First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. 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.
A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.
Sensitive to fascist and communist criticism, Steinbeck insisted that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” be printed in its entirety in the first edition of the book—which takes its title from the first verse: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” As Don DeLillo has claimed, Steinbeck shaped a geography of conscience” with this novel where there is something at stake in every sentence.” Beyond that—for emotional urgency, evocative power, sustained impact, prophetic reach, and continued controversy—The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most American of American classics.
By C.H. Armstrong
When The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1939, it was not only an instant bestseller, but it was met with no small amount of criticism and anger. Steinbeck brought to the world the devastation of the Dust Bowl but, more importantly, the horrors and blatant racism that greeted migrant workers searching for better lives. For as many who read Steinbeck’s epic novel and heralded it as the true “Great American Novel,” an equal number were aghast at the raw truths he portrayed and sought to have it banned or even burned. Nearly seventy years later, it’s still at the center of much controversy and is listed as Number Two among the Top 10 Most Banned Books (Shortlist.com).
The Grapes of Wrath is an epic novel depicting the mass westward migration of Oklahomans (and neighboring states) during The Great Depression of the 1930s and the simultaneous Dust Bowl. It was a time when the overuse of the land had turned the once fertile farming soil into dust, making it unfit for the growing of crops. With no money coming in from the crops, banks swooped in and called in loans on the land, and forced tenant farmers and their families out of the homes they’d known for generations. The result was mass homelessness that led to a great migration to California and nearby states in search of jobs.
At the center of Steinbeck’s novel is the Joad family. Their eldest son has just been released from prison and returns home to find his family packing up their meager belongings, ready to depart for California and hopes for a better life. So begins the story of the Joad family and their journey west. But they soon realize that their travels will neither be easy, nor as idyllic as they had imagined. Instead of green fields of orange trees ripe with fruit just for the picking, they’re met with numerous hardships and discrimination. California – the land of plenty and the focus of their dreams – doesn’t want them. They’re not only barred from entrance but, once gaining access, are met with conditions more deplorable than those they’ve left behind.
When The Grapes of Wrath was first released, it was met with criticism from groups crying foul at Steinbeck’s depictions for how migrant workers were treated. In truth, Steinbeck revealed that his novel was a watered-down version of the true horrors of the workers – the truth was worse than the fiction of his novel.
As a native Oklahoman and one who finds pride in the name “Okie,” I can only tell you that I truly loved this novel. I loved Steinbeck’s descriptive prose; but more than that, I loved the truth behind his words, which echoed through my mind long after I turned the last page.
Many will say that The Grapes of Wrath is a depressing novel. On the contrary, I found it to be a book of hope and a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Yes, it was difficult to read about the hundreds of thousands of starving migrant people; and it was even more difficult to come to terms with the fact that “this really happened!” But what I really got from the story was a lesson in discrimination and racism, and hope for the future of mankind. You see, even when all had been taken from them and there seemed to be no real hope in the foreseeable future, the Okies refused to just lay down and die. They refused to let the “big guy” get the best of them. They trudged on through death, hopelessness, starvation and despair. They did their best to keep their families together, and they never failed to lend a helping hand to one whose need was even greater than their own. Nearly 100 years later, the majority of Oklahomans still possess those admirable qualities.
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