The Grapes of Wrath: An Epic Dust Bowl Tragedy

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth” (opening lines)

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s epic story of a Dust Bowl migrant family, celebrated its 80th anniversary this year. The novel was originally born out of a series of articles entitled ‘The Harvest Gypsies” published by The San Francisco News, an extent working-class Bay Area rag. The series was coupled with now-famous photographs from Dorothea Lange, including the photo of a migrant woman in Nipomo, CA. Steinbeck was in his 30s at the time of writing “The Harvest Gypsies” articles.

The Grapes of Wrath is rife with crass, working-class dialogue and local color. It is, at once, an epic story of the American fantasy of the West, yet it is also a sentimental tragedy with overtly political themes. The Grapes of Wrath contains the illusory westward rambling of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road as well as the heart-wrenching call to action found in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It is, on the surface, a work of partisan advocacy for the ill-treated and overlooked American migrant family. The novel employs an unusual and experimental narrative technique: every other chapter paints a broad picture of the era, rather than continuing the along the story of the Joad family. The striking narrative device, borrowed from John Dos Passos’s “USA Trilogy,” offers the reader an oral history of the Dust Bowl using colloquialisms, sounds, and stream-of-consciousness imagery of the Dust Bowl migrant world. The other chapters tell the main story of one particular family: the Joad family. At his wife Carol’s suggestion, Steinbeck took the title for the novel from The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe: “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…”

The Grapes of Wrath is dedicated Steinbeck’s tutor and researcher Tom Collins (“To Tom, who lived it”). Tom Collins ran several migrant camps in California and he wrote about his work. Steinbeck used some of Collins’s primary source research materials in The Grapes of Wrath. The book was written over a five month period (June-October 1938). Shortly after publication, the novel was banned by several organizations, including the Associated Farmers of California, as well as the Soviet Union for appearing to show destitute Americans who could nevertheless purchase a car in a capitalist system. Libraries and farmers either banned or burned the book, meanwhile the FBI began surveilling John Steinbeck. Farming companies in Kern County, California were vocally opposed to Steinbeck’s portrayal of oppressive farmers and landowners. In August 1939, the Board of Supervisors of Kern County voted to ban The Grapes of Wrath from county libraries and schools. The controversy in Kern County divided laborers and landowners along political lines, and it eventually helped to create the so-called “Library Bill of Rights” to protect the rights of readers to borrow controversial books. Despite the controversy, some came to the defense of Steinbeck, including fellow Pulitzer-Prize winner Pearl S. Buck, as well as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The honor of being the best-selling book of 1940 brought with it an urgent demand for a movie. Producer Darryl Zanuck quickly acquired the rights to the story for 20th Century Fox and John Ford hastily put the film together in 1940, but despite it being somewhat rushed through production, The Grapes of Wrath is a wonderful film that has continued to be well-celebrated (read my review of the film here). Reportedly, Steinbeck loved Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Tom Joad. Woody Guthrie later recorded his homage to Steinbeck in his musical defense of the Okies in “The Ballad of Tom Joad” song, and Bruce Springsteen wrote his own song to honor the Dust Bowl with “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (it was later covered in a funk-metal-hip-hop version by Rage Against The Machine).


Following the Civil War, vast numbers of veterans settled on farms along the great plains. Like rugged pioneers and homesteaders, they built up farms on the free land. These legions of farmers and their families – composed primarily of Irish, Scotch, English, and German people – became the owners and tenant farmers of Middle America.

In between 1934-1940 a significant and severe drought hit the plains. The drought, coupled with improper dry-farming practices and the introduction of new farming machinery, caused unsafe quantities of dust to kick up. It forced thousands of families off their land. So the farmers were cast adrift. They migrated westward along the extensive two-lane highway of Route 66 (or “the mother road” as Steinbeck calls it). The road was dangerous and it took travelers through the desert all the way from the plains to the farmland of the California Central Valley. However, many migrants arrived only to find unfriendly landowners coupled with minimal job opportunities and the backdrop of the Great Depression. The newcomers were castigated as “Okies” since many came from Oklahoma, and they lived like squatters in “Hoovervilles” all over the Valley. The banks and landowners got right while the migrants lived in squalid poverty.

“The Bank – or the Company-needs-wants-insists-must have-as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them” (pages 31-32)

“The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in the bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it” (page 33).

In the novel, the Joad family loses all their crops in the Dust Bowl and they default on their farm loans. Their farm is repossessed by an all-consuming bank and they watch their future vanish in a dust cloud. The main character is Tom Joad, a recent parolee who had served four years in prison for fighting and killing a man in self-defense. Tom hitchhikes his way home and comes across a fascinating character who plays a quiet but significant role in the novel -Jim Casy, a former preacher who has certain qualms with the faith. The two men discover that the Joad family has vacated their old home, living at their uncle’s house while planning to head west to California. They have read advertisements that conjure an image of a land of milk and honey, filled with jobs, orchards, vineyards, sunshine and plentiful farmland. Despite being a parolee, Tom Joad decides he will join his family and cross state lines anyway.

A rough map of the Joad family’s travels from Salisaw, Oklahoma, south to Route 66 that took them West to the San Joaquin Valley in California.

The family sets out south from their hometown of Salisaw, Oklahoma: Tom Joad with his new companion, Jim Casy; along with Ma and Pa Joad, Grandpa and Grandma Joad; Tom Joad’s brothers Al, Noah, and Winfield; and Tom Joad’s sisters Ruthie and Rose of Sharon, who is pregnant, plus her new and young husband Connie Rivers. This whole crowd piles into the Joad family’s jalopy and heads down Route 66 toward California with a few meager dollars to their name.

Along the way, they encounter a variety of characters, while spending money sparingly, and both Grandpa and Grandma lamentably pass away en route in a foreign land. They are buried unceremoniously along the roadside. Pa quickly grows dismayed at his own inability to provide for the family, so Ma becomes the de facto leader of the Joads. They pass through a series of tent camps amidst growing rumors of hellish conditions in California and no jobs, while some migrants are decide to head back east.

“Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans, and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for the land that they took the land – stole Sutter’s land, Guerrero’s land, took the grants and broke them up and growled and quarreled over them, those frantic hungry men; and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen. They put up houses and barns, they turned the earth and planted crops. And these things were possession, and possession was ownership” (page 231, opening lines of Chapter 19).

“The Spring is beautiful in California. Valleys in which fruit blossoms are fragrant pink and white waters in a shallow sea. Then the first tendrils of the grapes, swelling from the old gnarled vines, cascade down to cover the trunks. The full green hills are round and soft as breasts. And on the level vegetable lands are the mile-long rows of pale green lettuce and the spindly little cauliflowers, the gray-green unearthly artichoke plants” (page 346, opening lines of Chapter 25).

The Joads cross into California after passing though miles of desert country, and they witness a vast open valley lined with beautiful rows of orchards. ‘Surely there must be jobs here!’ However their optimism quickly vanishes. The Joads bounce around through various migrant tent camps as police come to bully the ‘Okies’ -a pejorative term used to castigate the migrant workers from Oklahoma. In one incident, Joad gets into a squabble and he is forced into hiding while his friend, Jim Casy, takes responsibility for the fight and is hauled off. The Joads quickly learn that there are no jobs in California. There are too many workers, depressed wages, and nowhere to live. However, they are out of money and growing desperate. They are confused by the anger leveled against them by rich landowners and law enforcement. Consider how the newcomers discuss the rumors of William Randolph Hearst:

“‘They’s a fella, newspaper fella near the coast, got a million acres-‘”
Casey looked up quickly. ‘Million acres? What in the worl’ can he do with a million acres?’
‘I dunno. He jus’ got it. Runs a few cattle. Got guards ever’place to keep folks out. Rides aroun’ in a bullet-proof car. I seen pitchers of him. Fat, sof’ fella with little mean eyes an’ a mouth like a ass-hole. Scairt he’s gonna die. Got a million acres an’ scairt of dyin'”
(pg 206).

Shortly after arriving in California, the Joad family quickly disintegrates. Uncle John becomes something of a drunkard, Noah leaves the family to become a fisherman, Connie Rivers abandons his pregnant wife along with the rest of the family, and at the end of the story Rose of Sharon tragically gives birth to a stillborn baby. At one point, the Joads find a home in a government camp, safe from badgering police, however the jobs dry up and unfortunately the Joads are forced to move on. They find another camp that is less desirable with no hot water, a Depression-era “Hooverville.” Miraculously, Tom encounters Jim Casy again who has pursued the life of a union organizer, but Casy is quickly killed by an officer who accuses him of being a “red” (i.e. a communist) so Tom gets into a physical altercation. The fight forces Tom to also abandon the family.

“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange…In the sould of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (Chapter 25, page 349).

In the end, Tom runs away in an effort to prevent his whole family from facing equal punishment if caught. The Joads head to another dusty camp to pick cotton amidst boxcars. Meanwhile, rain comes and forces the Joads out of their meager dwelling. They take shelter at higher ground in a nearby barn where a young boy lies with an old man dying of starvation. Rose of Sharon quietly lays down and feeds the man with her breast milk -a tragic symbol of the desperate need for sustenance and care, while Rose of Sharon “smiles mysteriously.”

“Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one… Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there” (page 419,


The 1940 Pulitzer decision
The Novel Jury of Jefferson B. Fletcher (Literature Professor at Columbia University), Joseph W. Krutch (Literature Professor at Columbia University and naturalist writer), and Robert M. Lovett (English Professor at the University of Chicago and Associate Editor of The New Republic) returned again. They unanimously selected Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, with a few back-up selections: Escape by Ethel Vance, To the End of the World by Helen White, Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield, and Night Riders by Robert Penn Warren. The Pulitzer Advisory Board mostly agreed with the selection, excluding Walter M. Harrison of The Daily Oklahoman. He was concerned about the political consequences of migrant issues and the introduction of what appeared to be erotica. Robert Lincoln O’Brien of The Boston Herald echoed similar sentiments, citing criticisms from both The New York Times and William Randolph Hearst who objected to his portrayal in the book. In the end, the Steinbeck selection won out.


John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. was born in Salinas, CA in 1902. He was a descendent of German-American immigrants. His father worked for Monterey county and his mother was a school teacher. The Steinbecks were Episcopalians and a young John Steinbeck grew up working on nearby sugar and beet ranches in the small rural community of Spreckels in the heart of the Salinas Valley -“The Salad Bowl of America.”

Steinbeck attended Stanford University but dropped out in 1925 without a degree. He moved to New York City and worked odd jobs while trying to make it as a successful writer. When that failed he returned to California where he worked as a tour guide in Lake Tahoe, CA. There he met his first wife Carol and started a failed business producing mannequins. When their money ran out six months later, Steinbeck and Carol moved back to Pacific Grove, CA into a cottage owned by Steinbeck’s parents -Steinbeck’s family provided the young couple with significant financial support. This much-needed cushion allowed John to continue writing through the Great Depression.

John Steinbeck in 1939

During the decade of the 1930s Steinbeck had a remarkable output of extraordinary books including Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939) a yearlong bestseller which also won the Pulitzer. During this period, he bought a boat and befriended a man named Ed Ricketts, a Monterey-based marine biologist turned philosopher. The two became close friends and took a number of fishing trips together. Ricketts became the inspiration for a character in Cannery Row (1945).

In the 1940s, Steinbeck divorced his wife Carol and moved to the East Coast. He was then remarried to Gwyn but this marriage soon ended in divorce, as well. Steinbeck became a World War II reporter for the New York Herald Tribune -the rag of the so-called “Rockefeller Republicans” or the upper-crust East Coast Republicans. In the course of his reporting he returned home with a number of shrapnel wounds as well as psychological damage. Meanwhile Ed Ricketts tragically died in an accident in 1948. Steinbeck returned to California to be with Ricketts shortly before his untimely death. Steinbeck spent the rest of that year in a deep depression having lost his friend and second wife. In 1950 Steinbeck was married for the third time to Elaine Scott, a Hollywood stage-hand. She divorced her first husband Zachary Scott only a week before her marriage to Steinbeck. The Steinbecks lived happily together in Manhattan until John Steinbeck’s death.

He continued to write in his later years, including notable nonfiction work such as war reporting, stories of fishing trips, a remarkable account of a trip to Soviet Russia, and a highly memorable travelogue while driving across the United States. He was also a reporter on the Vietnam War. He was later criticized as a “hawk” or a supporter of the war. In 1959, Steinbeck published his magnum opus, East of Eden (1959).

In 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in 1968 of heart disease and heart failure -he was a lifelong smoker. Steinbeck and his third wife are buried in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in the Salinas Valley. A famous museum now stands in Salinas and it is worth a visit for admirers of Steinbeck.


Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Classics, 2002.

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