Seventy-five years ago this month, John Steinbeck published his masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath. An indelible saga of Oklahoma farmers migrating to California after being displaced by the Dust Bowl, it won the Pulitzer Prize and, by unanimous vote, the National Book Award. When Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, The Grapes of Wrath was cited by the committee as one of the main reasons for its decision.
As Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw writes in her new book, On Reading "The Grapes of Wrath," the novel was a huge popular success as well, selling more than 400,000 copies in 1939 and still selling steadily today. (Its worldwide sales have been estimated at 14 million copies.) Pocket-sized versions of it were given to American servicemen during World War II, and it was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1941.
It was always controversial as well, Shillinglaw writes: "Probably no book published in the twentieth century created the firestorm that The Grapes of Wrath set off." It was attacked both for its politics — many people accused Steinbeck of being a communist — and for what some readers considered obscenity and crude language. Farmers in California burned it for news cameras, an Oklahoma politician called it "a black infernal creation," and libraries banned it, including the one closest to Steinbeck's home in Salinas, Calif.
(Shillinglaw doesn't mention this, but in the early 1960s the notorious Florida Legislative Investigation Committee known as the Johns Committee, as part of its efforts to banish homosexuals and communists from the state's universities, attacked the University of South Florida for including in its curriculum such "trashy and pornographic" works as The Grapes of Wrath.)
But the book endures, and its publisher, Viking, is marking its 75th year with an anniversary edition that duplicates the original 1939 book, complete with the evocative jacket illustration by Elmer Hader and the Route 66 signs on the endpapers. (There's also a limited edition with a leather case and a $250 price tag that would have flabbergasted the Joad family.)
Steinbeck's work doesn't just live on between covers. A new production of his play Of Mice and Men, starring James Franco and Chris O'Dowd, opens April 16 on Broadway. In May, the National Steinbeck Center (steinbeck.org) will celebrate The Grapes of Wrath at its 2014 Salinas Steinbeck Festival, and it is producing many related events during the year, from the Smithsonian Institution to the Disney Museum in San Francisco. As part of the anniversary celebration, the center sent playwright Octavio Solis, community historian and visual artist Patricia Wakida and filmmaker P.J. Palmer on the road to retrace the Joads' journey, recording oral histories along the way. Solis will speak about the trip at 10:30 a.m. Monday at the Selby Library, 1331 First St., Sarasota.
Behind the book
Longtime Steinbeck fans and first-time readers alike will find much to enrich their understanding of The Grapes of Wrath in Shillinglaw's book. A scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and author or editor of several books about the writer, she covers a wide range of material related to The Grapes of Wrath in 27 short chapters. She surveys Steinbeck's influences, most notably pioneering marine biologist and ecologist Ed Ricketts (the model for Doc in Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row), and those Steinbeck influenced in turn, such as Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen.
Shillinglaw tells us that Steinbeck researched the book for three years and then wrote it in 100 days, in tiny handwriting in an oversized ledger book; the manuscript was then typed up and edited by his first wife, Carol. (Their marriage would founder in the wake of the novel's success.) Shillinglaw looks at the book's mythical and biblical elements, its portrayals of women, its grounding in American history. And she brings it forward into the present: The Weedpatch migrant camp in California where the Joads ended up is still operating, and political issues surrounding migrant farm workers are as divisive as they were in 1939.
That, perhaps, is a key to why The Grapes of Wrath has had such lasting impact. It is firmly rooted in a specific time and place, yet its themes — families devastated by severe income inequality, environmental disaster caused by human actions, love and courage in the face of terrible loss — are with us still.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected]