The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

April 14, 1939

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad and his family are forced from their farm in the Depression-era Oklahoma Dust Bowl and set out for California along with thousands of others in search of jobs, land, and hope for a brighter future....

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John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad and his family are forced from their farm in the Depression-era Oklahoma Dust Bowl and set out for California along with thousands of others in search of jobs, land, and hope for a brighter future.

The Grapes of Wrath is an American realist novel written by John Steinbeck and published in 1939. The book won the National Book Award  and Pulitzer Prize  for fiction, and it was cited prominently when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962..

Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work. Due to their nearly hopeless situation, and in part because they are trapped in the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out for California along with thousands of other "Okies" seeking jobs, land, dignity, and a future.

John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception." He has been called "a giant of American letters," and many of his works are considered classics of Western literature.



The book has 30 chapters



Robert McCrum

I began this series with the suggestion that the enduring classics of English and American fiction were novels written either from a burning need for self-expression, often in extremis (Pilgrim’s Progress), or from a passionate desire to entertain an audience with bravura storytelling (Tom Jones). Of course, over time, as the idea of the novel matured, and its readership developed, these comparatively raw instincts would become more sophisticated, getting softened, deepened and tamed. More subtle considerations would come to dominate the genre. Yet this domesticated bourgeois pet would never, as it were, lose a capacity to bare its teeth and drag the reader back into the wild. The Grapes of Wrath, no 65 in this series, is a novel with blood on its teeth.


This is the “American book” Steinbeck always longed to write, a realist tour de force which exemplifies the quite primitive instincts that originally governed the Anglo-American novel, a cry of rage – mixing blue-collar bitterness, prairie folk wisdom and regular left-wing politics – from a best-selling writer inspired to pick up his pen by a deep sense of social injustice, in this case the dreadful conditions of immigrant farmhands in the American south-west. Steinbeck’s exposé of the social and economic horrors of farming life in the American dust bowl was a campaigning document by a writer with a conscience who had, as it happened, been born on a farm. The starkness of his narrative, and his sense of injustice, echoed the haunting photos of Dorothea Lange. Like her, he was not afraid to devote his art to the scandal of the Okies (Oklahoma migrants) who trekked to the fruit fields of the Golden State (California) in search of a better life, and suffered horribly in their search for a promised land.


“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth....” In quasi-Biblical cadences, Steinbeck introduces to reader to the wretched of the earth, the Joad family, dispossessed farmers fleeing dust bowl conditions. Tom Joad has just been paroled from prison. Simultaneously, his family have lost their farm to the bank. The Joads are about to set out west in search of work, down Route 66 to California, the promised land. Nothing goes right. The Joads are exploited, bullied and torn apart. Their grandparents die en route, and have to be buried by the roadside. As the family begins to disintegrate, it is the women who are strong, like the pioneers of the 19th century. Old Ma Joad takes over. “Women can change better than a man,” she says. Tom gets implicated in another killing, and must flee into a landscape bereft of hope and opportunity. In the controversial conclusion to a bleak and pitiless narrative, Tom’s sister, Rose of Sharon Joad, loses her daughter and offers her breast to a fellow Okie who is dying of starvation. “She squirmed closer,” writes Steinbeck, “and pulled his head close. ‘There!’ she said. ‘There.’” The novel ends with Rose of Sharon’s mysterious smile at this shocking gesture of self-sacrifice.


Steinbeck told his literary agent that he liked the title “because it is a march, and this book is a kind of march – because it is in our own revolutionary tradition.” On 26 October, 1938, Steinbeck reported he was “so dizzy” he could “hardly see the page.” He scrawled “END” in large letters on the manuscript, and then wrote in his journal “Finished this day, and I hope to God it’s good.”


The first reactions of Steinbeck’s agent and editor were excited. The Grapes of Wrath was rushed into print, going from typescript to page proof in four months, and published on 14 April 1939 by the Viking Press in New York. The novel at once became a national sensation, possibly the most reviewed and publicised, and even the most controversial, American novel of the 20th century – discussed on the radio, denounced by angry readers, and even banned in some libraries. The Associated Farmers of California were particularly incensed, complaining about “a pack of lies” and “Jewish propaganda”, though Steinbeck was not Jewish. A certain Ruth Comfort Mitchell attempted to refute the novel in a vindication of California’s treatment of its immigrant workers, in a now-forgotten book entitled Of Human Kindness. Joining battle from the other side, both Pearl Buck, author of The Good Earth, and the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who said she never thought the novel was exaggerated, supported Steinbeck. As did the US Senate, which judged that, if anything, the novelist had underestimated the violation of human rights on the west coast.


Despite, or perhaps because of, this furore The Grapes of Wrath became the best-selling book of 1939, selling almost half a million copies (at $2.75 a copy) in the first year of publication alone. In 1940, the novel also won the Pulitzer prize for fiction, and would subsequently be taught in schools and colleges across the United States. In that year, John Ford directed a hastily put-together movie of the same name starring Henry Fonda, a rare case of an opportunistic movie equalling its fictional source. When Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1962, the prize committee identified this “great work” as a principal reason for awarding the prize. Not everyone was a Steinbeck fan. For example, F Scott Fitzgerald (no 51 in this series), writing to his friend the critic Edmund Wilson, described Steinbeck as “a rather cagey cribber”. Posterity has taken a different view. The Grapes of Wrath features on many “100 best” lists, including TIME, the Modern Library, Le Monde, and the BBC’s Big Readof 2003. Informal estimates suggest that it has sold about 15 million copies in the 75 years since its publication. There’s an American classic for you.



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