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The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

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What inspired Steinbeck to write The Grapes of Wrath?

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Steinbeck was inspired to write The Grapes of Wrath by his own personal experiences of the Great Depression, and included actual people he had interviewed for his newspaper stories.

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John Steinbeck had a number of elements in his life that inspired him to write The Grapes of Wrath. As with Of Mice and Men, the story of the Joad family (and others like them) during the Great Depression partially takes place in Salinas Valley, in...

...the San...

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Joaquin Valley, a fertile farming area which lies east of the Gabilan Mountains. 

It was in this area that Steinbeck grew up. While his family was considered comfortable (middle-class), he still needed to work as a teenager—which he did on local ranches. (This ranching experience would have been valuable in writing Of Mice and Men, which takes place on a ranch in Salinas Valley.) 

Steinbeck would also have other insightful experiences—in particular, living a life such as the Joads on Spreckels ranch:

Steinbeck worked as a farm laborer, sometimes living with migrants in the farm’s bunkhouse. 

Steinbeck was very observant. This would be a vital talent for his stellar, award-winning career. He not only noticed the details of the lives of those around him, but also of the countryside and farms. His observations would become an integral part of the setting and the conflicts around which the plot of Grapes would center:

He became aware of the harsher aspects of migrant life and the darker side of human nature, which supplied him with material expressed in such works as Of Mice and Men. He also explored his surroundings, walking across local forests, fields, and farms.

Steinbeck was accused of lacking objectivity as a reporter; we can see how this might be the case in that his writing subjectively conveyed what he knew. He felt compelled to share the plight of what he had witnessed of the lives of migrant workers—men and women who desperately tried to survive, while providing food for their children, moving to any location they thought they might find work. They continued to do so even though they were time and again exploited, brutalized and degraded by Californians who were less a part of the United States and more a law unto themselves (according to Steinbeck's novel).

Ironically, earlier pieces of Steinbeck's writing became the inspiration for The Grapes of Wrath,which was...

...based on newspaper articles about migrant agricultural workers that he had written in San Francisco.

While his newspaper reporting was considered not "objective" enough to be material appropriate for a news publication, his observations and work inspired one of the greatest novels of his time. In 1940, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was controversial, and in some places banned and burned. It is considered by some to be his best work. What he witnessed spoke to the hearts of a nation, and the world, not only in the 20th Century. It continues to do so today. The novel's literary value comes not only from the author's ability to portray such memorable characters, but also from his ability to speak succinctly and realistically of lives so deeply affected by natural disasters in the Midwest farmlands that would become know as the Dust Bowl, during the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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John Steinbeck was inspired to write The Grapes of Wrath because he was born in the Salinas Valley in Northern California and personally observed the huge influx of dispossessed farmers from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and the rest of the Dust Bowl area. He felt very sorry for the families who had to work like slaves in the rich California fields and orchards. Conditions were truly terrible. There was no welfare available. The families lived in cabins and typically had to buy their food from the company store, which overcharged them for everything. They all drove ancient jalopies which were always breaking down. Most of them had lots of children to support. It was nearly impossible for the kids to go to school because the families were always moving from job to job, following the crops from one area to another. Steinbeck was a socialist in those days and believed the federal government should help these desperate people. His book did something to bring the problem to the public's attention. The title The Grapes of Wrath suggests that there could be a revolution if enough people were sufficiently oppressed and became sufficiently angry. (The Grapes of Wrath was made into a classic film which is available on DVD and well worth viewing.)

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How did John Steinbeck come across the idea of writing The Grapes of Wrath?

Having worked as a farm laborer himself during the summers and other times he was away from college, John Steinbeck even lived with migrants in the farm’s bunkhouses in the Salinas Valley.  Thus, his experiences often went into his narratives.  Years later when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Steinbeck said,

“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement. Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat—for courage, compassion, and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

After having witnessed first-hand the plight of the migrant worker and the disenfranchised, Steinbeck began to champion those who had been dispossessed by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.  In his essayThe Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study, Howard Levant writes that Steinbeck writes in The Grapes of Wrath of the conflict between law and anarchy,

The one idea postulates justice in a moral world of love and work, identified in the past with “the people” and in the present with the government camp and finally with the union movement, since these are the modern, institutional forms the group may take. The opposed idea postulates injustice in an immoral world of hatred and starvation. It is associated with buccaneering capitalism, which, in violent form, includes strikebreaking and related practices that cheapen human labor.

His leanings were socialistic and Steinbeck's novel was banned from many a library because of the exposure of this ideology as a solution to the plight of the Okies and other like them. The Grapes of Wrath, whose title comes from the song "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is meant to inspire those who struggle against injustice, those who struggle against the Bank and against the forces of cold capitalism, such as the huge California farms.  The Joads represent the group, the unit of strength that abides throughout, no matter the cost to them individually.

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How did John Steinbeck come across the idea of writing The Grapes of Wrath?

John Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley in Northern California, about a hundred miles south of San Francisco. He saw the dispossessed families from the Dust Bowl arriving in California during the years before World War II seeking work as fruit pickers and farm laborers. He felt very sorry for these unfortunate people whom he represented as the Joad family inThe Grapes of Wrath. They were camped all along the highways with their ancient jalopies and hordes of little children. Steinbeck was a militant socialist in those days. Most of his books and stories were about the plight of poor people, includingOf Mice and MenandTotrilla Flat. Steinbeck visited these migrants in their camps and just wrote the truth he could see with his own eyes and the experiences he was told by the people themselves. The novel paints an accurate picture of conditions at the time, and the award-winning classic movie version starring Henry Fonda is a faithful adaptation of the novel. When World War II started in Europe in 1939 and America began producing ships, planes, and munitions for defense, the farm workers were able to obtain much better-paying factory jobs in California, and they were gradually absorbed into the general population.

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Where did Steinbeck come up with the title for the book The Grapes of Wrath?

The title of Steinbeck's novel comes from the biblical book of Revelation, chapter 14:19–20:

And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the wine press ...

The book of Revelation is prophecy about the end times, when history as we understand it will come to an end. After great battles with Satan (or his minions), justice will triumph. Heaven and earth will merge, the light of justice will burn eternally, and God will come among humans and rule his people himself, wiping away all tears of sorrow.

However, because the New Jerusalem of heaven and earth's merger cannot be enacted with evil still reigning on earth, there will be a great reckoning, in which the wicked will pay for their sins. The quote above alludes to that time, when God will enact justice and destroy all the evil people, squeezing them like grapes pressed in a wine press so that their blood runs out like wine.

Steinbeck, a communist, saw the evils of the Great Depression and the suffering of families like the Joads. His title is warning that justice will rise up against the wicked. Communists, like Christians, see an end of history. In the Marxist worldview this will culminate in a bloody revolution that will usher in a Utopic age in which the state will wither on the vine.

A reference to the grapes of wrath comes late in the novel:

In the souls of the people, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

Statements like this, as well as the book's title, warn that exploited people are getting angry at their treatment and will soon rise up if steps are not taken to enact justice.

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