When The Grapes of Wrath was published on March 14, 1939, it created a national sensation for its depiction of the devastating effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the end of April, it was selling 2,500 copies a day—a remarkable number considering the hard economic times. In May, the novel was a number-one best-seller, selling at a rate of 10,000 copies a week. By the end of 1939, close to a half million copies had been sold.
John Steinbeck was shocked by the tremendous response to his novel. Almost overnight, he was transformed from a respected, struggling writer into a public sensation. Yet The Grapes of Wrath was bound to cause controversy in a country experiencing a decade of major social upheaval during the Depression. With the novel’s publication, Steinbeck found himself immersed in a great national debate over the migrant labor problem. Many people were shocked by the poverty and hopelessness of the story, and others denied that such circumstances could happen in America. Admidst the controversy, people who had never read a book before bought a copy of The Grapes of Wrath. At $2.75 per copy, it was affordable and quickly sold out. Libraries had waiting lists for the novel that were months long.
It was perhaps inevitable that such an epic novel would cause a sensation. With the exception of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), The Grapes of Wrath was the publishing event of the decade. Widespread charges of obscenity were brought against the novel, and it was banned and burned in Buffalo, New York; East Saint Louis, Illinois; and Kern County, California, where much of the novel is set. In fact, the novel remains one of the most frequently banned books in the United States, according to school and library associations. The book was denounced in Congress by Representative Lyle Boren of Oklahoma, who called the novel’s depiction of migrant living conditions a vulgar lie. Charges were made that “obscenity” had been included in the book in large part to sell more copies. Eventually, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stepped in to praise the book and defend Steinbeck against his critics. In 1940, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. Yet, at the time, such were the pressures of Steinbeck’s celebrity that he described fame as “a pain in the ass.”
The popularity of the novel has endured. It is estimated that it has sold fifteen million copies since its publication. For almost sixty years, Steinbeck’s novel has been a classic in American literature; it has been translated into several languages, including French, German, and Japanese. The Grapes of Wrath has also been an integral part of the school curriculum in America since the end of World War II.