“Grapes of Wrath” — Climbing the Stairs with an O’Fallon Librarian

This is another entry in “Climbing the Stairs,” a collection of blog posts about the book spines painted on O’Fallon Public Library’s staircase. This month the featured title is “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.

I found this particular title to be intimidating. Commonly referred to as a “Great American Novel,” “Grapes of Wrath” netted the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and its author, John Steinbeck, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, largely, the judges said, because of this book.

A dozen songs by different artists were created about the book including Woody Guthrie’s two-part song—”Tom Joad – Parts 1 & 2″ and Rage Against the Machine’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. It was turned into a Broadway play starring Gary Sinise as Tom Joad.

In the years after its publication, 14 million copies of “Grapes of Wrath” were sold.


Let’s start out with a summary of the story:

Tom Joad comes home from McAlester prison, where he served time for homicide in self-defense. While traveling, Tom meets a man named Jim Casy who is a former pastor. They knew each other long ago and so travel together.

Tom’s house is unexpectedly empty and he is told by a neighbor that his family is staying at his uncle’s home. The bank is foreclosing on almost everyone in the area — Tom’s family included.

When he finally meets up with them at his uncle’s, they announce that they are going to travel to California to work on the farms there. They can’t stay in Oklahoma, the farm has been repossessed. Tom decides to go along, even though it breaks his parole by leaving the state.

Photo by Raychel Sanner on Pexels.com

Traveling in the family sedan on Route 66, the family experiences tragedy (both grandparents die) and the people they are passing on the road tell stories of California. It doesn’t seem to be the dream location the family is hoping for. But, left with few options, they continue onwards.

The Joads finally reach California where there are more workers than there are jobs and the growers are using this surplus to exploit the people who so desperately need help. The authorities are in support of the farms and Casy has an altercation with a sheriff at a migrant camp.

The Joads eventually find their way to a camp which was established by the Resettlement Administration. It doesn’t have enough food for everyone but there is some safety to be found there.

Casey starts a new job as a labor organizer and finds himself in a protest that turns violent. After Casey is beaten to death, Tom kills his attacker and flees. Meanwhile, the Joad family breaks a strike to work picking peaches. The pay isn’t enough to keep them fed, even before the farm announces a cut in pay. The Joad’s, together with Tom who is on the run from the killing, go to pick cotton in an effort to earn money.

Meanwhile, Tom’s sister, Rose of Sharon, gives birth and her child is stillborn, possibly because of malnutrition.

When the family’s new home is flooded, they take shelter in a barn in which a boy and his father have also taken shelter. They are starving and Rose of Sharon feeds the man some of her breast milk to keep him alive.


I’d like to say for the record that I didn’t see that ending coming at all. Did anyone who read this see that ending coming?

The 1940 film starring Henry Fonda has a different ending. It concludes with a speech by Ma Joad: “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 so culturally important that it was one of the first choices for the United States National Film Registry, maintained by the Library of Congress.


Controversies

According to the American Library Association, John Steinbeck is one of the most banned authors in the United States in censorship challenges. “Of Mice and Men” is the most challenged of his books though “Grapes of Wrath” has been publicly burned — multiple times.

John Steinbeck

In addition to censorship, Steinbeck has been criticized for the similarity of his work to “Whose Names are Unknown” by author Sanora Babb. Some say Steinbeck used the notes that Babb penned for his own work.

Perhaps because of its similarity to “Grapes of Wrath,” “Whose Names are Unknown” was not published until 2004.

Some similar themes in both stories are: stillborn babies, predatory company stores, banks and other corporations, the use of music to bolster flagging spirits, the plight of the migrant worker and more.

Michael J. Meyer, a Steinbeck historian, wrote: “Steinbeck scholars would do well to read Babb — if only to see for themselves the echoes of Grapes that abound in her prose.” He did not label the similarities as plagiarism.


The title of the book was suggested by Steinbeck’s wife, Carol Steinbeck. It alludes to a lyric from the song, “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;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines “grapes of wrath” as “an unjust or oppressive situation, action, or policy that may inflame desire for vengeance”.

Steinbeck wrote, “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].”

And I think, with “Grapes of Wrath,” he definitely succeeded.

Next month’s title is one of my all-time favorites — “The Hobbit”!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s