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 verify Steinbeck’s story; they reported that conditions were even worse than those depicted in the book. The political situation was a powder keg.
Social injustice is depicted so sharply that Steinbeck was accused of being a revolutionary. Certainly, he paints the oppressive economic system in bleak colors. Many critics note, however, that Steinbeck was basically a reformer, not a revolutionary. He wanted to change the attitudes and behaviors of people—both migrants and economic barons—not overturn the private enterprise system. Indeed, Steinbeck observes that ownership of land is morally edifying to humankind.
Steinbeck once declared that the writer must “set down his time as nearly as he can understand it” and that the writer should “serve as the watchdog of society . . . to satirize its silliness, to attack its injustices, to stigmatize its faults.” In The Grapes of Wrath, he does all these things, then goes further to interpret events from a distinctly American point of view. Like Walt Whitman, he expresses love for all people and respect for manual labor. Like Thomas Jefferson, he asserts a preference for agrarian society in which people retain a close, nourishing tie to the soil. His farmers dwindle psychologically as they are separated from their land, and the California owners become oppressors as they substitute ledgers for direct contact with the soil. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Steinbeck demonstrates faith in the common people and in the ideal of self-reliance. He also develops the Emersonian religious concept of an oversoul. The preacher Jim Casy muses “maybe that’s the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of it.” Later, Tom Joad reassures Ma that even if he isn’t physically with her, “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there . . . . I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready . . . .”
This theme, that all people essentially belong together and are a part of one another and of a greater whole that transcends momentary reality, is what removes The Grapes of Wrath from the genre of timely proletarian fiction and makes it an allegory for all people in all circumstances. Warren French notes that the real story of this novel is not the Joads’ search for economic security but their education, which transforms them from self-concern to a recognition of their bond with the whole human race. At first,...
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