I'm doing a presention on historical criticism of The Grapes of Wrath, and I'm having trouble. Thank you.
The Grapes of Wrath is strongly rooted in the social context in which it was created. People were struggling, especially the working poor, because of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Society changed because of those events, and we see those changes from the perspective of the Joads in the novel.
Reading The Grapes of Wrath is like reading history, which is partly why it is such an effective piece of writing. We see and understand the need for unions to improve working conditions; the selfish and wasteful practices of large, corporate farms; and the desperation of people who have been displaced by people who are not connected to them and only care about dollar signs and bottom lines. Historical criticism looks at the literary work through the lens of history. This is your first time to look at literature this way, and this is a great novel to use as it is full of historical elements.
You are absolutely on the right track. When you read a novel through an historical perspective, you consider how the novel reflects the events, attitudes, and historical facts of the time period in which it is set and/or the life time of the author. In the case of The Grapes of Wrath you should research the Dust Bowl of the 1930's, the great migration west, the conditions of labor in California, the modes of travel, the political and social nature of people, etc. and then determine how accurate Steinbeck's portrayal is. You can then discuss why he where he was especially realistic or when he may have used metaphor or hyperbole to make a specific point. Because Steinbeck lived through this time period, you could also connect his life and experiences to details that are revealed in the text.
This novel is interesting in that Steinbeck included the non-fiction inter-calary chapters, and these chapters would provide a very good place to look at the historical details of the time outside of the "fiction" story of the Joad family.