Is Steinbeck condemning or celebrating America in The Grapes of Wrath?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In a review of a recently published The Grapes of Wrath in the New Yorker, Clifton Fadiman wrote that the novel

dramatizes so that you cannot forget the terrible facts of a wholesale injustice committed by society....

There are, indeed, obvious socialist sympathies in its anger directed toward "buccaneering capitalism"; however, at the same time, John Steinbeck lauds the American spirit that drives people to both succeed and to endure.

It is in the intercalary chapters that Steinbeck often criticizes capitalism and the callous treatment of the poor. In Chapter Five, for instance, the owners of the land drive onto the land where the tenant farmers reside.

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves.

The callousness of the banks and companies who hold the loans of the farmers demands payment. The owners tell the tenants they must leave. 

We're sorry. It's not us.  It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.

In other chapters, Steinbeck depicts the strength of community and family in the camps,

The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.

In these camps, there develops a government, with leaders. And, the people become migrants, rather than the farmers they have been. Codes of conduct develop and people share and work with one another. Their strength in community is expressed by Ma when she tells Tom he must have patience,

" people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people--we go on....A different time's comin'."

Tom Joad joins the ranks of the soldiers who will march to the Battle Hymn of the Republic and restore pride to people. and fight against the machinery of callous capitalism that has caused the Dust Bowl. Clearly, there is evident in this novel Steinbeck's sympathy for union organizers for the migrant workers. But, there is also great respect for the individual, the American, who perseveres. Author/critic Richard Gray wrote,

As its title indicates, as well as its narrative drive, The Grapes of Wrath is an angry but also an optimistic book, [recalling] “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic” with its prophecy of truth marching to victory . . .

Read the study guide:
The Grapes of Wrath

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