Portrays Depression-Era America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Steinbeck’s use of journalistic exposé, documentary style, and experimental fiction in The Grapes of Wrath, a critique of modern inhumanity, produced one of the most controversial novels of the century.

Summary of Event

The man who would come to write the quintessential American novel of the Great Depression began the 1930’s in obscurity and with uneven literary success. John Steinbeck had rejected his middle-class upbringing in Salinas, California, and the pretensions of college (Stanford University) for the life of an itinerant laborer and aspiring writer. His efforts of the early 1930’s were regarded by most critics as florid and vague renditions of humanity’s encounter with a mystical nature. In Tortilla Flat (1935), Tortilla Flat (Steinbeck) however, he began to restrain his style and to construct richer, more detailed portraits of the folkways of people on the social margins. With In Dubious Battle (1936) In Dubious Battle (Steinbeck) and Of Mice and Men (1937), Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck) Steinbeck established himself as a sensitive chronicler of the vanishing rural communities of the United States and the persistent underclass. These novels also confronted the Great Depression more bluntly than most popular authors dared. [kw]Grapes of Wrath Portrays Depression-Era America, The (Apr., 1939) [kw]Depression-Era America, The Grapes of Wrath Portrays (Apr., 1939)[Depression Era America, The Grapes of Wrath Portrays (Apr., 1939)] [kw]America, The Grapes of Wrath Portrays Depression-Era (Apr., 1939) Grapes of Wrath, The (novel by Steinbeck) Great Depression;literature [g]United States;Apr., 1939: The Grapes of Wrath Portrays Depression-Era America[09980] [c]Literature;Apr., 1939: The Grapes of Wrath Portrays Depression-Era America[09980] Steinbeck, John Steinbeck, Carol Henning Collins, Tom Covici, Pascal Ricketts, Edward F.

By 1936, waves of destitute farmers (“Okies”) were fleeing the Dust Bowl Dust Bowl;The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)[Grapes of Wrath] to Salinas and Monterey, California, where Steinbeck saw them victimized by nature and by other human beings. He began researching their plight for a series of journalistic exposés. As the intricacy of the farmers’ experience emerged, however, he decided to expand his work into a fictional treatment of the migrant quandary as an emblem for the Depression itself. The situation also invited Steinbeck to make better use of his maturing style and social concerns. His careful attention to regional dialects and folkways, the relationship between political struggle and human need, and the use of innovative narrative techniques all came together in what was to be his greatest novel. After several false starts, Steinbeck began serious writing in May, 1938. His wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck, typing and editing throughout, also provided the book’s title, a phrase from the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The Grapes of Wrath (1939) recounts the suffering and human endurance of the Joad family as they abandon their bankrupt farm in Oklahoma for the promise of work in California. Eldest son Tom jumps parole (stemming from a questionable manslaughter conviction) to help lead the family westward. Ma Joad, an intuitive genius of human nature and a noble sufferer, struggles to keep her extended family whole amid their despondence. A fallen preacher, Casey, accompanies them as a mouthpiece for the author’s folk philosophy and the source of Christian imagery throughout the tale. As the family traverses the legendary Route 66, Steinbeck exposes a litany of American sins: exploitative banks and agribusiness, the xenophobic defensiveness of the middle class, and a socioeconomic order that seems perversely distant from human morality and needs. The Joads and Steinbeck find temporary solace within a “government camp,” a utopian model of participatory democracy, altruism, and cooperation. In the end, however, the Joads move on to an exploitative farm camp where Casey is killed (crucified); Tom must then flee after he murders again in retaliation.

Steinbeck’s migrants are not unambiguous heroes, nor are their oppressors simplistic villains. All of his characters’ good and bad natures are complicated by circumstance. Material scarcity, social disarray, and an inhuman economic machine cause men to violate their own heartfelt sense of morality. Steinbeck’s concept of humankind was deeply influenced by his close friend, amateur biologist Edward F. Ricketts. Partly through interactions with Ricketts, Steinbeck developed the quasi-scientific notion of the “phalanx”: He believed that individuals in groups were able to locate transcendent elements of human nature, evil, and morality that were not apparent to individuals alone. “Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of,” Casey preaches. Such primal themes pervade the novel through allusions to Christianity, Jeffersonian agrarianism, American Transcendentalism, and tribal social organization. The thread of hope for American renewal in the face of relentless tragedy courses through Ma and Tom Joad and their ability to locate the common morality of “human spirit.” The literary merits and sophistication of the novel remain controversial, but it is inarguable that Steinbeck offered his general readers a compelling depiction of modern society as diseased and beyond human control.

Beyond the more apparent social and philosophical messages, Steinbeck wanted to construct a monument to the American “common man.” His spare, descriptive writing called attention to the details of human relations, rather than to his own literary artistry. Descriptions of physical gestures, dialect and inflection, and quick dialogic exchanges constitute much of the narrative. Such elements were intended to underscore the profundity of common struggles and to suggest the rich meanings within everyday relationships. Steinbeck’s most daring literary innovation, however, came in his punctuating of the main plot with numerous “interchapters.” These passages wrenched the reader out of the Joads’ story and into more general and often more prosaic ruminations on the migrants’ plight.

Steinbeck intended to disorient and permanently change his readers. Many critics, however, have argued that The Grapes of Wrath had a similar effect on its creator. He suddenly became the most discussed novelist in the United States; he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. His book became a best seller and produced a firestorm of debate, both political and aesthetic. Critics often dismissed Steinbeck as a mawkish sentimentalist of limited skill. Questions about his place within the literary pantheon were renewed in 1962, when Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize. While he continued to write at a decent pace after 1939, East of Eden (1952) East of Eden (Steinbeck) was the only subsequent novel that approached his earlier work in its ambition. Steinbeck never again invested in his writing the level of passion, social conscience, and literary experimentation that made The Grapes of Wrath a landmark of American cultural history.


The publication of The Grapes of Wrath was among a handful of literary events that reverberated into the larger political and social arenas of American culture. Steinbeck anticipated some controversy, and he had the lyrics to the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” printed on the hardcover edition’s endpapers as a sign of his patriotism. The strategy failed; the book has been among the most banned, burned, and censored literary works of modern times. Steinbeck himself was accused variously of instigating worker unrest, of betraying the dignity of the migrants themselves, and simply of being a mediocre writer. Nevertheless, The Grapes of Wrath has remained one of the most widely read works of serious American fiction of the century and an influential example of the activist novel.

The political Right first attacked the book as inaccurate, biased propaganda, neither fair nor artistic. Steinbeck was called an outright liar and anti-American by some newspapers and many farm owners’ organizations around the country. His blistering depictions of brutality by landowners were challenged in all manner of publications. Collier’s spoke for many when it branded the book subversive propaganda. Still, Steinbeck enjoyed no less a fan than Eleanor Roosevelt, who praised the book’s disturbing images of the American underbelly as a call to action. Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., La Follette, Robert M., Jr. initiated an official inquiry into the work conditions of California farms. The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a California law that had been used against migrant workers. The growing momentum for reform faded, however, as World War II provided new opportunities for the itinerant and unemployed.

Controversy over the novel quickly shifted from politics to taste and morality. Most bannings and burnings were responses to the characters’ earthy dialogue and occasional mentions of sexuality. Charges of obscenity have maintained the book’s dubious place on the list of most-censored works; it has often been removed from school reading lists and libraries. From the time of publication, however, attempts to ban or abridge the novel for reasons of propriety have been challenged as excuses for suppressing its political ideas. Moreover, few authors have enjoyed Steinbeck’s broad readership and popular esteem. Although hardly resolved, persistent controversies over who should read The Grapes of Wrath often raise deeper questions about the motives and intentions of censorship. Nevertheless, Steinbeck’s use of a more frank and naturalistic style may have helped accustom American readers to the more explicit content of postwar popular fiction.

The deeper cultural impact of The Grapes of Wrath was more subtle and enduring than the immediate response it garnered in 1939. Although the book did not have the same demonstrable social influence as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), controversy generated by the novel foreshadowed persistent arguments about the role of social issues and ideology in an age of mass communications. Even journalists who were sympathetic to Steinbeck’s cause at the time pondered the consequences of his blending of reportage with literary license in a popular novel. The question of art’s duty to fact and impartiality would become all the more pressing after World War II. As film and television gained authority in American life, the social responsibilities, even politics, of popular artists were more carefully scrutinized; some artists were “blacklisted” for their views. Steinbeck’s novel suggested the power of socially committed novelists to redirect political agendas and to influence public opinion. This memory of the radical art of the 1930’s certainly informed later attacks on alleged Communists in the film and television industries.

To the chagrin of many critics, The Grapes of Wrath has been regarded by general readers as one of the great American novels and continues to be a standard text in secondary school English classes. Like James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos, and even film actor and director Charles Chaplin, Steinbeck strove to engage art with immediate social issues without sacrificing the artist’s unique qualities of vision and experimentation. These artists argued that a radically changed modern society required new forms of narrative. Farrell and Dos Passos were more dogged—some say more talented—in their pursuit of this goal. The Grapes of Wrath thus is probably taught more as history than as literature. Nevertheless, Steinbeck helped to advance the art of the social-issue novel beyond the didacticism of nineteenth century efforts and the often leaden style of much proletarian fiction by the radical Left. After World War II, issue-oriented fiction became more often the purview of film and television than of literature. The Grapes of Wrath suggested a palatable recipe for mixing social activism and fiction. Much of such fiction has humanized social issues, dramatizing the ways in which abstract debates affect common lives. Still, the more provocative blends of literary innovation and social exposé have continued to flourish, especially among African American novelists such as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. Whatever form the book’s legacy has taken, however, the events surrounding The Grapes of Wrath have dramatized the ways in which art matters. Grapes of Wrath, The (novel by Steinbeck) Great Depression;literature

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Astro, Richard. John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973. A detailed chronicle of Steinbeck’s relationship with Ricketts. Explores the place of biological science in the author’s thought about human behavior and society. Of special importance to The Grapes of Wrath is a chapter on Steinbeck’s “phalanx” theory of society as a biological organism. Photographs of both men are included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking Press, 1984. A biography of Steinbeck that emphasizes his life over his works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. Anthology of evaluations of the novel by leading Americanists and literary critics, including Harold Bloom, Howard Levant, Donald Pizer, and Frederic I. Carpenter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donohue, Agnes McNeill, comp. A Casebook on “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968. An anthology of commentary on the novel and Steinbeck. Contemporaneous articles about the book’s accuracy, literary quality, and general reception are included from sources throughout American culture. Also includes material on the controversy surrounding Steinbeck’s winning of the Nobel Prize in 1962.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heavilin, Barbara A., ed. The Critical Response to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Collection of critical essays on the novel, including a selection of criticism from the first fifty years of its publication, as well as a section devoted to the criticism of the 1990’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steinbeck, John.“The Grapes of Wrath”: Text and Criticism. Edited by Peter Lisca. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. This critical edition provides the most reliable version of the original novel and includes selected evaluations of the book from the time of publication into the 1970’s. Also includes a selected bibliography of Steinbeck and scholarship on his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. New York: Viking Press, 1975. An indispensable collection of Steinbeck’s correspondence. Regarding The Grapes of Wrath, there are revealing letters to friends that recount Steinbeck’s experiences in migrant farmer camps. Moreover, there are important exchanges with Pascal Covici, Steinbeck’s editor, about the novel’s form and its controversial ending.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath,” 1938-1941. Edited by Robert DeMott. New York: Viking Press, 1989. An account of Steinbeck’s writing of the novel through his own journal entries. DeMott’s extensive annotations and supportive material are helpful in establishing the social setting in which the book was created.

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Categories: History