The publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath caused a nationwide stir in 1939. This account of the predicament of migrant workers was taken more as a social document than as fiction. Some saw it as an exposé of capitalist excesses; others, as a distorted call to revolution. Frequently compared to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1851-1852), it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in literature in 1940.
Later literary critics, taking a second look at the novel, often lumped it with a number of other dated books of the 1930’s as “proletarian fiction.” A careful reader, however, recognizes that beneath this outraged account of an outrageous social situation lies a dynamic, carefully structured story that applies not only to one era or society but also to the universal human predicament.
As a social document, the novel presents such a vivid picture of oppression and misery that one tends to doubt its authenticity. Steinbeck, however, did more than academic research. He journeyed from Oklahoma to California, lived in a migrant camp, and worked alongside the migrants. (According to one report, after the novel appeared, the workers sent Steinbeck a patchwork dog sewn from scraps of their clothing and wearing a tag labeled “Migrant John.”) Before making the motion picture, which still stands as one of the great films of the era, Darryl F. Zanuck hired private detectives to...
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