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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

REFERENCE

THE CRITICS

When The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, questions were raised about the accuracy of Steinbeck's portrayal of the migrants in California. What follows are two excerpts from articles written at the time.

The first appeared in Fortune magazine during the same month that The Grapes of Wrath was published.

The migrants are familiar enough to anyone who has traveled much through California's interior.... They have become California's sorest social problem. More, they are one of the major social problems of the U.S. ...

Many of the migrants live in dirty roadside tourist camps, labor contractors' camps, or privately run tenting grounds, where the rents may be as high or higher but the equipment is more primitive. Some live in squatter camps. Conditions in these shelters are notoriously squalid, particularly in the Imperial Valley, which offers the absolute low for the entire state...

Many of the families camping along the irrigation ditches were using dishwater for drinking purposes as well as using the side of the ditch as a toilet. In February a child from one of these families was taken to the County Hospital with spinal meningitis. There had been no quarantine and the other members of the family were mixing with their neighbors. Children dressed in rags, their hands encrusted with dirt, complexions pasty white, their teeth quite rotted, were observed in these camps.

"'I Wonder Where We Can Go Now'," Fortune (April 1939)

The next excerpt was written by a newspaperman from San Francisco.

The experiences of the Joad family, whose misfortunes in their trek from Oklahoma to California Steinbeck portrays so graphically, are not typical of the of the real migrants I found in the course of two reportorial tours of the agricultural valleys. I made one inquiry during the winter of 1937-38, following the flood which Steinbeck describes; I made another at the height of the harvest this year.

Along three thousand miles of highways and byways, I was unable to find a single counterpart of the Joad family. Nor have I discovered one during fifteen years of residence in the Santa Clara Valley (the same valley where John Steinbeck now lives), which is crowded each summer with transient workers harvesting the fruit crops. The lot of the "fruit tramp" is admittedly no bed of roses, but neither is it the bitter fate described in The Grapes of Wrath.


Frank J. Taylor, "California's Grapes of Wrath," 1939

Before The Grapes of Wrath was published, one of its editors suggested to Steinbeck that Rose of Sharon's offer of her breast to the starving man occurs too abruptly. It needs leading up to. Here is part of Steinbeck's reply:

...I'm sorry but I cannot change that ending. it is casual- there is no fruity climax, it is not more important than any other Part of the book- if there is a symbol, it is a survival symbol not a love symbol, it must be an accident, it must be a stranger, and it must be quick. To build this stranger into the structure of the book would be to warp the whole meaning of the book. The fact that the Joads don't know him, don't care about him, have no ties to him- that is the emphasis.

John Steinbeck, Letters (January 16, 1939)

Many readers, including the author of the following, have been offended by the novel.

To Steinbeck, the deadliest of the deadly sins is simply being a typical American citizen- that is, a member of the middle classes. Hatred of the middle classes is in fact... one of the main "clues" to the understanding of his fiction...

But surely it is disconcerting to find that the author hates you, the reader, with a powerful, compulsive hatred; that the tolerance he speaks of so smoothly is in fact never extended to you, and that just in having been born on the right side of the tracks you have committed the one unpardonable sin.

Now the mere amount and proportion of obscene language in The Grapes of Wrath are not, to be sure, especially high. Pungent Saxon monosyllables are much scarcer there than in the casual talk of schoolboys, where the same words are taken for granted and make little or no impression. But in The Grapes of Wrath these identical words seem more objectionable because the writer's imagination has so joined fact and idea, and image and word, as to startle the reader into aversion or even nausea.

-Walter Fuller Taylor, "The Grapes of Wrath Reconsidered," 1959

The moment in the novel that has provoked the most commentary is Rose of Sharon's encounter in the barn with the dying man.

Rose of Sharon's act, though dignified by various religious and mythic allusions, needs only its own power to demonstrate nobility. The transformation of her nature in a moment of crisis merely epitomizes the general movement of the novel from concerns of the flesh to concerns of the spirit.

John R. Reed, "The Grapes of Wrath and the Ethics of Indigence," 1969

 

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