hope for a better life is why the Joads, the salt of the earth, continue to signify an American spirit we don’t want to relinquish. We fervently want to believe that Americans make it over the blue summit.” SS-97

Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 song, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is about “no home, no job, no peace, no rest” – “a pretty good summary of The Grapes of Wrath.” SS-39 Springsteen said the book “resonated through my whole life.” SS-43

The Title:

“Grapes of wrath” is a phrase from the song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was Steinbeck’s wife, Carol, who suggested the title. John likened the song’s marching rhythm to the tone he wanted to strike with the book. He also insisted on printing the song lyrics in the book, a move intented to help dissuade accusations that the book promoted radicalism and Communism. SS-98

The Characters:

The novel focuses on Tom Joad when he gets out of prison and goes home, only to find he almost missed his family as they are headed to California. He meets Jim Casy, a former preacher, who is painted as “a Jesus figure…because of his initials, because he goes into the wilderness to consider his faith…and because he leads the twelve Joads out of Oklahoma.” SS-57

His mother, Ma, is a pillar of strength who “voices the book’s major chords – connection, faith, and pride.” SS-69 However, Tom’s sister, Rose of Sharon, can be viewed as a whiner. As author Susan Shillinglaw asserts, however, “she’s pregnant, unhomed, stressed, hungry, and abandoned. That seems reason enough for self-indulgence.” SS-68

The other males in Tom’s family are a mix of beaten-down family men. His brother Noah and brother-in-law Connie both abandon the family. His uncle John is plagued by guilt about the loss of his wife and child. Tom’s father is diligent about keeping the family together, but isn’t exactly a patriarchal figure.


“Few novels can claim that their message led to actual legislation, but The Grapes of Wrath did just that.” LC It “ignited a movement in Congress to pass laws benefiting farm workers. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the committee specifically cited this novel as one of the main reasons for the award.” LC When he accepted the award, Steinbeck said, “The thing that arouses me to fury more than anything else is the imposition of force by a stronger on a weaker for reasons of self-interest or greed.” SS-92


Steinbeck “wrote this book for mass culture.” SS-46 “In 1939, many read about poor characters for the first time, others found their lives in a book.” SS-46 “The Joads are…every family family in exile, every family huddling on transitional borders, every family torn from a home.” SS-48

He researched the book for three years and then gave himself 100 days to complete the book, pushing himself to write 2000 words a day. SS-33 A college friend of Steinbeck’s said he “was a journalist at heart, a writer itching to be on the scene, see for himself, listen to dialogue, discover detail.” SS-117 For example, Steinbeck visited one of the government camps in California in 1936. He reported on the conditions of the camp and the efforts of its compassionate director, Tom Collins, to organize the migrants into self-governing units. SS-123 He visited other camps where he “sat in the ditches with the migrant workers, lived and ate with them.” SS-124

He was intent on creating an accurate depiction of live in Hoovervilles, or the shantytowns “atched together of corrugated iron and cardboard and tin, named after President Herbert Hoover, who many Americans though bore responsibility for the Depression.” SS-112

There are details within the book, however, which sound like personal experiences more than research. For example, “there’s authority in the description” SS-3 of Tom Joad skinning a rabbit or removing the oil pan from a car. SS-3 Steinbeck “felt a deep psychological bond with the migrants…because of his own experience as an outsider” SS-49 growing up as an outsider in a town of “haves” where his family were “have nots.”

The Five Layers:

The Grapes of Wrath amplifies that insistent holistic truth: individuals belong to families, blood families are bound to other family units, and all humans are connected in spirit.” SS-xiii Steinbeck wrote the book with five layers in mind. He was friends with marine biologist Ed Ricketts whose approach to understanding ecology applied to Steinbeck’s approach to writing Grapes:

  1. Observe the details of the environment. SS-10 This one shows itself in how Steinbeck gives vivid descriptions of the settings and the scenes. As he tackled the final draft of the novel, he heeded his wife Carol’s advice to “Stay with the detail.” SS-15 Steinbeck’s “prose if richly visual…he wrote in pictures.” SS-79 This also accounts for the slow pace of the book, something symbolized early on in the novel with a story about a turtle. SS-34

  2. Consider the interactions amongst people and how they band themselves together. SS-10 Ricketts said, “wherein the whole consists of…the community in its environment, the notion of relation being significant.” SS-28 Steinbeck noted that “the group unit is so strong…that it can change the nature of its biological units…Sometimes a terrible natural stimulus will create a group until over night. They are of all sizes, from the camp meeting where the units pool their souls to make one yearning cry, to the whole world who fought the war.” SS-82 Grapes shows “twenty families becoming one family and the loss of home becoming one loss.” SS-83

  3. Consider history. SS-10 While Steinbeck focuses on the plight of the Joads, he also offers commentary on how Oklahoma sharecroppers ignored the land’s natural contours and kept planting cotton and how California growers refused to pay decent wages. He also shows the parallels of how those displaced Okies acquired their land in the first place by displacing native Americans. SS-108

  4. What is basically equivalent in different regions? SS-11 This is where Steinbeck made the Joads’ story universal through “the novel’s insistent metaphorical reach.” SS-128 “The niches that the Joads occupy – Oklahoma sharecroppers, Okie migrants, California field-workers – are linked to niches across space and time, universal and mythic historis of land use, dispossession, and poverty.” SS-129 There are also themes of oppression and prejudice which “lift the Joads story from the 1930s to the present.” SS-133

  5. Emergence – “the belief that humans could ‘break through’ to a larger, broader, spiritual, all-encompassing awareness.” SS-11 “Emergence is a large part of why the book endures.” SS-146 It is the step forward, or call to action, that people can take. This is showcased through Tom Joad’s speech “Whenever men are fightin’ for their rights…that’s where I’m a-gonna be.” SS-41 Steinbeck borrowed the speech from the ballad “Joe Hill,” about a labor organizer, and Woody Guthrie, in turn, created his seventeen-verse ballad “Tom Joad” with those as the closing words. SS-41

The Dialogue:

One of the potentially distracting aspects of the novel is the “salty dialogue” which some find “hokey.” SS-19 Author Susan Shillinglaw asserts that Steinbeck’s effort to capture the sound of the Okies’ voices is “pitch-perfect, concrete and exact, capturing the migrants’ metaphoric speech patterns. Steinbeck’s characters speak with the grittiness he heard from California workers and Oklahoma migrants.” SS-19


The Grapes of Wrath is frequently read in American high school and college literature classes due to its historical context and enduring legacy. A celebrated Hollywood film version, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford, was released in 1940.” WK

Resources and Related Links:

In July 2018, I became the organizer of the Classic Novels Book Club. Check out the Book Club tab here or Meetup for more information. This is our December 2020 book.