The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Grapes of Wrath | Context


While writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck had many doubts about the work. At one point, he wrote that he feared the book was "going to pieces." During this time, Steinbeck was dealing with financial problems and the death of his brother-in-law. Steinbeck wrote in his journal, "Did ever a book get written under such excitement? My whole nervous system is battered. I hope I'm not headed for a nervous breakdown." He worried The Grapes of Wrath would end up being just a "run-of-the-mill book." Rarely has an author's fears about his work proved to be so unfounded. The novel became a best seller in the United States. Although critics hailed it as a masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath had its share of detractors and controversy.

Critical Reception

Published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath became an instant success, selling 428,000 copies within a year. Soon, Hollywood came calling. The studio 20th Century Fox secured the rights to the film version and hired the notable American director John Ford. Released in 1940, the film The Grapes of Wrath also became a huge critical and commercial success. Steinbeck loved the movie, especially Henry Fonda's portrayal of Tom Joad.

However, not everything was rosy for Steinbeck and his masterwork. People in Oklahoma complained that the novel made the entire state appear poverty stricken. People in California did not care for its critical depiction of landowners. As a result, The Grapes of Wrath was banned by some libraries. In fact, a few towns had ceremonial book burnings of the novel. Steinbeck was even the victim of death threats. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, was convinced that Steinbeck was a Communist and put him under constant surveillance.

Steinbeck, however, was very patriotic and attempted to enlist in the armed forces during World War II. Because they suspected him of being a Communist, the military refused to allow him to serve. Steinbeck ended up serving as a war correspondent, writing a large amount of propaganda that supported war efforts.

The Great Depression and Dust Bowl

Economic and ecological disasters in the United States provided the stimulus for writing The Grapes of Wrath. In October 1929 the U.S. stock market crashed, sending the country into an economic depression that lasted for more than a decade. Suddenly, millions of people were out of work and facing poverty. Many U.S. citizens became dissatisfied with how their government handled the crisis.

During this period, farmers suffered through severe hardships, including crop failures and the falling prices of farm products. These difficulties included the man-made ecological disaster resulting in what's known as the Dust Bowl. Extreme drought and soil erosion led to horrible farming conditions throughout Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and other states. Massive dust storms hit these areas, carrying away tons of soil. Crops failed and thousands of people lost their farms. Many of these people became migrant laborers and traveled to California and other areas of the country in search of work.

When The Grapes of Wrath debuted in 1939, the Great Depression had been ongoing for about 10 years. Economic conditions had improved under the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt, but these efforts had failed to lift the country fully out of the depression. Many people were fed up and angry. The novel therefore struck a chord with numerous readers. They could identify with the Joad family and were outraged by the unfair, selfish labor practices depicted in the story.

Steinbeck's novel helped to improve working conditions. After Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, read the book, she organized congressional hearings to reform labor laws for migrant camps. The novel also inspired many labor reform leaders, such as Cesar Chavez, who organized a union for migrant farmworkers in the 1960s. In fact, one of Chavez's best-known speeches calls for a boycott of grape growers in California in an effort to win more rights for grape pickers. Eventually, Chavez succeeded in forming the United Farm Workers in America, a labor union that seeks to improve the working conditions and wages of migrant workers.

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