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The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Grapes of Wrath | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Written by John Steinbeck in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath provides an ominous account of America's Great Depression. Set in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma during the Depression's darkest days, the story follows a family trying to make it west to California in search of a better life.

The Grapes of Wrath has been both treasured and criticized since its publication. Some critics and politicians celebrated it for its power and gritty portrait of human suffering and dignity. Other critics blasted it for sentimentality, and politicians, preachers, and Californians denounced it for spreading communist ideas, portraying immorality, or tarnishing the state's image. Its frank language and challenges to the status quo meant the book was often banned from schools during the 20th century, while people continued to draw great inspiration from it. Generally, though, it has been regarded as a true American classic literary work, and the novel was cited as a reason to grant Steinbeck the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.

1. Bruce Springsteen titled an album after the novel's protagonist, Tom Joad.

Springsteen's 1995 acoustic album The Ghost of Tom Joad pays homage to the story's main character and features a song by the same name. The lyrics are a solemn reflection on the character's struggle, as Springsteen writes:

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Searchin' for the ghost of Tom Joad.

2. Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath to shame those he thought responsible for the migrants' plight.

The author stated, referring to the Great Depression and its impact on American life, that "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this." This clear, forcefully supported agenda has helped the text stay relevant to reformers who claim that economic inequality continues in the United States.

3. The Grapes of Wrath was banned by both capitalists and communists when it was published.

Farmers in California were outraged by how they were portrayed, and they managed to get the book banned in some communities. The growers complained that Steinbeck's book was obscene and promoted communist ideas. Joseph Stalin, head of the communist Soviet Union, disagreed. He banned the book in his country because it showed that even the poorest Americans, like the Joads, could own a car.

4. Steinbeck borrowed notes from another author in writing The Grapes of Wrath.

Sanora Babb is said to have compiled stories and personal information of numerous families in migrant worker camps during the Depression while she worked for the Farm Security Administration. She wrote a novel titled Whose Names Are Unknown that was greatly overshadowed by Steinbeck's work.

5. Steinbeck gave a nickname to Route 66 and made it famous.

Steinbeck called Route 66—the road the Joads and other migrants took from Oklahoma to California—the "mother road." That nickname stuck, though it's also been called "the main street of America." Today, writers and adventurers alike explore Route 66 as a way to travel back in time and experience the same journey of those fleeing the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.

6. In 1939, the year it was published, The Grapes of Wrath was the best-selling book.

Despite the criticism and controversy that the novel quickly accrued at the time of its publication, the text was widely read across the country. The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle recall it as the best seller of the year of its publication. In 1940 it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

7. The 1940 film version of The Grapes of Wrath was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

John Ford won the best director Oscar, and Linda Darnell, who played Ma Joad, won as best supporting actress. The movie was also nominated for Best Film, Best Actor (Henry Ford as Tom), Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Sound Editing. It remains a classic and is ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the top 25 American movies.

8. The camp the Joad family stays at in California is a historic site.

Weedpatch Camp—later renamed Sunset Labor Camp—is a real facility built by the Works Progress Administration in 1936. Several of its buildings have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

9. More than 200,000 people migrated to California to escape the Dust Bowl.

In the Joads, Steinbeck portrayed a very real exodus of huge proportions. The Dust Bowl devastated the Great Plains and forced more than 2 million people to leave the area. A large share—more than 200,000 of them—went to California. The size of the multitude forced the federal government to build camps for the migrants and provoked the bitter resistance from California residents that Steinbeck portrays.

10. Mumford & Sons released a song based on the novel.

The indie-rock band included a song on their 2009 album Sigh No More called "Dust Bowl Dance," which was inspired by The Grapes of Wrath.

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