The Big Read – Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”

By Karen S. Lynch


   In 1938, John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, in an amazing five months. The novel won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Steinbeck had focused nationwide attention on the living conditions and the exploitation of farm workers following the Depression-era Dust Bowl migration to California. The stock market crash in October 1929, and the post-World War I recession had forced them to buy new machinery to increase their yield, bought on credit. The seven-year drought blew away their productive topsoil and the bankers foreclosed on their farms. The unemployment rate approached 30 percent.

   Controversy surrounded Steinbeck’s novel when The Grapes of Wrath first released. Steinbeck wrote, “The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. The latest is a rumor started by them that the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them. I’m frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing, it is completely out of hand; I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy.”

   The term “Okies” is considered an offensive ethnic slur to this day. As quoted from the book, “Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means…you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it.”   

   The social differences between the rich and poor, and the corruption that existed during the Great Depression kept most people silent about their plight. However, the boldness of authors like Carl Sandburg and John Steinbeck were not afraid to speak out about the corruption. Steinbeck wrote in colorful, but candid language about the journey of common people. While the book is fiction, it accurately describes the events of the Great Depression and its people.

   Steinbeck’s main fictional character, Tom Joad lost their tenant farm in Oklahoma, joining the exodus of hundreds of thousands to find a piece of ground to call their own, suffering many hardships along the way. During the 1930’s an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 migrants traveled to California with the dream promised on the handbills distributed everywhere in Oklahoma, describing the beautiful country and high wages found out west. They came from Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, as well as from Mexico. Most lived in federally run Migratory Labor Camps performing backbreaking farm work. Many starved or died of disease and lack of medical care.

   John Steinbeck’s book spoke with unabashed honestly, “how the bank agents tell the tenants to leave the land. How the tractors rape the land. How the tractor driver knocks the tenant farmer’s house off its foundation.”   

   When the price of crops fell, a plan to prop up prices caused further hardships for the hungry and homeless farmers. Steinbeck wrote quite graphically in The Grapes of Wrath,

    “The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. A million people hungry, needing the fruit-and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains.” This action by the landowners outraged Steinbeck who wrote, “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation.”

  Perhaps the most poignant part of the book came from Steinbeck’s unflinching words, “The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

   John Steinbeck was born February 27, 1902 in the California farm town of Salinas to a schoolteacher mother who inspired his love of learning and language. Steinbeck acquired his compassion and empathy for the underprivileged from his father’s bankruptcy and his own struggles to gain journalistic recognition. His strong work ethic rarely left Steinbeck as he worked as a field hand while sporadically attending Stanford University. Like Carl Sandburg, Steinbeck never graduated from college, choosing to write instead.

   Steinbeck’s mother died in 1934 in her home where he stayed to care for her. His father died in 1935, the same year Steinbeck wrote Tortilla Flat that was an instant hit and his first commercial success. He followed that book in 1936 with Of Mice and Men, The Long Valley in 1937, followed by The Grapes of Wrath in 1938. The film version of the 1940 John Ford movie “The Grapes of Wrath,” staring Henry Fonda will play free of charge at the Orpheum Theatre March 16. Cannery Row published in 1945 and East of Eden in 1952. Steinbeck wrote other books, some more successful than others.

   Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, Steinbeck also won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 and appointed to the National Council on the Arts in 1966. The name for his highly acclaimed book about the Great Depression was actually a suggestion by his wife, Carol Steinbeck, as a reference to The Battle Hymn of the Republic - “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” That line from the patriotic song, deemed more suitable than anything Steinbeck could come up with, became the book’s title - The Grapes of Wrath.

   A haunting photograph became the symbol of the plight of the migratory farm workers. Photographer Dorothea Lange was concluding a month’s trip photographing migratory farm labor around the state when she took a series of photographs in 1936 in Nipomo, California. The photograph of a mother and two children became known as “Migrant Mother.” The woman in the photograph is Florence Owens Thompson and her children. Lange said, “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet.” The photographer continued, “I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.” (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960.)


   The Great Read” of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is just one event of the “Festival for the Mind” to be held from March 16 – April 28, 2007. The Gallery Walk On April 27 in downtown Galesburg starts at 4:00 p.m. at the Galesburg Public Library, with the Foley Photo Studio photo contest awards presentation. Downtown storefronts plan to display Depression-Era collections. There will be other literary enhancements of book discussions. The 1940 movie will be shown on March 16, and Semenya McCord Concert, “Journey into Jazz,” on April 6, with both events to be held at the Orpheum Theatre.

   “The Big Read” is made possible by a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and many local government, library, community, business, media, and education partners. Various newspapers have published order forms for the books. The order form should be mailed with a check made out to “Sandburg Days Festival” and memo “Big Read” to: The Big Read, Carl Sandburg College, 2400 Tom L. Wilson Blvd, Galesburg, Illinois 61401. For information on costs and discounts for group book prices contact or call 309-221-9953. E-mail is preferred. The NAEIR shipping department will fill book orders.