The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

When the novel was published on March 14, 1939, 50,000 copies were on order, a remarkable number for a Depression-era book. By the end of April, The Grapes of Wrath was selling 2,500 copies a day. By May, it was the number-one bestseller and was selling 10,000 copies a week. At the end of the year, close to a half-million copies had been sold. It was the top seller of 1939 and remained a best-seller throughout 1940. Since then, the novel has been continuously in print.

Despite its overwhelming popularity, the novel did not receive only favorable reviews. Journalists who wrote early reviews in the newspapers were not particularly impressed with the book. Steinbeck had broken many of the “rules” of fiction writing with his novel. Several reviewers could not understand the novel’s unconventional structure. In Newsweek, Burton Roscoe wrote that the book has some “magnificent passages” but that it also contains factual errors (including statements that the Dust Bowl extended into eastern Oklahoma when that region of the state had actually remained fertile) and misleading propaganda. A reviewer in Time magazine criticized the chapters that did not describe the Joads’ story, saying they were “not a successful fiction experiment.” 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,” yet he also wrote that the latter half of the book was “too detailed.”

Similarly, other critics found fault with the structure of the novel. Louis Kronenberger in the Nation and Malcolm Cowley in the New Republic criticized the latter half of the book and particularly the ending. Other magazine reviewers, especially those writing for monthlies and literary quarterlies, did not focus entirely on the sociological aspects of the novel and considered its artistic merit. These reviewers, on the whole, recognized that Steinbeck had written a seminal and innovative novel. The editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Edward Weeks, wrote that it was a “novel whose hunger, passion, and poetry are in direct answer to the angry stirring of our conscience these past seven years.” Weeks found the novel almost “too literal, too unsparing,” yet he could “only hope that the brutality dodgers will take my word for it that it is essentially a healthy and disciplined work of art.”

In the North American Review , Charles Angoff defended the novel: “With his latest novel, Mr. Steinbeck at once joins the company of Hawthorne, Melville, Crane and Norris, and easily leaps to the forefront of all his contemporaries. The book has all the earmarks of something momentous, monumental, and memorable. . . . The book has the proper faults: robust looseness and lack of narrative definiteness— faults such as can be found in...

(The entire section is 707 words.)