The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck


  The Grapes of Wrath

  Born in Salinas, California, in 1902, John Steinbeck grew up in a fertile agricultural valley about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast - and both valley and coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years he supported himself as a labourer and journalist in New York City, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929). After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two Californian fictions, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey's paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed course regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the Californian labouring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937) and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon is Down (1942). Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), The Pearl (1947), A Russian Journal (1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright (1950), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) preceded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family's history. The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he travelled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966) and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The 'East of Eden' Letters (1969), Viva Zapata! (1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976) and Working Days: The Journals of 'The Grapes of Wrath' (1989). He died in 1968, having won a Nobel Prize in 1962.

  Robert DeMott is Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor at Ohio University, where he has received numerous undergraduate and graduate teaching awards, including the Jeanette G. Grasselli Faculty Teaching Award in 1997. He is a former director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, and is currently on the Editorial Board of the Center's Steinbeck Newsletter. He is Editor (with Elaine Steinbeck as Special Consultant) of the Library of America's three-volume edition of John Steinbeck's writings, of which Novels and Stories, 1932-1937 (1994) and The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings, 1936-1942 (1996) have so far appeared. His annotated edition of John Steinbeck's Working Days: The Journals of 'The Grapes of Wrath' was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book in 1989, and his Steinbeck's Typewriter: Essays on His Art (1996) received the Nancy Dasher Book Award from the College English Association of Ohio in 1998.


  The Grapes of Wrath

  With an Introduction by Robert DeMott



  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England

  Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

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  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

  First published in the USA by The Viking Press Inc. 1939

  First published in Great Britain by William Heinemann Ltd 1939

  Published in Penguin Books 1976

  This edition published in the USA in Penguin Books 1992

  Published in Great Britain in Penguin Classics 2000


  Copyright 1939 by John Steinbeck

  Copyright renewed John Steinbeck, 1967

  Introduction copyright (c) Penguin Putnam Inc., 1992

  All rights reserved

  The moral right of the author of the introduction has been asserted

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject

  to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,

  re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's

  prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in

  which it is published and without a similar condition including this

  condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

  To CAROL who willed it.

  To TOM who lived it.


  Introduction by Robert DeMott

  Suggestions for Further Reading

  A Note on the Text

  The Grapes of Wrath


  "What some people find in religion a writer may find in his craft... a

  kind of breaking through to glory."

  --Steinbeck in a 1965 interview


  On June 18, 1938, a little more than three weeks after starting The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck confided in his daily journal (posthumously published as Working Days):

  If I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I'll just have to work from a background of these. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain.... If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time.

  Despite Steinbeck's doubts, which were constant during its tumultuous process of composition, The Grapes of Wrath turned out to be not only a "fine" book, but the greatest of his seventeen novels. Steinbeck's agressive mixture of native philosophy, common-sense politics, blue-collar radicalism, working-class characters, folk wisdom, and home-spun literary form--all set to a bold, rhythmic style and nervy, raw dialogue--qualified the novel as the "American book" he had set out to write. The novel's title--from Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic"--was clearly in the American grain: "I like it because it is a march and this book is a kind of march--because it is in our own revolutionary tradition and because in reference to this book it has a large meaning," Steinbeck announced on September 10, 1938, to Elizabeth Otis, his literary agent.

  After his arduous march of composition from late May through late October 1938("Never worked so hard in my life nor so long before," Steinbeck told Carl Wilhelmson), The Grapes of Wrath passed from his wife's typescript to published novel in a scant four months. In March 1939, when Steinbeck received copies from one of three advance printings, he told Pascal Covici, his editor at The Viking Press, that he was "immensely pleased with them." The novel's impressive physical and aesthetic appearance was the result of its imposing length (619 pages) and Elmer Hader's striking dustjacket illustration (which pictured the exiled Joads looking out on a lush California valley). And true to Steinbeck's insistence that The Grapes of Wrath be "keyed into the American scene from the beginning," Covici had insured that Viking Press printed words and music from the "Battle Hymn" on the book's endpapers in an attempt (unsuccessfully, it turned out) to deflect accusations of communism against the novel.
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  Given the drastic plight of the migrant labor situation in California, Steinbeck refused to write a popular book or court commercial success. It was ironic, then, that shortly after its official publication date on April 14, 1939, fueled by the nearly ninety reviews--mostly positive--that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals between April and June, The Grapes of Wrath climbed to the top of the best-seller lists for most of the year, selling 428,900 copies in hardcover at $2. 75 each. (In 1941, when the Sun Dial Press issued a cloth reprint for a dollar, the publisher announced that more than 543,000 copies of Grapes had already been sold.) The Grapes of Wrath won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize (Steinbeck gave the $ 1000 prize to writer Ritch Lovejoy), eventually became the cornerstone of his 1962 Nobel Prize award, and proved itself to be among the most enduring works of fiction by any American author, past or present. In spite of the flaws its critics perceive (frequent sentimentality, flat characterizations, heavy-handed symbolism, unconvincing dialogue)--or perhaps because of them (general readers tend to embrace the book's mystic soul and are less troubled by its imperfect body)--The Grapes of Wrath has resolutely entered both the American consciousness and its conscience. If a literary classic can be defined as a book that speaks directly to readers' concerns in successive historical eras, then surely The Grapes of Wrath is such a work.

  Although Steinbeck could not have predicted this success (and was nearly ruined by the notoriety it achieved), the fact is that, in the past half century, The Grapes of Wrath has sold more than 14 million copies. Many of them end up in the hands of students at schools and colleges where the novel is taught in literature and history classes at every level from junior high to doctoral seminars. The book has also had a charmed life on screen and stage. Steinbeck sold the novel's film rights for $75,000 to producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Then Nunnally Johnson scripted a truncated film version, which was nonetheless memorably paced, photographed, and acted (especially by Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, Jane Darwell as Ma, and John Carradine as Jim Casy) under the direction of John Ford in 1940. (A "hard, straight picture... that looks and feels like a documentary film and... has a hard, truthful ring," Steinbeck reported after seeing its Hollywood preview.) Recently, Frank Galati faithfully adapted the novel for his Chicago-based Steppenwolf Company, whose Broadway production won a Tony Award as Best Play in 1990. The Grapes of Wrath has also been translated into nearly thirty languages. It seems that Steinbeck's words continue, in Warren French's apt phrase, "the education of the heart."

  Every strong novel redefines our conception of the genre's dimensions and reorders our awareness of its possibilities. Like other products of rough-hewn American genius--Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Alice Walker's The Color Purple (three other "flawed" novels that also humanize America's downtrodden by exposing social ills)--The Grapes of Wrath has a home-grown quality: part naturalistic epic, part jeremiad, part captivity narrative, part road novel, part transcendental gospel.

  Many American authors, often with little in the way of a shared novelistic tradition to emulate, or finding that established fictional models don't suit their sensibilities, manage to forge their own way by synthesizing their personal vision and experience with a variety of cultural forms and literary styles. Steinbeck was no exception. To execute The Grapes of Wrath he drew on the jump-cut technique of John Dos Passos's USA trilogy (1937), the narrative tempo of Pare Lorentz's radio drama Ecce Homo! and the sequential quality of such Lorentz films as The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937), the stark visual effects of Dorothea Lange's photographs of Dust Bowl Oklahoma and California migrant life, the timbre of the Greek epics, the rhythms of the King James Bible, the refrains of American folk music, and the biological impetus of his and Edward F. Ricketts's ecological phalanx, or group-man, theory. Steinbeck's imagination transformed these resources (especially biblical themes, parallels, analogies, and allusions) into his own holistic structure, his own individual signature. Malcolm Cowley's claim that a "whole literature is summarized in this book and much of it is carried to a new level of excellence" is especially accurate.

  In early July 1938, Steinbeck told literary critic Harry T. Moore that he was improvising what was for him a "new method" of fictional technique: one which combined a suitably elastic form and elevated style to express the far-reaching tragedy of the migrant drama. In The Grapes of Wrath he devised a contrapuntal structure, which alternates short lyrical chapters of exposition and background pertinent to the migrants as a group (Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29) with the long narrative chapters of the Joad family's dramatic exodus to California (Chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 13, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30). Just as in Moby-Dick Melville created intensity and prolonged suspense by alternating between the temporal chapters of Ahab's driven quest for the white whale and Ishmael's numinous chapters on cetology, so Steinbeck structured his novel by juxtaposition. His "particular" chapters are the slow-paced and lengthy narrative chapters that embody traditional characterization and advance the dramatic plot, while his jazzy, rapid-fire "interchapters" work at another level of recognition by expressing an atemporal, universal, synoptic view of the migrant condition. As he wrote Chapters 5 and 6, for instance, Steinbeck reminded himself that for maximum effect, "I want the reader to be able to keep [the general and particular chapters] separate in his mind." In fact, his "general" or intercalary chapters ("pace changers," Steinbeck called them) were expressly designed to "hit the reader below the belt. With the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader--open him up and while he is open introduce things on a [sic] intellectual level which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up," Steinbeck revealed to Columbia undergraduate Herbert Sturz in 1953.

  The Grapes of Wrath is an engaged novel with a partisan posture, many complex voices, and passionate prose styles. ("No other American novel has succeeded in forging and making instrumental so many prose styles," Peter Lisca believes.) Except for its unflinching treatment of the Great Depression's climatic, social, and economic conditions, and those interchapters that serve to halt the emotional slide toward sentimentality, there is nothing cynically distanced about it, nothing coolly modernist, in the way we have come to understand the elite literary implications of that term in the past seventy-five years. (The Grapes of Wrath is in some ways an old-fashioned novel, even down to its curious avoidance of human sexuality.) It is not narrated from the first-person point of view, yet the language has a consistently catchy eyewitness quality about it, and its vivid biblical, empirical, poetical, cinematic, and folk styles demonstrate the remarkable tonal and visual acuity of Steinbeck's ear and eye.

  Steinbeck told Merle Armitage on February 17, 1939, that in "composition, in movement, in tone and in scope," The Grapes of Wrath was "symphonic." Indeed, his fusion of intimate narrative and panoramic editorial chapters enforces this dialogic concert. Chapters, styles, voices all speak to each other, set up resonances, send echoes back and forth--point and counterpoint, strophe and antistrophe--as in a huge symphony whose total impression far surpasses the sum of its discrete and sometimes dissonant parts. Steinbeck's novel belongs to that vital class of fictions whose shape issues not from an ideal blueprint of aesthetic propriety but from the generative urgency of its author's experience. ("It had to be written," Stanley Kunitz said in 1939.) Steinbeck's direct involvement with the plight of America's Dust Bowl migrants in the latter half of the 1930s created his obsessive urge to tell their story honestly but also movingly. "This must be a good book," he wrote in Working Days on June 10, 1938. "It simply must. I haven't any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted--slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges."

  Making his audience see and feel that living picture was paramount. "I am not writing a satisfying story," he claimed to Pascal Covici on January 16, 1939:

done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags, I don't want him satisfied.... I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written.... Throughout I've tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness. There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won't find more than he has in himself.

  Steinbeck's participatory aesthetic was based on a circle of complicity that linked "the trinity" of writer, text, and reader to ensure maximum affective impact. On June 7, 1938, as he completed Chapter 5, for instance, he kept his eye steadily on target: "Today's work is the overtone of the tractors, the men who run them, the men they displace, the sound of them, the smell of them. I've got to get this over. Got to because this one's tone is very important--this is the eviction sound and the tonal reason for movement. Must do it well."

  Steinbeck conceived his novel on simultaneous levels of existence, ranging from socio-economic determinism to transcendent spirituality. Louis Owens explains how, for example, biblical parallels in The Grapes of Wrath illuminate four of Steinbeck's layers:

  On one level it is the story of a family's struggle for survival in the Promised Land.... On another level it is the story of a people's struggle, the migrants'. On a third level it is the story of a nation, America. On still another level, through... the allusions to Christ and those to the Israelites and Exodus, it becomes the story of mankind's quest for profound comprehension of his commitment to his fellow man and to the earth he inhabits.

  Thus Steinbeck pushed back the accepted boundaries of traditional mimetic fiction and redefined the proletarian form. Like all truly significant American novels, The Grapes of Wrath does not offer codified solutions. Even though it treats with privilege a particular section of the migrant labor scene (Steinbeck ignores the problems of nonwhite migrant workers--Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans--who made up a significant percentage of California's agricultural labor force, according to Carey McWilliams), his book still speaks to the universal experience of human disenfranchisement, still holds out hope for human advancement. At every level The Grapes of Wrath enacts the process of its author's belief and embodies the shape of his faith, as in this ringing synthesis from Chapter 14.

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