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The Grapes of Wrath is one of the first and arguably one of the best novels depicting The Great Depression. As a piece of history, The Great Depression is one of America's "Top 10" periods of social, economic, and environmental change. Teaching this novel in an American literature class in my opinion, is to combine a wonderfully written classic novel with an historically significant American event.
The Grapes of Wrath not only is a literary masterpiece, it shows how a forgotten generation of Americans, those from the Dust Bowl, were affected. Steinbeck was from Salinas, California, and drove through migrant camps and saw first hand the condescending attitudes expressed toward and desperateness of these people. It made him quite angry, and he expressed that anger in the book; it was his way of waking up America to the plight of the forgotten. I require my AP U.S. History students to read the book as it is the best way for them to understand how bad things really were during the Depression.
In addition to what has been said, I think that this book portrays some characteristics that we think of as important to the American national character. In other words, I think that the characters in the book show characteristics that we think are typical of Americans. The book shows people who are banding together and perservering in the face of adversity. Because we see these as important positive traits, I think that we are inclined to approve of and to assign this book.
The Grapes of Wrath has literary and historical relevance to every American. It was written by one of the country's best writers about a time in history which shaped our culture in nearly every way. The novel is structured to follow one family's disappointments and victories but contains intercalary chapters which remind us thousands of others were experiencing the same things. It's just a great novel to read and talk about with people of any age.
In 1962, John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his
"for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception".
A socialist himself, Steinbeck recorded not only the history of those many who were dispossessed in America, but he offered what he felt was a solution to their problems. John Steinbeck was a recorder of his times and propounded this history with realism and a certain transcendentalism that has and still rests deeply in the hearts of many Americans. His work, The Grapes of Wrath is monumental; it is historical, philosophical, and sociological. In short, it is an American classic!
In addition to the references above made to the historical nature of this classic and the realistic portrayal of Steinbeck's treatment of the Great Depression, I think above all this novel contains many images that become burned into one's consciousness. The final image of Rose of Sharon breastfeeding the dying man after her own child was stillborn is perhaps one of the most incredible images I have ever come across in literature. It is Steinbeck's ability to capture such unique and powerful images in this novel that makes it such an enduring classic.
Few pieces of literature so accurately capture and portray the desperation of a generation. While part of the reason any literary piece is taught year after year is tradition, I feel The Grapes of Wrath is one of those novels that defines a country, a people and an era. The story is so deeply ingrained in our identity as a nation that we have an educational imperative to pass it along to each generation.
I agree with everything that's already been said. I'd simply add that this book is very powerfully written. I remember reading it while on a long train trip and marking many, many sentences as just exceptionally powerful, vivid, striking, and beautiful. It is easy to forget how funny this book often is. It is a true American epic because it is so comprehensive in the kinds of characters and situations it presents. Many critics claim that Steinbeck never really wrote anything else as powerful as The Grapes of Wrath. From the other works of his that I have read, I would have to agree, but simply by writing The Grapes of Wrath he won a rightfully prominent place in the American literary canon.
The book does have historical significance because it depicts the Great Depression and Steinbeck is an incredible writer. However, I also feel that this book is discussed in American Lit. classes because of its call for Socialist reform. This can be seen when the Joads go to the one camp that is run by the government; it is like paradise. Every other place is miserable. Steinbeck is making the point that Capitalism causes vast misery and Socialism would be a much better option for America. His opinion is more likely to be well-received because he wrote it into a story that you love and characters that work hard and deserve the best.
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