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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

[5872] Dorothea Lange, Migrant Workers Near Manteca, Ca. (1938), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018767-C].

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, depicts the plight of the Joads, a family of Oklahoma sharecropper farmers who were driven off the land they worked by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The story of their journey to California to find work as agricultural laborers, a journey that they made along the often bleak Highway 66, helped secure Steinbeck’s place in American literature.

Born in the Salinas Valley of California, Steinbeck attended Stanford University for a time and then spent a number of years traveling and studying on his own, while developing his craft as a writer. He lived in New York for a short while and attempted to earn money from his writing. He eventually returned to California. His first literary successes were his 1935 novel, Tortilla Flat, followed the next year by In Dubious BattleTortilla Flat was about people in a small town in northern California whose exploits mirrored those of the knights of King Arthur, while In Dubious Battle focused on a migrant fruit pickers’ strike. In 1937, Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men about two drifters who dreamed of owning their own ranch. Steinbeck’s 1938 story collection, The Long Valley, includes often-anthologized tales of a young boy, Jody, growing up in a West that is no longer a frontier. Steinbeck’s other works include Cannery Row (1935), The Pearl (1945), East of Eden (1952), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), and Travels with Charley (1962). He was most interested in the plight of disempowered outsiders, outcasts, and the underprivileged. He died in New York City in 1968, having won the Nobel Prize for literature five years earlier.

While doing research for The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck visited several of the camps the Farm Security Administration had built to house the homeless migrants who arrived in California from the Dust Bowl states. He spoke to the migrants there and listened to their stories. In fact, Steinbeck wrote a series of newspaper and journal articles about these workers and their plights, which were later gathered into a collection called Their Blood Is Strong, published in 1938. Steinbeck’s ideas about social justice for the economic underclass of American society influenced both later American writers such as William Kennedy and popular songwriters such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. His journalistic style has been imitated and admired by authors such as Dorothy Parker and Tom Wolfe.

Teaching Tips

  • Writer John Steinbeck and director John Ford had very different visions of The Grapes of Wrath. Ask students to watch the film after having read the book and compare the two versions of the story, especially the altered ending. Ask why Ford may have wished to change the story in the way that he did. You might encourage them to research this topic, as there are many easily accessible works that discuss its significance.
  • Many of Steinbeck’s fictional works focus on outsiders at odds with the local community. Throughout his career, Steinbeck was fascinated by the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Discuss the themes and ethics underlying the Arthurian myths, focusing on Arthur’s desire to unify a kingdom in conflict with itself. Examine some of the rules these tales propose for running society. Connect this discussion to The Grapes of Wrath.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Acts of charity and compassion occur from time to time in The Grapes of Wrath. Examine the scene near the end of Chapter 15 concerning the bread and the candy. Why did Steinbeck include such scenes in a novel that is often intent on showing American cruelty and social injustice?
  2. Comprehension: Steinbeck’s novel includes many images of the horrific condition of the land and juxtaposes them with images of the horrific social conditions brought on by industrialization and business. What is the purpose of such juxtaposed images?
  3. Context: The Grapes of Wrath is sometimes referred to as a jeremiad: a lament of the spiritual and moral decline of a community and an interpretation of recent misfortunes as God’s just punishment for that decline. (See Unit 3 for more discussion of this form in the American literary tradition.) Paradoxically, these misfortunes are seen as proof of God’s love and of the group’s status as a “chosen people.” Do you think this novel fits well within that genre? Why or why not?
  4. Context: Compare Chapter 11 of The Grapes of Wrath with the many Dust Bowl images in the American Passages archive. How do these photographs compare to Steinbeck’s descriptions of the land?
  5. Exploration: In his essay “Freedom from Want,” Carlos Bulosan writes, “We are not really free unless we use what we produce. So long as the fruit of our labor is denied us, so long will want manifest itself in a world of slaves.” Review the literary elements of slave narratives (focus on food and water, fear for the family, variations of hope and hopelessness, dehumanization, power and powerlessness, and the desire for education). Think about the ways that Steinbeck’s novel about migrants compares and contrasts with the slave narratives of the nineteenth century. What qualities do they share? What are some differences?

Selected Archive Items

[3343] Dorothea Lange, People Living in Miserable Poverty, Elm Grove, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-009695-E].
In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck depicts the life of Oklahoma farmers during the Dust Bowl. The Great Depression coincided with terrible droughts that killed crops and pushed families like the Joads west to California seeking better land and a better life.

[3347] Dorothea Lange, Power Farming Displaces Tenants. Childress County, Texas Panhandle (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-TO1- 018281-C DLC].
Alternately titled “Tractored Out.” Mechanization made large farmers wealthy, but left small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers without jobs. The increased use of machines instead of manual labor, coupled with drought and falling crop prices during the Great Depression, left many farmers homeless.

[5695] Anonymous, Film Set during the Making of The Grapes of Wrath, with Part of Cast and Film Crew in Front of Small, Dilapidated House (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-114292].
Photograph of set and actors for The Grapes of Wrath, one of John Steinbeck’s most famous novels. The book centered on the Joads, a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers during the Dust Bowl who became migrant workers.

[5872] Dorothea Lange, Migrant Workers Near Manteca, Ca. (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018767-C].
Dorothea Lange’s caption to this picture reads, “A former rehabilitation client harvesting milo maize. Now operating own farm under Tenant Purchase Act. A year and a half ahead on their payments. Average loan for purchase of farm and improvements in San Joaquin County is seven thousand four hundred and sixty-five dollars.”

[5910] Anonymous, Steinbeck Portrait (n.d.),
courtesy of the Center for Steinbeck Studies. 
Like many American authors, John Steinbeck, though never formally investigated, attracted the attention of the FBI in the 1940s due to his involvement with communist organizations.

[5911] Anonymous, Younger Steinbeck Head Shot (n.d.),
courtesy of the Center for Steinbeck Studies. 
Steinbeck concluded his Nobel Prize acceptance speech with the following words: “Having taken God-like power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope. So that today, Saint John the Apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the word, and the word is man, and the word is with man.”

[8968] Louis Owens, Interview: “Steinbeck’s Major Theme” (2002),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Professor Louis Owens discusses Steinbeck’s critique of America.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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