An economic downturn plagued Europe and the United States prior to World War II. Years of irresponsible bank lending coupled with a faltering European economy brought about the stock market crash of 1929. The Grapes of Wrath is regarded as one of the most significant novels written during and about the struggles of this period.
One of the worst agricultural disasters in our nation’s history, caused by a perfect storm of factors, including drought, infertile soil, deep plowing, and a lack of crop rotation. During the 1930s, Dust Bowl conditions left farm families unable to pay their mortgages, forcing them to head west in search of jobs.
The novel’s title comes from Julia Ward Howe’s abolition song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” first published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored….” Steinbeck uses the phrase, suggested as a title by then-wife Carol, to describe the migrants’ anger against the farm owners in Chapter 25.
Disenfranchised by conditions beyond their control, homeless migrants set up camps, dubbed Hoovervilles, near work sites. The camps, characterized by filth and starvation, were named for President Herbert Hoover, whom many blamed for the Great Depression.
The California natives used this term to disparage the Midwestern migrants. Okieconnotes prejudice, and hints at the natives’ fears that the migrants might try to seize their wealth: “‘Okie means you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it’” (206).
Running from Chicago to Los Angeles, Route 66 spanned over 2,000 miles, and was the highway system that the migrants used to travel to California. Route 66 spawned a great deal of commerce, with restaurants, gas stations, and hotels cropping up along the road. Steinbeck spends several intercalary chapters detailing life on Route 66, the most notable of which features a diner waitress who helps a migrant father provide a candy treat for his children.