I read John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, when I was 13. I was really taken with this story of the Joads who leave their dustbowl Oklahoma for the promise of a better life in California.
The story had no real connections to my life, but the writing absorbed me. I brought that big paperback to church one Sunday because I just had to finish the story. It seemed more important than what was being said at Mass. But there were connections to that place, starting with the title taken from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “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.”
John Steinbeck had published six novels, a play, and a short story collection in the previous ten years, including two of my favorites – Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men.
Steinbeck was hired by Fortune magazine to visit the tenement camps in California to write a piece. He never wrote the article, saying that that magazine’s audience was not one he liked, but he agreed to go with a Life magazine photographer to document the camps.
In March 1938, he wrote his agent to say that “… I simply can’t make money on these people. That applies to your query about an article for a national magazine. The suffering is too great for me to cash in on it… I break myself every time I go out because the argument that one person’s effort can’t really do anything doesn’t seem to apply when you come on a bunch of starving children and you have a little money. I can’t rationalize it for myself anyway. So don’t get me a job for a slick [magazine]. I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.”
After writing some newspaper articles about the conditions, he decided to start work on a novel about the people he had met. He started that summer and gave himself a deadline of 100 days. He also kept a journal as he was working. He stuck to the deadline and on October 26 – day 100 – he wrote an entry: “Finished this day — and I hope to God it’s good.” It was completed as a first draft, but Steinbeck reworked it several times and it was published the following year.
Steinbeck said he didn’t expect The Grapes of Wrath to be popular, and it did receive some negative reviews, as one might expect for a novel of social awareness with a political agenda. Steinbeck wanted the book to disturb readers enough that they might do more than just become aware of the conditions he saw. He wanted some readers to take action. He wanted politicians to act.
A review in The New Yorker by Clifton Fadiman said it had a terrible ending, but that it might be the Great American Novel. It became the highest-selling book of 1939. It won the Pulitzer Prize.
That ending was a part of the book that I finished that Sunday in church. If we need a spoiler alert for a book that is 80 years old, insert one here. The novel ends with the Joad family broken apart. Rose of Sharon, the pregnant daughter, delivers a stillborn baby. She breastfeeds an old starving man.
It seemed shocking. It felt religious, and my reading room certainly contributed to that.
In the following years, I read every other book by Steinbeck I could find. He was the first author that I “studied” on my own with no prompting from teachers. During junior high and high school, I would make my way through Fitzgeral, Hemingway, salinger and Updike.
I eventually started reading critical studies and found that The Grapes of Wrath was full of religious references, from the title to the ending. It was a self-revelation while reading the book that “Reverend” Jim Casy was JC, the initials of Jesus Christ, and I read the rest of the novel with that connection in mind. Jim travels with the Joad family. He has left the priesthood because he knew he wasn’t good enough to stay, but he is always thinking about God and the ways in which humans’ souls are connected. He inspires the Joads and others that he “preaches” to on the road to and tries to help them retain faith in a higher power.
Jim knows his emerging ideas about religion don’t fit into the Christian church. Trying to explain his new view, he tells Tom Joad: ”I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit–the human sperit–the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ ”
The novel has religious symbols and ideas throughout. Some were obvious to my 13-year-old self. Their exodus from the desert of Oklahoma along Route 66 to the promised land of California was the most obvious connection. But it was also what really happened to those people. I loved that connection.
Jim became my favorite character and the Christ connection held for me. He wanders into the wilderness to find his soul, but decides it’s not there or in him unless he is connected to people. He sacrifices himself by turning himself in to the police to save Tom. In jail, he preaches his message. When he leaves jail, he decides that preaching isn’t enough and he needs to put his ideas into actions. He dies a martyr’s death. His last words – “You don’ know what you’re a-doin” – are an obvious paraphrase of Christ’s last words. Tom becomes his disciple, vowing to spread his message that is as much one of social justice as it is religion.
The film version of the novel was released in 1940. For all the limitations that a film version of a big novel has, it is an excellent film. The story is unfortunately changed, especially in the second half and the ending becomes a more positive Hollywood one. But for all the people who saw the film but didn’t read the book (which I suspect was the vast majority), at least the themes of the novel come through. In 1940, that story was still in the news. I’m glad that I saw the film after reading the novel. The screen images made things I had read more vivid. Henry Fonda now looks like Tom Joad and John Carradine is how I picture Jim Casy even if I reading about them on the page. I don’t recommend watching the film on your phone or laptop but it is available on archive.org.
As sad as the story of the Joads is throughout the novel, Ma Joad’s final thoughts are an optimism of strength. Things will be better, if not for all of her family, then for her people and the country.
“I ain’t never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn’t have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared…. Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep a-coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.”
The film was one that was highly anticipated in 1940, building on the novel’s popularity. This trailer for the film shows how that anticipation was encouraged. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards® including Best Picture, and won Best Supporting Actress, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, and Best Director, John Ford.