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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

In fact, Steinbeck developed so much admiration for these working "stiffs," as they called each other, that he took up their style of life. He was nineteen and had spent two unrewarding years at Stanford University. He tried to find work as a deckhand on a Pacific freighter, but ended up instead in the beet and barley fields of the Willoughby Ranch south of Salinas. Then he worked in a beet factory as a bench-chemist.

All the while, he gathered material for writing. After each day's work he wrote- mostly stories and poems. Six months later he decided to return to the classroom and to study the writer's craft seriously. Some of his pieces ended up in the college newspaper; others showed up later as sections of The Long Valley, In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden.

Steinbeck's success as a writer coincided with the coming of the Great Depression. As many people around the country lost their wealth, Steinbeck prospered. He started to travel, not only because he could afford it, but because he wanted to collect material for his writing. The country was heavy with frustration. Everywhere he went he met downtrodden people with stories to be told. In 1937, driving a late-model car, he and his wife Carol traveled Route 66 from Oklahoma to California. He saw the roadside camps, used-car lots, diners, and gas stations that eventually became sites for events in The Grapes of Wrath. Thinking that a good story might be written about the migrants, he spent four weeks with workers in California, working with them in the fields and living in their camps.


What started as an idea for a story soon became an issue for Steinbeck. He wrote in a letter to a friend:

I must go over to the interior valleys. There are about five thousand families starving to death over there, not just hungry but actually starving. The government is trying to feed them and get medical attention to them with the fascist groups of utilities and banks and huge growers sabotaging the thing all along the line and yelling for a balanced budget... I've tied into the thing from the first and I must get down there and see it and see if I can't do something to help knock these murderers on the heads.... I'm pretty mad about it.

He wrote an angry article on the inhumane treatment of the migrants. He detailed the wretched conditions of the camps and blamed the California ranch owners for misery among the workers. Meanwhile, he had begun working on The Grapes of Wrath. It pointed fingers at those responsible for keeping people in poverty. It used tough language (in the 1930s four-letter words were uncommon in novels). It was meant to rouse its readers. Steinbeck chose its title from the words of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," a song, both religious and patriotic, that stirs the emotions as few songs do. Steinbeck expected the book to be a failure. He thought, mistakenly, that many people would hate the book and would most likely hate him, too. He might be branded Communist, a label that could give him trouble for the rest of his life. His publisher urged him to soften the book, to make it more acceptable. Steinbeck refused: "I've never changed a word to fit the prejudices of a group and I never will," he wrote.

It was evidently a wise decision. The Grapes of Wrath is considered Steinbeck's greatest novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize and has been translated into such languages as French, German, and Japanese. Steinbeck's frank portrayal of real people excited readers everywhere. Although some libraries and school boards banned the book, it became a bestseller almost instantly and was made into an Academy Award-winning movie in 1940. The book was rarely attacked on artistic grounds, but some people called it a distortion of the truth, a piece of Communist propaganda. They said it couldn't be true that almost every migrant was a hero and almost every Californian a villain. Almost no one denied that it was a well-written, soundly structured piece of literature.

John Steinbeck died in 1968.

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