1939, John Steinbeck published his novel The Grapes of Wrath, and that same year the film version of the story was released. The film was directed by John Ford and was very popular, and the book and the film together reached millions of people. In writing this novel, Steinbeck reflected many of the social, economic, and political currents of the time. The story is set in the Great Depression era, and the Depression was still have its effect in 1939. What would bring about the end of the Great Depression was already starting in Europe, meaning World War II, which does not impinge directly on the story of the Joad family but which we can see from our standpoint today was about to bring about massive changes in American society. The very nature of the story of the Joads, however, links that story to the Depression and its effect on the fortunes of farmers and others in the 1930s.

John Steinbeck shows that common people like the Joads are affected by economic changes which are not of their own making. At the same time, this family is still responsible for many of its own problems. It is evident that Steinbeck is dealing with larger economic forces and ideas, and he demonstrates this with the interchapters in which he does not directly advance the story of the Joad family but instead provides increased depth and broader significance to the novel by giving background, discussing issues of the time, and offering an external perspective on the Depression. Here, Steinbeck can expand on his view of a class struggle in American society as the immigrants who have nothing move toward the landowners who have much:

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The western land, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunder storm. The great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change… The causes lie deep and simple — the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times… (Steinbeck 192).

The world of the Joads exists on wheels. These are people who lived by the land but who have now been removed from the land, set adrift in a truck and pointed toward California as the promised land that will get them out of their economic troubles. This is a wrenching experience for the whole family:

Every night a world created, complete with furniture — friends made and enemies established; a world complete with braggarts and with cowards, with quiet men, with humble men, with kindly men (Steinbeck 250).

The world of the Joad stands as a representation of the rest of America. More and more, this is a world living more rapidly, with friends made and lost in a single night, with households created and dismantled in one day. The actions of the Joads show how Americans developed their nation and how they improved every aspect of their lives because they had no choice:

The families moved westward, and the technique of building the worlds improved so that the people could be safe in their worlds; and the form was so fixed that a family acting in the rules knew it was safe in the rules (Steinbeck 251).

There is clearly a contradiction in this — the family thought it knew the rules when it built its farm and worked it for years, and yet those rules did not bring the security these families secure at all. Indeed, the rules did change, and this left the family as it is now — migrating from it home to the unknown, recreating itself each day, trying to hold the family together in the face of a variety of forces dedicated to tearing it apart.

Certain factors affect the Joad family. Such factors either push people from one are to another or attract them with promises of change and betterment. Both factors operate in the story of the Joads, for they are pushed off their land in the Dust Bowl and are drawn to a new life in California. In both cases, they are given little choice in what happens to them. The one thing that keeps the family going is a certain internal cohesiveness that comes to center on Ma Joad as the one constant on which they can rely, though she is given a great burden by the circumstance so that she not only has to care for her brood but also try to keep it together in the face of numerous forces trying to divide the family and disperse it across the country.

The important factor is the drought. The Joads have farmed this land for a long time and have dreamed of remaining there, working the land for generations and passing it from father to son. The drought kills that dream just as it kills the land itself. Steinbeck indicates that the people are at fault for some of what happens because they have grown the wrong crops for too long, thus leaving the land vulnerable to climatic change. When the weather changes and the crops die, the people have nothing left on which to live — no money, no crops, no future. The banks are in no position to help them even if they were so inclined, and foreclosures are taking land away from people who have lived and worked there for their whole lives. The Joads cannot make a living on this land. Because there is a Depression on, the men cannot find work anywhere else in the area, for everyone in the state is experiencing the same economic problems and the same losses.

Steinbeck describes the change that came over Oklahoma in a way that links it directly to family structure and to the meaning of the disintegration of the Joad family. He notes how the people came out of their houses and smelled the air, finding a change coming and worrying about what it would mean:

The women knew it was all right, and the watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole (Steinbeck 7).

This is precisely the problem facing the Joads — the men are no longer whole because their means of livelihood has been taken from them. When they reach California, much of their humanity is taken from them as they are denied basic human rights. They cannot work, they cannot feed their families, they have no dignity, and they have no standing in the eyes of the law.

As noted, Steinbeck includes interchapters that go outside the story of the Joads. Caldwell notes that there are thirty chapters in the novel and that they follow a regular pattern of alternation between impersonal and panoramic accounts of conditions or social forces and the Joad story proper. Overall, her analysis shows that the structure of the book involves the working out of a consistent plan of alternating social and economic observations with chapters of the narrative (Caldwell 115-119).

Groene discusses The Grapes of Wrath and shows that it reveals the strong influence of agrarian thinking, meaning a belief in the frontier, the myth of the garden, and the dream of an agricultural paradise in the West, ideas that can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others. The impact is obvious in the characterization of the Joads and other tenant farmers. Steinbeck’s agrarian ideals are also manifested in a mistrust of mechanization and industrialization, and in the novel machines destroy the close bond between Man and Nature. The tractor in particular threatens the self-sufficient and satisfying life of the small farmer. At the same time, Steinbeck acknowledged that nineteenth century ideals were unable to provide solutions to the problems of the agricultural revolution. The Joads find that the frontier is closed (Groene 27-29). To some degree, such a view can be seen as a challenge to the view Americans have of themselves, which may also have contributed to efforts to ban the book and suppress this message.

In The Grapes of Wrath, the American Dream is perverted by a national crisis, by economic change, by climatic change, and by the despair that sets in among a people who see no way out of their dilemma. The people who moved West in this migration were escaping from the heartland of America and seeking the American Dream in a new place, in the golden land of California:

The Depression forced many Americans to redefine their goals for the future — to imagine a life that would be meaningful in the face of lean material circumstances. They looked to former times for heritage that could offer guidance (Banks xxiv).

The Great Depression started with the stock market crash in 1929. This came after a period in which millions of Americans bought stocks as people rushed to get in on the economic boom of the late 1920s. This boom would prove to be an illusion:

The stock market crash of 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression of the United States, came directly from wild speculation which collapsed and brought the whole economy down with it (Zinn 377).

In the months before the crash, there was widespread speculation. Some economists warned that this boom could not last and pointed out that the price of stocks no longer had any relation to the earning power of the corporations issuing them. Most Americans refused to listen and kept on buying. The market started to fall apart in Autumn of 1929 as prices began to drop. Some bankers purchased more stocks to keep up public confidence, but a panic developed on “Black Tuesday” and produced the crash as stocks in many companies became completely worthless:

By 1929 the market had entered a fantasy world. Conservative financiers and brokers who counseled caution were ignored… On Tuesday, October 29, the most devastating single day in the market’s history, the index dropped another 43 points (Tindall and Shi 1090).

The stock market crash was unique in that stock prices were so high and conditions were such that when prices of securities started to tumble they brought down the whole business structure. This started the Great Depression and produced a new era of government regulation over stock exchanges. This would provide much greater protection for investors, but that would be later. Just prior to the crash, Americans believed that they had found a way to achieve permanent prosperity. The political climate seemed conducive to continued prosperity and business success. Then, at the lowest point in the depression in 1932, there were between 13 and 15 million Americans unemployed in a total population of about 130 million. At least that many more people were working on short time, and wages had dropped sharply. Many banks failed:

The crash had revealed the fundamental business of the country to be unsound. Most harmful was the ability of business to maintain prices and take profits while holding down wages and the cost of raw materials, with the result that about one-third of the personal income went to only 5% of the population (Tindall and Shi 1091).

The state of California in that era did indeed show a willingness to exploit others and then to blame them for being exploited. The Chinese had been brought in as low-wage workers and had then been discriminated against by those fearing the existence of such a workforce. Families like the Joads came to California in the Depression and were treated in much the same manner. We have only to consider more recent instances of exploitation of Mexican farmworkers and braceros to see that this sort of treatment has recurred again and again in California history. Steinbeck was not exaggerating the nature of labor relations in the 1930s and the degree to which those who had land and power used both to preserve their position and to prevent others from gaining power and position. California had experienced considerable tension as the labor movement had started organizing in the state, and the plight of the so-called Okies revived the same tensions and the same concerns on both sides. Rawls and Bean cite the labor violence of the depression era in the state, and Steinbeck portrays the dynamics of this violence and of the tensions that produced it. Rawls and Bean note that labor problems had always been at their worst in agriculture (Rawls and Bean 310). This is precisely what Steinbeck depicts in his novel.

The book had its critics from the first. Authorities and librarians in places like Kansas City and Buffalo removed the book from circulation, stating as their reason its vulgar language, casual sexuality, and graphic portrayal of terrible living conditions. Collier’s magazine viewed the book as Communist propaganda. In Congress, Representative Lyle Boren of Oklahoma denounced the book as “a lying, filthy manuscript” that denigrated people from Oklahoma, claiming that they were shiftless. On the other hand, Eleanor Roosevelt extolled the book as supporting the policies of her husband, and the book contributed to a movement leading to a Supreme Court decision in 1941 overturning migrant labor laws in twenty-seven states (Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 59-311).

Oklahoma was not the only state that felt denigrated, for California also responded by criticizing and even banning the book, which painted a devastating portrait of the way migrants were treated once they arrived in the Golden State. The movement to ban the book started in Kansas, when the Kansas City board of Education ordered all copies removed from the city libraries. The leader of this effort claimed that the book portrayed women “living like cattle in a shed” and portrayed life “in such a bestial way” (Sillen 23). Sillen stated that this was a minor issue:

The campaign against The Grapes of Wrath is motivated by fear — justified, of course — that the conditions which it exposes will arouse the resentment of the American people (Sillen 23).

In California, the board of supervisors of Kern County banned the book, and the Associated Farmers of Kern County started a campaign to extend this censorship to the state as a whole. A meeting was held in San Francisco of an organization called Pro-America, a Hearst-sponsored group of Republican women, also intent on countering the image of California offered by the book (Sillen 24).

The Grapes of Wrath is an important historical document of an era, telling a story as a novel but doing so in a realistic and informative manner. However, the book remains widely read more because it is an excellently written work of literature and creates vivid characters who remain in the mind of the reader. The book is also remembered because of the film, which plays often on television and in other arenas and which also opens a window onto a different age.

Works Cited

Banks, Ann. First-Person America. New York: W.W. Norton, 1980.Caldwell, Mary Ellen. “A New Consideration of the Intercalary Chapters in The Grapes of Wrath.” Markham Review 3 (1973), 115-119.

Ford, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1939.

The Grapes of Wrath.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 59. Chicago: Gale, 1989.

Groene, Horst. “Agrarianism and Technology in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.” Southern Review (9:1)(1976), 27-31.

Rawls, James J. And Walton Bean. California: An Interpretive History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Sillen, Samuel. “Censoring ‘The Grapes of Wrath.'” New Masses (23:12)(September 12, 1939), 23-24.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 1939.

Tindall, George Brown and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History: Volume Two. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper, 1980.


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