It was on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. It is a novel that chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California.
It is a portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength. The novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.
Steinbeck wrote the novel at an incredible rate — about two thousand words a day — in a tiny outhouse that had just enough room for a bed, a desk, a gun rack, and a bookshelf. He finished it in about five months.
When he was done, he wasn’t very satisfied with it: He wrote in his journal, “It’s just a run-of-the-mill book, and the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.” And he warned his publisher that it wouldn’t be very popular.
The Grapes of Wrath became one of the most beloved novels of American literature. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and has since been translated into nearly every language. Over 14 million copies of the book have been sold and it is estimated that around 100,000 copies of the book continue to sell every year.
When it was first published, Americans both embraced and scorned the novel. Some applauded Steinbeck for capturing so honestly the lives of migrant farm workers during the Depression. Others accused him of being a socialist and of championing communist beliefs.
Californian farmers loathed Steinbeck’s unsavory depiction of, well, Californian farmers. In short, this novel sent America into a bit of a frenzy. Eleanor Roosevelt took note, and, as a result, she called for congressional hearings on migrant worker camp conditions and labour laws were changed.
The Grapes of Wrath has been banned, burned, and bought over and over again.Steinbeck’s publishers lauded the book as one of the, if not the, greatest work of American Literature. Time Magazine disagreed in its 1939 review of the novel, saying, “It is not [the greatest work of American literature]. But it is Steinbeck’s best novel, i.e., his toughest and tenderest, his roughest written and most mellifluous, his most realistic and, in its ending, his most melodramatic, his angriest and most idyllic.”
The Grapes of Wrath has firmly lodged itself within American culture, and references to the novel continue to be made in movies, music, art, and TV. Allusions to this epic tale have surfaced in both South Park and The Simpsons. Many songs have been written and sung about Tom Joad, most notably by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. The Joads are a fictional family, and yet they (and what they represent) have become a part of the American story.