John Steinbeck’s classic novel of the American Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath, was first published on April 14, 1939. It won the The National Book Award for the best novel of 1939 and The Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The novel follows the Joad family, “Okies” who are forced by drought, the Great Depression and the spectre of bank foreclosure on their tenent farm to migrate to California in hope of a better life. This was a very pressing issue during the “Dirty Thirties.”
Steinbeck was a lifelong Californian who had himself worked alongside migrant workers in his younger years. Politically, he was a progressive who had great sympathy for the plight of the Okies and other migrants. He said that in writing The Grapes of Wrath he wanted “to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.”
Steinbeck did extensive research for the book. It grew out of a series of newspaper articles Steinbeck wrote on 1936. Originally called The Harvest Gypsies, the articles were collectively published as a pamphlet in 1938 with the title Their Blood is Strong. It contained an updated chapter by Steinbeck and 22 photographs by Dust Bowl photographer Dorothea Lange. For the series Steinbeck interviewed many migrant workers and wrote about their personal struggles.
The Grapes of Wrath was an immediate success and a huge publishing phenomenon. Within a year of publication there were nearly half a million copies in print. It was cited by the Nobel Prize committee as Steinbeck’s greatest achievement when they awarded him the Nobel in 1962. I first read it in high school and can still remember the impact it had on me at the time.
Director John Ford turned The Grapes of Wrath into an iconic movie the year after it was published, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. The novel has also inspired singers and songwriters from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springstein.
Most critics claim that the elusive “Great American Novel” has yet to be written, but many agree that The Grapes of Wrath comves pretty close with what we have now.