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The Grapes of Wrath: Historical Significance & Impact on Society

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

John Steinbeck's classic novel 'The Grapes of Wrath' gave a voice to the tens of thousands of Americans affected by the Dust Bowl tragedy in Midwestern farming states. The novel and the subsequent 1940 film version have remained a part of American consciousness over the ensuing decades.

Steinbeck's Novel

In 1939, celebrated realist author John Steinbeck determined to write a novel that personalized in narrative the real plight of thousands of families journeying west in hope of making a better life for themselves and their families. Displaced by drought, poverty, exploitation, and lack of options, former farm families from Oklahoma and surrounding states headed toward California in the 1930s. Steinbeck raised awareness through his classic tale of the Joad family by giving names and voices to the many faces of the Great Depression.

The Depression began as an economic event when the stock market crashed in October of 1929. Investors soon backed away from further investment, which led to a huge slowdown in industry and commerce. The ultimate outcome was widespread unemployment, homelessness, and hunger across the United States.

The Midwestern Dust Bowl
Dust Bowl

The title of Steinbeck's novel alludes to lyrics from the song ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'', which itself is a reference to a biblical passage pleading for help for the suffering and justice delivered from God at the final judgement. A further connection is the image of grapes growing in the promised land of California, to which many migrants turned as their last hopeful dream.

Unfortunately, California, though in some ways better than the devastated land and foreclosed homes these people left behind, was far from a promised land. Most of the workers were exploited by the farm owners, who in turn suffered at the hands of large corporations. One issue Steinbeck's novel helped bring to light is the flawed system of growing and distribution present in 1930s America. The poverty and hunger of men and their families forced many to work for pennies on an empty stomach just to survive.

Steinbeck stated that he wrote the novel with the express intention of shaming those in power responsible for the misery of the Great Depression. He notoriously said, ''I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags.'' And, indeed, Steinbeck's novel did raise awareness of the extent of the damage to farmlands on which the country depended for food, and the people who lost them.

Political, activist movements focusing on the plight of migrant workers arose from this increased awareness.

Film Version

In 1940, Hollywood gave American audiences a visual counterpart to the Joad family's journey to nowhere in the film version starring Henry Fonda.

The Joad Family in the Movie Version
The Joad family

In spite of the enduring popularity of both the novel and the film, no other film version has appeared in the ensuing decades.

Recognition and Awards

The New York Times promoted Steinbeck's novel as the best-selling book of 1939. Yet not all critical reception was positive. The truth and value of the novel was debated on radio programs; ultimately the book was publicly banned and even burned by some factions. The most volatile criticism, not surprisingly, came from the Associated Farmers of California, who claimed that Steinbeck's novel was totally untrue in describing the situation in California.

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