From the moment of its publication in 1939, no twentieth century American novel has provoked more controversy and criticism for its social philosophy, alleged atheistic beliefs, and profane language than has John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Born in Salinas, California, in 1902, Steinbeck published his first novel, Cup of Gold in 1929. Many other novels followed, including The Grapes of Wrath. Many critics consider this his finest work; it won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. The Grapes of Wrath became an instant best-seller despite vehement attacks by critics, who were not limited to Californians and Oklahomans. Efforts by school boards from Kansas City, Kansas, to Buffalo, New York, to censor the book in public libraries on pornographic and political grounds were successful. Chambers of commerce and religious groups throughout the United States tried to prevent filming of the novel by producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Because of the intense furor, Zanuck sent a film crew to California to discover whether Steinbeck had exaggerated the plight of the migrants. What they discovered was worse than Steinbeck depicted, so they proceeded with the film—which later received seven Academy Award nominations.
However, Zanuck did alter certain parts of the novel, including the ending. Instead of having Rose of Sharon breast-feed a starving man after she delivered a stillborn child, the film ended with Ma Joad reaffirming the belief that common people would endure despite their hardships.
While The Grapes of Wrath was accused of exploiting the poor, using lewd and obscene language, and portraying life in a bestial, mean way, most criticism focused on two misconceptions: The novel’s alleged espousal of atheism—largely through the character of Jim Casy—and its supposedly sympathetic view of communism. Such accusations were made by critics who misunderstood the two basic American concepts underlying the novel, Transcendentalism and Jeffersonian Agrarianism.
Steinbeck’s characters of Jim Casy, Tom Joad, Ma Joad, and Rose of Sharon convey spiritual, rather than atheistic, attitudes toward life. Although Casy is a defrocked preacher, he believes in the universal presence of a deity in every facet of life and relies on his conscience to guide his behavior. In a Christ-like gesture, Casy sacrifices his life for the good of all displaced people. Tom Joad, too, sacrifices himself at the end of the novel for the same goal. The two main female characters exhibit the Christian qualities of self-sacrifice, uncompromising love, and strength in the face of tragedy.
Charges that the novel is sympathetic toward communism are equally unfounded. Its story calls for unity among migrant workers in order to preserve rather than restrict their rights. The collective efforts of the poor farmers against the power structure are based on pragmatic objectives, not Marxist concepts. Representing yeoman farmers in the Jeffersonian tradition, the migrant workers believe that working and owning the land gives meaning and purpose to their lives. Because of ideas such as these, The Grapes of Wrath remains a classic depiction of humanity’s struggle against oppression.
Ditsky, John, ed. Critical Essays on Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. In addition to important essays on the novel’s composition, critical reception, and other topics, this collection provides contemporary reviews of the novel and useful maps of the 1936 Dust Bowl, westward migration in the 1930’s, Route 66, and a government camp.
Donohue, Agnes McNeill. A Casebook on “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968. Contains thirty-seven discussions of the novel as both a social document and as literature. Also reprints Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and suggests topics for studying or writing about the novel.
Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1986. A fresh and intelligent discussion of Ma Joad, Granma Joad, and Rose of Sharon as “indestructible women” who hold the family together. This study opens ground for feminist consideration of Steinbeck’s works.
Steinbeck, John. Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath,” 1938-1941. Edited by Robert DeMott. New York: Viking, 1989. Steinbeck’s journals and correspondence while writing the novel are valuable resources for studying the cultural, historical, and literary origins of the book, as well as the author’s creative process. DeMott provides an insightful introduction to these materials.
Wyatt, David, ed. New Essays on “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Five essays covering Steinbeck’s portrayal of human history as an organic process, Ma Joad’s character, the novel’s relationship to journalism, and the propagandistic aspects of John Ford’s 1940 film version of the novel.