the Grapes

of Wrath

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Overview of The Grapes of Wrath: A Masterwork on Labor, Migration, and Justice

Cover of The Grapes of Wrath first edition (1939)

Not only one of Steinbeck’s greatest works, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) has also secured its place as one of the most famous novels in the entire American literary canon. The final piece of Steinbeck’s labor trilogy—following In Dubious Battle (1936) and Of Mice and Men (1937)—The Grapes of Wrath was written between March and October 1938. An instant bestseller upon publication, fifteen million copies of the book have been sold, with another 150,000 being added annually. The Grapes of Wrath, which has been translated into dozens of languages, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature, and played an important role in Steinbeck winning the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Many facets of Steinbeck’s life helped shape the text. Inspiration came from the 1937 documentary short The Plow That Broke the Plains, directed by Steinbeck acquaintance Pare Lorentz; the film shows the harsh conditions that existed in the Dust Bowl region. Steinbeck witnessed labor struggles as large numbers of migrants arrived in California, and he had the opportunity to tour labor camps and interview migrant families. In the winter of 1938, Steinbeck saw firsthand the miserable conditions brought on by intense flooding in Visalia, CA.

These experiences, along with a series of San Francisco News articles called “The Harvest Gypsies” and a satire titled “L’Affaire Lettuceberg” which Steinbeck later destroyed, planted the seeds for telling The Grapes of Wrath in a more realistic, objective fashion. Steinbeck chronicled the novel’s progress in a journal he kept while writing, published posthumously as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath(1989).

In 1940, 20th Century Fox released a film adaptation of the novel; directed by John Ford, the movie went on to win two Academy Awards, for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell as Ma Joad). The Grapes of Wrath has also been adapted for the stage, as an opera and a play.