From the first intercalary chapter, showcasing Steinbeck’s control of language, to the unforgettable ending, in which Rose of Sharon breastfeeds a starving man, The Grapes of Wrath remains a controversial work in both critical and political discussions, with themes that are uniquely American. In his 2006 introduction, Robert DeMott defines Grapes as “part naturalistic epic, part labor testament, part family chronicle, part partisan journalism, part environmental jeremiad, part captivity narrative, part road novel, part transcendental gospel,” and the novel evolves these genres in significant ways (xiii). Although the Joads travel west in hopes of making a better life, the American Dream eludes them; despite hard work and perseverance, they are unable to find true success.
Accused by some critics of writing a sentimental novel, Steinbeck defended himself in a letter to his editor, Pascal Covici:
‘I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves, I don’t want him satisfied…. I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written…. Throughout I’ve tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness.’ (qtd. in DeMott xviii)
Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the novel’s most famous advocates, was asked her feelings on the subject while visiting migrant camps in 1940, stating that “‘I have never thought the The Grapes of Wrath was exaggerated.’” In reply, Steinbeck wrote, “‘I have been called a liar so constantly that…I wonder whether I may not have dreamed the things I saw and heard’” (xl). DeMott describes the book’s initial reception:
It had been praised by the left as a triumph of proletarian writing, nominated by critics and reviewers alike as ‘The Great American Novel,’ given historical vindication by Senator Robert M. La Follette’s inquiries into California’s tyrannical farm labor conditions, and validated by Carey McWilliams, whose own great work, Factories in the Field, is the renowned sociological counterpart to Steinbeck’s novel. (xl)
Still, Grapes generated a significant amount of negative attention. School boards and libraries enacted a widespread ban on the book, and some critics denounced it as communist propaganda. Oklahoma Congressman Lyle Borden participated in ad hominem attacks on Steinbeck, calling the novel “‘a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind….Some have said this book exposes a condition and a character of people,…but the truth is this book exposes nothing but the total depravity, vulgarity, and degraded mentality of the author’” (qtd. in Wartzman 58).
Over time, The Grapes of Wrath has come to be celebrated as a shining achievement not only in Steinbeck’s oeuvre but in the entire American literary canon. The novel continues to have its share of detractors, though. In his Modern Critical Interpretations, renowned scholar Howard Bloom says that he prefers John Ford’s film version, and cites a passage from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to demonstrate that Steinbeck lacks Hemingway’s mastery. Literary critic Leslie Fiedler, keynote speaker at a 1989 conference dedicated to The Grapes of Wrath, “identified Steinbeck as a middlebrow author for middlebrow critics,” claiming that Steinbeck’s mostly Californian fan base is shrinking (Railsback 1). In contrast to those who consider Steinbeck a sentimentalist, others impugn his portrayal of “earthy characters” as befitting the kind of “tough realism” favored by writers such as Rebecca Harding Davis and Stephen Crane (2). In recent years, however, The Grapes of Wrath has seen a critical renaissance as modern critics, looking at the book through economic, historic, and materialistic lenses, replace the New Critical methodology and its strict adherence to textual analysis.