Steinbeck's background and previous writing experience found him well prepared to tackle the chronicle of the dispossessed Joads as they search for work in Depression-era California. Much of Steinbeck's young adult life was spent around the ranches of California's Salinas Valley. Working as a ranchhand, he gained firsthand knowledge of the migrant laborers who worked the farms. From this experience grew an awareness of the social inequalities affecting the labor force. With the publication of In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck established his reputation as a social critic and champion of the migrant worker. Recognizing his new status as a social commentator, The San Francisco News commissioned him to write a series of articles about conditions in the migrant worker's camps in California's Central Valley. This work, along with the time spent traveling cross-country with an Oklahoman migrant family, provided Steinbeck with the bulk of the episodic material needed to write The Grapes of Wrath.
The plot of Steinbeck's masterpiece is rooted in the historical and social events of 1930s America, specifically the environmental disaster coined the Dust Bowl by an Oklahoma reporter in 1935. Drought had been a serious problem for the Great Plains region of the United States for many decades prior to the 1930s. In the late 1880s, the land began to be settled by sharecroppers for agricultural purposes, but a particularly severe drought in 1894 brought such widespread crop destruction that, in some areas, as many as 90 percent of the settlers abandoned their claims. During this drought period came several reports of dust clouds covering the land, suffocating livestock and impeding visibility. In the early twentieth century, greater rainfall and the replacement of bare fields with sod helped restore the agricultural productivity of the Plains states, and by World War I, large-scale farming had begun again. Soon after the war, however, the weather began to warm, and again, drought became a chronic condition of the area. Meanwhile, poor farming techniques of numerous sharecroppers had decimated the agricultural capacity of the land, the harsh cotton crops robbing soil of its nutrients. These two conditions combined to make it difficult for farmers to bring in a profitable crop.
With the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent decline in the U.S. economy, banks became desperate for a way to recoup losses. Maintaining that it was more lucrative to merge the sharecroppers' holdings into one large farm to be cultivated by a corporation, land companies began removing families from their farms. Most sharecroppers had been so unsuccessful that the banks already owned their property. Uneducated and inexperienced in non-agrarian matters, the dispossessed families were ill equipped for other employment.
Naïve and adrift, the migrants were in the perfect position to be taken advantage of by the propaganda techniques of the large farm owners. Hundreds of thousands of handbills were distributed throughout the stricken land, promising bountiful opportunities for farm workers at good wages. These pamphlets targeted the sharecroppers' desire for land and respectability, enticing them westward with the lure of financial stability. With few other options available to them, the farmers loaded their families and their most precious belongings on battered automobiles and headed to California.
The legions of homeless families emigrating to California became something of a phenomenon. Previously, farm labor in California had been primarily the province of habitual migrant workers, mostly single men who followed the seasons and crops as a chosen way of life. The economic conditions of the 1930s had created a second type of migrant worker, the removal migrant. These dispossessed agricultural workers were forced into a nomadic existence and longed only to find a place to rest and settle. More than 450,000 people would eventually be forced to take to the road in search of employment. These desperate migrant families frightened the established citizens of California and were labeled Okies, a derogatory term referring to any outcast from the Southwest or northern plain states.
Critical Reception of The Grapes of Wrath
From its first printing, The Grapes of Wrath enjoyed immediate and widespread commercial success. Advanced sales of the novel shot it onto the national bestseller list where it was to stay throughout 1939 and 1940. Although mass circulation reviewers complained of its unconventional structure and downcast ending, the novel garnered a number of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize.
However, not everyone was convinced of the novel's brilliance. The book was attacked vehemently in both California and Oklahoma, labeled in one magazine editorial as communist propaganda. In Kern County, California, the Board of Supervisors banned The Grapes of Wrath in both schools and libraries. The San Bernardino Sun said, "the fallacy of this [story] should not be dignified by a denial." Most of the negative energy in Oklahoma was targeted at discrediting Steinbeck's portrayal of the state and its inhabitants. An article in The Oklahoma City Times, titled "Grapes of Wrath? Obscenity and Inaccuracy," was typical of the reaction in that state. In retrospect, it is probable that many people were ashamed by both the terrible dilemma of the migrant families and the inhumane treatment they received from society. Much like the German citizens who refused to believe in the existence of the Nazi death camps, a denial of the truth of the social situation could be viewed as an attempt to lessen their own culpability.
In the years that followed, The Grapes of Wrath experienced a shift in critical reception. The passage of time had distanced the book from the volatile social and historical circumstances of its setting, allowing readers a clearer perspective of Steinbeck's work. At the time of its first appearance in 1939, the novel was considered, at best, an influential social tract, and at worst, full-fledged propaganda. Following World War II, it became clear that if the novel were going to maintain its influential status, it would have to be considered not only for its social philosophies, but also for its artistic merits. Although some insisted the novel was no more than a romantic "wagons west" saga, many respected literary critics began to seriously examine the literary elements of the novel. For the next three decades, indeed up to today, critics have delved into the work's artistic and conceptual traits, scrutinizing and debating its use of biblical allusions and symbolism, the effectiveness of its unconventional narrative structure, and the validity of its ending. The wealth of criticism that has emerged proves The Grapes of Wrath is indeed one of the most important works in American literature, and, for the perceptive reader, provides an abundance of artistic and philosophical considerations.
The Structure of The Grapes of Wrath
From its initial publication, the unconventional structure of The Grapes of Wrath has been both attacked and misunderstood by a great number of readers. Steinbeck's method of inserting chapters of general information or commentary between straightforward narrative chapters frustrates many readers who consider them distracting, an interruption in the "real" story of the Joad family.
These intercalary chapters, as they were termed by critic Peter Lisca, serve a distinct purpose in commenting on and expanding the events of the narrative proper. Sixteen intercalary chapters are included in the book, accounting for approximately 100 pages, or one-sixth of the text. Although the Joad characters do not appear in any of these intercalary chapters, many of the incidents found in these chapters foreshadow similar situations experienced by the Joads. Some, written in a variety of literary styles, provide a generalized, dramatic overview of the central social conditions affecting the main characters, while others provide historical information and direct commentary on book's social and political background.
Steinbeck uses recurring symbols, motifs, and specific narrative episodes to link each intercalary chapter with its adjacent narrative counterparts so that the intercalary chapters, far from being an intrusion, actually unify and strengthen the dominant themes of the novel. The land turtle of the brilliantly descriptive and symbolic Chapter 3 will be picked up by Tom Joad in Chapter 4, and the dramatic monologue of a used car salesman figures immediately before the Joads' purchase of a truck for their journey west. Likewise, the Joads' search for work in California is preceded by a history of migrant labor in that state.
Steinbeck knew the importance of his readers grasping the greater social message presented in The Grapes of Wrath. The suffering of the wandering families and their oppression by larger, more powerful forces was a social crisis of widespread magnitude. He was concerned that readers would not comprehend this urgent, yet impersonal problem unless they could focus their sympathy on the ordeals of a specific family. At the same time, however, he did not want the struggles of the Joads to be considered isolated events, specific only to a particular family. The use of intercalary chapters provides a balance, allowing Steinbeck to realize the ultimate artistic goal: To weave together specific social facts and lyrical elements to create a personal story that expresses universal truths about the human condition.
Steinbeck's Social Philosophy
The social philosophy presented by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath is complex and somewhat contradictory. The basic social theory expressed by Jim Casy, acted on by Ma Joad, and eventually realized by Tom Joad, is one that compels the so-called "little people," the impoverished and dispossessed, to come together in order to gain power against capital-minded owners. This social philosophy maintains that human survival is dependent upon the banding together of humans to find strength in group unity and action. The elaboration of this theory in the novel is seen in the education of the oppressed and disadvantaged with the organization of unions and strikes as vehicles of group protest and change.
Theoretically, Steinbeck's philosophy appears to be based upon the socialist theories of Lenin and Marx, although it shows the clear influence of several distinctly American philosophies. The Emersonian concept of the Oversoul is expressed in the earthy folk language of Jim Casy, who believes that all person's souls are really just part of one big soul. The symbolic contrasts between the vitality of the land and the "deadness" of inanimate machines represent the theory of Jeffersonian agrarianism, which holds that the identification of humankind with soil is necessary for the continuation of the life cycle. The pragmatism of Henry James, in which the meaning and truth of all concepts are defined by their practical consequences, is seen in the active approach of Ma and Tom to adversity. Finally, in Casy's assertion that "maybe it's all men an' all women we love," we find the idea of humanism, a love of all persons and the embracing of mass democracy found in the works of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg.