I don’t know and in truth I don’t much care whether it’s the “work of genius” !
What sticks with me is that here is a book, non-political, non-dogmatic, which dramatizes so that you can’t forget it the terrible facts of a wholesale injustice committed by society. Yes, I am talking about one of my favourite book “The Grapes of Wrath ” .
The Grapes of Wrath, the novel Steinbeck called his ‘truly American book’
It was not published until some reservations over what they saw as ‘rough’ language in the manuscript were addressed, with Steinbeck vigorously resisting any watering-down of the dialogue as he felt it would lose authenticity.
Steinbeck also felt the book may only appeal to a limited audience and asked his publisher not to print too many copies in the first instance; his request was ignored and the first print run was for 19,804 copies.
This proved to be a huge underestimate and by the end of 1939, 428,900 copies were in circulation, retailing at $2.75 each.
The book has remained continuously in print since the publication date of 14 April 1939 (the fourth anniversary of “Black Sunday,” the most devastating of all Dust Bowl storms that helped trigger the internal migrant crisis in America) and has never sold less than 50,000 copies per annum, currently selling 150,000 copies a year.
To date, approximately 15,000,000 copies of the book have been sold and it has been translated into more than thirty languages.
It drew comparisons with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
Greater accolades were to come — Grapes of Wrath won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize (Steinbeck gave the $1,000 prize to his friend, Ritch Lovejoy, to encourage his writing career) and the novel contributed towards Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize in 1962.
On a personal level, despite his great satisfaction that it had been rapturously received, Steinbeck detested the intense scrutiny under which he now came and it also put pressure on his marriage. As was his habit at such times of stress, he retreated to his ranch for peace and quiet.
The title of the novel was chosen by Steinbeck’s wife, Carol, who found it embedded in the text of the story:
‘In the souls of the people the grape of wrath and filling and growing heavy.’
The Grapes of Wrath was originally a series of newspaper articles for the San Francisco News, which Steinbeck was persuaded to turn into a novel. The articles were based around an investigation of the camps organised by the government, to house the many thousands of migrant workers, both American and Mexican and their families, who made their way to California in search of a better life.
Whilst the Californian authorities tried to turn away as many as possible at the border, many did make it into the state. This influx was not well received by Californians. Steinbeck wrote:
“The migrants are hated for the following reasons: that they are dirty and ignorant people, that they are carriers of disease, that they increase the necessity for police and the tax bill for schooling in a community and that if they allowed to organize they can, simply by refusing to work, wipe out the season’s crops.”
There was no doubting where Steinbeck’s sympathies lay and that was why Life magazine refused to publish an article he wrote on the migrant crisis, declaring it to be too ‘liberal’ for their readers. Other journals did the same, afraid to tackle the subject from Steinbeck’s perspective, as he saw the migrants as
‘so much stronger and purer and braver than I am.’
This, then, was the background from which Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck sold the novel’s film rights for $75,000 to the producer Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox.
The resulting 1940 film adaptation starred Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad and John Carradine as Jim Casy. It was directed by the eminent John Ford.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two – Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell).
Steinbeck was reportedly pleased with the film adaptation.
The novel was also adapted for the stage by the Steppenwolf Company, whose Broadway production, featuring Gary Sinise as Tom Joad and Lois Smith as Ma Joad, won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1990.
Born in Salinas, California, in 1902, John Steinbeck grew up in a fertile agricultural valley about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast – and both valley and coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree.
Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the Californian labouring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941).
He died in 1968, having won a Nobel Prize in 1962.
Quotes from the Book
The story opens with scenes of bleakness and devastation. The reader witnesses the destruction of the farmland in the American Dust Bowl as the impact of man’s inappropriate attempts to manipulate the dry landscape have a terrible effect:
“And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first and then, as the central ribs of strength, grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the com leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.”
The dust created by the farming methods and the dry climate has unpleasant consequences:
“Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again… Men and women huddled in their houses and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out and wore goggles to protect their eyes.”
“I was mean life a wolf. Now i’m mean like a weasel. When you’re huntin’ somepin you’re a hunter, an’ you’re strong. Can’t nobody beat a hunter. But when you get hunted–that’s different. Somepin happens to you. You ain’t strong; maybe you’re fierce, but you ain’t strong. I been hunted now for a long time. I ain’t no hunter no more.”
“This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ just died out of it. I don’ know whether he was good or bad, but that don’t matter much. He was alive, an’ that’s what matters.”
It is difficult to add anything new to the superlatives that have already been used over the years for this novel. It is worth remembering, however, that when Steinbeck wrote it, the events he recounted were current and a matter of heated debate in America, whereas the present-day reader has the comfort of hindsight and distance from the distress caused to these migrants. What was before Steinbeck’s eyes as he researched the book is now to us a topic for a history lesson, but the images and experiences he writes about have not lost their edge, or capacity to shock. Authentic in tone, well researched, courageous, beautifully evoked — this novel has everything one could ask for from a Steinbeck novel. It is enough to say that anyone interested in mid-twentieth century American history and its fiction, should read this book.
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