Analytic Review of “Grapes of Wrath”
History 258

Nov. 21/01

Grapes of Wrath, the epic novel written by John Steinbeck, captures the travesty and tragedies of the “Great Depression.” Chronicling the travels of a displaced Oklahoma family, the “Joads,” Steinbeck captures many of the historical moods and thinking of the era. Steinbeck weaves a tale purposely driven towards the bourgeois classes of the United States. Steinbeck’s novel is not then just a tale copied and dramatized after the emigrant travails of the period, but also one of ideological and propagandist proportions. Using the “Joads,” and particularly “Tom” and “Casy,” Steinbeck explores themes and political changes that were evident in American culture in the nineteen-thirties. Themes such as: capitalist critique and Marxism, philosophical collectivism/communitarianism, spiritual transcendentalism, and emerging environmental concerns. Steinbeck’s novel could be seen as a text that illustrates the transition in American social thought, from a rugged individualism and corporatism towards the modern welfare state. However, Steinbeck’s novel still seems to partake in the American historical tradition. His critiques are at times diluted and contradictory. All these aspects of Steinbeck’s work will be considered, while trying to keep in mind the relation of the book to American history and tradition, including American myth.

The novel takes place during the American “Great Depression,” where millions of people felt the affects of one of the greatest economic crises in world history. For example, between 1910 and 1950 over one million farmers and agricultural workers left the Great Plains.[1] Oklahoma, the home of the fictional “Joads,” alone lost 55% of its agricultural labour force in this period.[2] The “Joads” being a part of this 55% migrated west to the promised land of California. Steinbeck wrote the novel in this context of scarcity and social tumult. The novel itself took five months to produce[3] and the summer and fall of 1938 to research[4]. Steinbeck seems to have been exhausted and changed by his writing of the novel, refusing to ever write again on the subject,[5] much to the consternation of fans. Steinbeck seemed to have fulfilled his explicit purpose in rejecting a second volume.

Steinbeck’s novel was not only a work paralleling American history (an oft disputed claim, to be explored later), but also a work designed to influence public opinion. As propaganda, it cannot be simply analyzed for historical content, but also its ideological implications, which as well have historical value, giving a picture of ideological convictions of the day. While this will be explored in more detail later, Steinbeck’s writing was meant to elicit the compassion and action of the American public for the thousands of people displaced by the Depression. In regards to the poor, he wrote, “The writer can only write about what he admires, and since our race admires gallantry, the writer will deal with it where he finds it. He finds it in the struggling poor now.”[6] Steinbeck, wanting to influence public opinion in favour of the poor, had struggles in writing the book. While the artist is always in a tug of war to maintain his artistic integrity against the audience, this tension particularly affected Steinbeck. Writing to influence public opinion, Steinback was forced to take into account the nature of his audience. The audience was middle class Americans who had the education and leisure opportunities to both read and understand his book. Nicholas Visser wrote that, “The strategies of The Grapes of Wrath derive from Steinbeck’s understanding of what audience he was addressing and in what relation to it he wished to stand.”[7] Given this situation, Steinbeck had to guard against outright revolutionary propaganda. Steinbeck, as a social commentator, could only write so much as the reader could handle. If he were to shock the reader with Marxist rhetoric, he would be labeled a “red.” However, if he did not engage and challenge the reader, his work would be useless as social commentary. This tension informed and guided the book so much so, that contradictions seem to be evident, if not expected.

Works of fiction often do not have to follow the same degree of reality that is expected of historians. They are obviously given some dramatic license, less all of fiction being relegated to dramatized history. However, works of fiction that seek to also