Book Review: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

Luka Willett ‘20

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning book The Grapes of Wrath is a literary masterpiece of which I have found no equal. Set in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, the narrative focuses on the Joads, a family of tenant farmers who must leave their old life behind in order to escape the economic hardships thrusted upon them by the Dust Bowl. Full of beautiful imagery and a gripping plot, Steinbeck weaves a novel for the reader with the skill, personal experience and reflection parallel to no other. And even though you may have to buy it, I promise your love for the novel will not be “thinned by money.”

One of the reasons I find this story so compelling is that Steinbeck did not merely write this book from his house in California, but decided to experience the pains of these people and embody these sentiments in his writing. Thus, Steinbeck visited many migrant camps in order to fully understand their adversity and create a more accurate portrayal of what resulted from the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. Through these experiences, Steinbeck also learned how to properly structure his novel.

The novel oscillates between two types of chapters: chapters that follow the Joad family narrative and chapters which reinforce the zeitgeist of the era. The latter chapters are the ones I happen to find particularly interesting, for they contain many of Steinbeck’s insights into society and humanity.

One of his most famous lines comes from one of the latter chapters, which reads “And this you can know- fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.” Not only is this line exquisitely articulated, but it comments on humanity in a way that leaves much to be wondered, and that wondering for me is what distinguishes a great book from a typical read. Steinbeck forces us to look from a new perspective and to think about degrees of suffering that very few have known in our community.

It is clear that Steinbeck has succeeded in provoking thought, for The Grapes of Wrath has had a strong impact in America from the moment it was published. According to The New York Times, it was the best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940. Yet during that period, Steinbeck was also harshly criticized, with many calling him a propagandist and a socialist from all major parts of the political spectrum. Some of the more aggressive attacks came from the Associated Farmers of California, for they were very angry with Steinbeck’s depiction of California farmers’ attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book, calling it a “pack of lies” and labeling it “communist propaganda.” These attacks against Steinbeck and his novel are strikingly similar to today’s attacks on the media and attempts to discredit facts, making this novel even more relevant to the current age.

His work continues to inspire artists today, from the Hollywood movie to Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. Although these are no substitute for this great work, if you lack the time to read the entire book, a song or two from Springsteen’s album might give you a nice, little taste.