An Appreciation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

by Heidi Kim

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This year marks the celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), the novel which evoked national controversy about its depiction of Dust Bowl migrants and launched up-and-coming author John Steinbeck into the literary stratosphere.* Grapes tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma farming family driven off their land by the twin forces of drought and banks. They journey to California and, as migrant laborers, face hostility from faceless farming associations as well as specific individuals, finding dignity only in the government camp run by the kindly manager modeled on Steinbeck’s real-life informant, Tom Collins. Slowly, the Joad family falls apart; the heaviest blow is the departure of the protagonist, ex-convict Tom (played by Henry Fonda in the acclaimed 1940 film version) to escape the law. However, the novel’s infamously ambiguous ending offers some hope, as the remainder of the family works with other migrants to escape a terrible flood, and the older daughter, Rose of Sharon, whose baby has just been stillborn, consents to breastfeed a starving stranger in order to save his life. Fecundity of body and spirit, it seems, will find its way back, if only humanity will unite.

Grapes instantly became a huge bestseller, critically successful and politically explosive, tackling one of the major social issues of the day. It was vilified on the floor of Congress (“this dirty, lying, filthy manuscript”) and publicly discussed by columnists, academics, other writers, economists, farmers, and angry locals of Oklahoma and California. The controversy over Grapes chiefly hinged on two factors: its obscene language and the realism (or lack thereof) of the depiction of the ‘Okies’ and their treatment in California. For both reasons, it was condemned by various organizations, banned and burned by libraries, and denounced not only in Congress but in major print outlets for being totally inaccurate. Other offenses included the preacher character’s admission of sexual activity and the alleged Communist propagandizing in the positive depiction of the government camp.

Adding to this controversy was the debate over whether Grapes was propaganda or ‘real’ literature. Conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler labeled it propaganda, while Charles Angoff in the North American Review suggested that Steinbeck should join the company of the “great American imaginative writers” such as Melville and Crane, though he did also suggest that those departed greats were doing their rejoicing in Hell. Discussion of its narrative looseness, particularly though not exclusively focused on the ending, suggested that it exasperated as much as it exhilarated. Of particular note in this debate were what are often referred to as the intercalary chapters, short digressive chapters of commentary which diverge entirely from the Joads’ narrative. Even Charles Poore of the New York Times, who loved the novel, found these “a little too hortatory,” “half Jacobean and half Hemingway.”

Some of these chapters do contain moral exhortations, a habit which would grow on Steinbeck to an extent that some readers find unbearable. (He knew this quite well. In Sweet Thursday, one character complains about the digressions of Cannery Row and suggests that they should be put in separate chapters labeled “Hooptedoodle,” which Steinbeck promptly does for the rest of the novel.) However, others are short stories, or rather vignettes, with fleeting characters who go through experiences similar to the Joads’. To me, these heighten the painful intimacy that develops between the reader and the Joad family as representatives of a migrant horde.

The first time that I read Grapes, the episode that stood out to me from the entire novel was the one in which an Okie family stops at a roadside diner, an old-fashioned little place with “big thick” cream pies and coffee, to buy a loaf of bread. The waitress (“Minnie or Susy or Mae”) is reluctant to sell them a loaf, and tries to sell them a sandwich instead, but they can’t afford it. As the transaction ends (the waitress agrees to sell at the insistence of the cook, “Joe or Carl or Al”), the two little children stare wonderingly and hopelessly at the candy display. When she says that the candy sticks are two for a penny, the man buys them for the children and drives off in his jalopy. “Them was nickel apiece candy,” a trucker observes, and Mae snaps at him, embarrassed at her own kindness. He and his friend depart, quietly leaving more than enough money to pay for the loss on the bread and the candy.

At the time I read this, I was rather young, and the word ‘candy’ was probably enough to attract me to this chapter (not to mention ‘pie’). But it is still my favorite. This vignette represents Steinbeck at his best: the ear for dialect, the vividly realistic writing, the sense of humor and irony, the local detail that aspires to the national and universal, and, most of all, his faith in the greatness of human nature, in spite of its intermingling with pettiness and stupid social convention. That faith echoes through most of Steinbeck’s work: the greed and redemption of Kino in The Pearl; the characters’ debate over the Biblical conception of timshel, free will, in East of Eden; the kind-hearted bums of Cannery Row; Ethan Hawley’s horror at his son’s plagiarism in The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck’s last and perhaps most reviled major novel. As with everything else in Grapes, there is a converse critical perspective that picks out his faults: the sentimentality; the universalism that reads like generalization; the strident and ungenerous female characters who represent one aspect of misogyny.

While Steinbeck undoubtedly has at least as many shortcomings as other great writers, in Grapes, he triumphs in the creation of a gripping narrative, as the tensions among the Joads’ humble aspirations, their own fear of degeneration, and the forces of society that uplift or denigrate them constantly threaten to explode. Its reputation has remained undimmed, as even Steinbeck’s harshest detractors for the most part will begrudgingly admit its worth. Seventy-five years later, its depiction of the small kindnesses of one human being to another during a time of economic and environmental disaster cuts unfortunately close to the bone.

 

* Several other books on the Dust Bowl were overshadowed by The Grapes of Wrath. Edwin Lanham’s novel The Stricklands was sometimes attached as a footnote to reviews of Grapes. Sanora Babb’s Whose Names are Unknown was tabled due to Steinbeck’s great success and remained unpublished until 2004. Perhaps most importantly, Carey McWilliams’ Factories in the Field is often referred to as the nonfiction counterpart to Grapes, though much less famed.

 

 

Heidi Kim is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Follow her on Twitter at @HeidiKKim. 

 

One Comment

  1. An ideal introduction to John Steinbeck’s moral empathy, imagination, and dilemma as a writer and citizen of the world. When I got my PhD in English at UNC-Chapel Hill 45 years ago, Steinbeck was ignored and no one teaching at the time, to my memory anyway, wrote this well of any author in the so-called canon. Faulkner was king, the Southern Agrarians attracted energy to their lost provincial cause, and modern literature was ‘to mean, not be.’ Reading Heidi Kim’s commentary reminds me that I read then, really, to learn to live, not earn a living.

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