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The Grapes of Wrath Paperback – March 28, 2006
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“Steinbeck is a poet. . . . Everything is real, everything perfect.”
—Upton Sinclair, Common Sense
“I think, and with earnest and honest consideration . . . that The Grapes of Wrath is the greatest American novel I have ever read."
“It seems to me as great a book as has yet come out of America.”
“I didn’t understand at the time — no one could have — that [The Grapes of Wrath] was not just a historical document but also a document about our current world with its depiction of drought and its effects (…) California, where the Joads went, is no longer the reliably verdant and green paradise they found; it’s now coming out of a five-year drought of its own (…) The other point that Steinbeck makes well, is that when we have huge, natural changes like these, the people who pay the largest price are the people most vulnerable and closest to the bottom (…) None of them did anything much to cause the problem, and yet they are its early victims (…) Steinbeck was trying to do something more than just simply tell a story. He’s a remarkable writer, and this is his masterpiece.”
— Bill McKibben, environmentalist
About the Author
John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California, in 1902, grew up in a fertile agricultural valley, about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast. Both the valley and the 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 laborer 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 California books, 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 courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The Grapes of Wrath won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 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 (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 traveled 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).
Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, and, in 1964, he was presented with the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Steinbeck died in New York in 1968. Today, more than thirty years after his death, he remains one of America's greatest writers and cultural figures.
Robert DeMott, editor, is the Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor at Ohio State University and author of Steinbeck's Typewriter, an award-winning book of critical essays.
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Top Customer Reviews
The Grapes of Wrath is so completely, so guturally human that it's practically impossible not to become engrossed in the life stories of the main characters. Some have complained that the characters are flat, that there is little growth. I find this only partially true. There is much to read between the lines. One who reads closely can find much growth in the characters of Ma Joad, Rose of Sharon, Tom, and even Al. Then there is the former preacher, Casy, whose growth occurred before the Joads' story even began -- but Steinbeck offers glimpses of that growth in his stories to the Joads.
This careful examination of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and the effects of corporatism and the ensuing expansion of poverty is insightful and heart-rending. Migrant farmers find themselves picking fruit and vegetables to sell for mere pennies a day, meanwhile they are unable to even feed their own families. They watch as corporate farms burn and destroy fruit and vegetables to keep the prices high and prevent the starving from stealing the "extra." They see acre upon acre of land go unused, but they cannot even plant a few carrots because it is owned by the banks and the migrants are charged with trespassing. The "Okies," as they are called, are treated worse than animals. Families break apart and the old, sick, or very young die of malnutrition and sickness. Meanwhile, the corporate farms and banks continue to put small farms out of business and scheme to keep prices high and wages low. The stark contrast can be seen in a corporate farm owner, decked out in gold chains, wryly offering work to the desperate Joads in the midst of a strike.
I have heard it said that it is only in recent years that people are crying "class warfare." The Grapes of Wrath is a poignant example of class warfare before the term was even coined. This book is a time capsule of times passed -- and history will repeat itself if we don't learn from the lesson Steinbeck has to teach.
The first quarter of the novel tells of young Tom Joad's homecoming after several years in prison for killing a man in a drunken brawl. Contact with his family has been minimal over the years, and he looks forward to seeing his parents, grandparents, and siblings again - but the house is empty, obviously abandoned, like so many others in this land where a combination of drought and poor agricultural techniques has resulted in failure and foreclosure on countless family farms. Fortunately, Tom learns from a neighbor that his family has gone over to his uncle's place, and he arrives there just in time to join them on their way to California, where they've been told there's plenty of work in the state's lush Central Valley.
The second quarter of the novel is the story of the Joads' arduous journey west on Route 66, a trip distinguished by breakdowns, death, and intimations by those who have been there that California may be something less than the paradise they've been led to imagine. The final half of the novel follows the Joads after they arrive in California, only to discover that it's possible to starve even in a land of plenty as too many would-be workers are forced to compete for available jobs by accepting wages barely sufficient to buy enough food from one day to the next. The novel ends with one of the most stunning and affecting scenes you'll ever read, and although nothing at all is resolved, the story feels complete.
The structure of the novel underscores Steinbeck's creation of the Joads as the human face of a social crisis. Long chapters that advance the plot alternate with short chapters in which the Joads are never mentioned, in which Steinbeck's richly poetic prose establish the physical and moral setting of his work: the conditions leading to the Dust Bowl, the loss of a way of life, the journey to a new beginning, and the disillusionment and growing anger of the migrants - all on a massive scale. These short, poignant chapters are as beautiful, captivating, and necessary as the story chapters, as they provide context and grant a kind of holy universality to the Joads' experiences.
Steinbeck's writing is raw, earthy, and viscerally powerful. This is realism at its finest: full of small, telling details, and at times casually vulgar, not for shock value but because life itself is casually vulgar. I was about 13 the first time I read this novel, and the blunt honesty of the writing was a bit much for my somewhat sheltered mind; I remember feeling uncomfortable when an old man reached into his pants and "contentedly scratched under the testicles," as that wasn't a word I was used to seeing in print, at least outside of biology texts. I loved the background chapters but found the Joad chapters distasteful for the first hundred pages or so, when I finally allowed the vivid immediacy of Steinbeck's style to make the characters real for me. As an adult, I have no such difficulties and am able to appreciate the masterful style and rich characterizations immediately. This is a mature novel, about people too crassly human to elicit our pity, but too warmly human not to elicit our compassion.
I must admit that as a native Californian, I feel a special connection with this novel. For most of my life I lived just a few blocks away from the old Route 66 (although farther west than the point where the Joads left it to go north). Several of my husband's children live in the Central Valley, around places Steinbeck mentions by name. However, Steinbeck's skill is such that even if you've never been there, you'll close this novel feeling as though you had. This is a novel every American should read - indeed, everyone interested in what it means to be human in trying times. These days more than ever we need this book, we need this reminder of the values of proud self-sufficiency and fierce decency, for it is when we stop pulling, and pulling together, that we lose our way.
It can be really slow at times, but be patient and try hard to FEEL this book. Picture the struggle, the desperation, the hunger. Find yourself what it would be like making that trek with the Joad's across country, then among the camps. It is so powerful and the ending will leave you feeling true pain and disappointment (not in the book, but in the very American experience many people had... and still have...).
Too unfortunate that HS AP & Lit101 students couldn't have this well presented information a couple decades ago, when we were forced to read the book & regurgitate highfalutin claptrap.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I recommend this book for all to read.