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The Grapes of Wrath pretty much has a V.I.P. pass to every "Top 100 Books of All Time" list in the universe. It's a huge deal. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and helped John Steinbeck nab the Nobel Prize in 1962—they gave Steinbeck the Nobel for (among other things) his "keen social perception."
And you don't get much keener than the social perception showcased in Grapes. This understanding of society's ills is razor sharp, and cuts deep.
And a lot of that has to do with the fact that this novel is brutally honest.
At the time of the Dust Bowl, when tens of thousands of Americans migrated to California in search of a better life, Steinbeck was writing a series of seven articles about migrant worker communities for the San Francisco Chronicle. He spent a whole lot of time getting to know families who lived in various migrant worker camps in towns like Bakersfield and Visalia, and was infuriated and disgusted by the amount of heartbreak and suffering that he witnessed, and he channeled that fury as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.
(Click the map infographic to download.)
Published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath vividly portrays life during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in America as it follows a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers traveling westward. It explores the strength and goodness of the human spirit in the face of gruesome, truly dismal circumstances.
When first published, Americans had a love/hate relationship to this novel. Some people applauded Steinbeck for capturing so honestly the lives of migrant farm workers during the Depression. Other (jerks) accused him of being a socialist and of championing communist beliefs (i.e., share the wealth, friends). Californian farmers loathed Steinbeck's unsavory depiction of, well, Californian farmers. In short, this novel sent America into a bit of a frenzy.
The Grapes of Wrath has been banned, burned, and bought over and over again. And that's why we love it. That's why it's still around. It struck a nerve. It upset people deeply. It literally changed the face of American labor.
References to the novel continue to be made in movies, music, art, and TV. Allusions to this epic tale have surfaced in both South Park and The Simpsons. The Joads are a fictional family, and yet they (and what they represent) are part of the American story.
If anything, we should read The Grapes of Wrath because it affords us front row seats to one of the darkest chapters in American history. Author T.C. Boyle sums it up beautifully: "You can read (about the lives of migrant workers) in your textbook… but if you read it in Steinbeck's version, you get to live it and breathe it."
When a crazy depressing novel about the hopeless plight of migrant farm workers becomes a runaway bestseller, well, that's when you know that some nerves are being touched.
Basically, this book is the fiction version of the kinds of documentaries Al Gore or Michael Moore make—people stirring up troublesome conflicts to get everyone else talking about them. And the most amazing thing? The very same issues that stoked that fire are still alive and burning today.
Want to compare the Great Depression of the 1930s to the just-plain awful financial collapse of 2008? Step right up and see the way it all went down back in the day. Curious about what all this income disparity jazz is all about? Well, then, you've it right here in miniature in the difference between all the Okie farm hands and the California corporate farm owners.
Wondering just how cherry all those jobs are that nowadays are mostly taken by undocumented immigrants? You can check out a reasonably close example in these very pages. Love to know more about the difference between a smaller government model that imposes fewer restrictions on capitalism versus a model where government programs and unions create some barriers in the free market? It's all spelled out pretty succinctly in this novel.
Of course, The Grapes of Wrath comes with its own set of biases and assumptions. For example, it's written from the point of view of someone who thinks a totally unchecked free market capitalism system would cause more harm than good.
All of which also makes this novel a good reminder to take any news or information source with a grain of salt and a mental note to try to figure out the bias it's trying to put across.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The Grapes of Wrath made into a popular film in 1940, featuring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.
Smithsonian Dust Bowl Footage
Watch some footage of the black blizzards.
South Park tells the story of a modern day Grapes of Wrath.
Listen to Woody Guthrie's song, "Tom Joad"
What is the song about?
NPR Reflect on The Grapes of Wrath
Listen to a recent and fascinating report on this popular novel.
The Grapes of Wrath Rings True
Listen to a recent NPR story about The Grapes of Wrath.
The Grapes of Wrath Book Cover
One of many covers.
Dust Bowl House
Check out this image of a house in the plains.
A Dust Bowl Family
Faces full of worry and sorrow.
A Dust Bowl Family
Chilling in the dooryard.
The Grapes of Wrath Screenplay
Check out The Grapes of Wrath in screenplay format.
Steinbeck Has His Own Website
Learn about all things Steinbeck.
Time Magazine's 1939 Review
Check out this ancient review. Do you agree with it?
Surviving the Dust Bowl
An online PBS exhibit about the Dust Bowl.