The book The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 by John Steinbeck. Its story follows a sharecropper family from Oklahoma, the Joads, who is forced off their land by the landowners. This occurs because of the crippling Dust Bowl storms that sweep through the Great Plains in the 1930s. Crops won’t grow anymore, and with new technology and rising debts, the landowners opt to hire a man with a machine to plow and tend the land and remove his sharecroppers. The family — including Ma and Pa Joad, Pa’s brother Uncle John, Tom, Al, Noah, Rose of Sharon, her husband Connie, Granma, Granpa, Ruthie, and Winfield — all pack up the car and get ready to head West to California for work. Tom, who just got out of prison, brings the former preacher Jim Casy along, and all of them head out to make the journey.
Along the way, Granpa and Granma get sick and die, Connie and Noah leave, and Ma takes over as the head of the house. Aside from losing so much family, the Joads suffer many other hardships. In California, they struggle to find work or any general place to stay, since Californians have become hostile to the Dust Bowl Migrants, who they refer to as “Okies”. The Joads scrape by, barely finding enough work to feed themselves, until they stumble upon a government camp known as Weedpatch. There, they finally figure out a way to establish themselves until they move along again.
Tom and Jim Casy end up getting in trouble when a man looking for workers tries to kill a unionist. Tom knocks out the attacker, and out of fear of breaking parole, allows Jim Casy to take the blame while he returns home. Later, when the Joads stumble into an orchard for work, Tom discovers that they have become strike breakers. Not only that, but the strike holding out on the landowners is supposedly led by none other than Jim Casy. Once Tom meets with Jim Casy and learns about the strike, they get caught by vigilantes (town-appointed or self-designated police). In the scramble to get away, one of the cops kills Jim Casy, and in turn Tom kills the cop. Injured, Tom is forced to run and sneak back into the workers’ camp. He tells Ma that he can’t stay, and promises to pick up where Jim Casy left off. He’s going to help people the way the former preacher did.
After Tom is gone, the family continues to push through the tough times they’re suffering. They leave the camp to find a place with better wages, and end up in another shantytown for migrant workers. The Joads move in to an old boxcar and start working again, but rains come and flood the lands. The men try to dam the water to protect the boxcars, since Rose of Sharon is going into labor with her baby, but the water eventually breaks their dam and floods the migrants’ homes. With the water pooling around the cars, Ma is forced to take Rose of Sharon, weak from birthing her stillborn child, to a barn on a hill. There, the women meet some other migrants taking shelter there. An old man lay sick in the barn, malnourished and struggling. Rose of Sharon feeds the man with her own breast milk in an odd, highly controversial last scene. We are left wondering if the Joads ever made it out of their struggling times, if Tom became a unionist the way Jim Casy had, and if there is any hope left for the worker.
The movie, directed by John Ford, stayed true to the book in its plotline, even using some of the more general chapters as additional story. Some of the events are rearranged in a manner that leaves the movie much more optimistic than the book: the government camp comes up as the last major stop for the Joads, after Tom kills the cop. Their situation seems to improve, with work and a clean community. The police are still looking for Tom, so he leaves the camp and sets out on his own. Afterwards, the Joads ride off to go find work. A place is offering 20 days of work, picking cotton. Ma sits in the front with Pa and Al, and Pa admits that he’s not head of the household anymore. Ma says that women are more adaptable, and that their people will be okay regardless. She says “We’ll go on, ’cause we’re the people.”
John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in the midst of the Dust Bowl crisis within California. He was a native Californian and shocked by the conditions that the migrant workers had to endure. Having already made a name for himself with his novella Of Mice an Men, published in 1937, Steinbeck’s nearly 500 page book took America’s heart immediately. The Grapes of Wrath was a hit among all people in the United States, hailing itself as an instant classic and a document of the American struggle. It also reflected Populist ideals and suggested reform across agricultural and migratory work through unionization. Only a few months after the book was published, 20th Century Fox bought the rights to make it into a film and got to work right away on creating it, under John Ford’s direction. The movie was released in 1940 and similarly became an American classic.
It’s almost impossible to detach the Dust Bowl Era from The Grapes of Wrath. Woody Guthrie’s music similarly attached its own narrative to the history. With these images and sounds coming straight from the era they depict, even the populace from the 1940s struggled to distinguish Dust Bowl Migrants from people like the Joads. Many historians, especially after World War II and the resolution of the Dust Bowl Era, began to critique these popular narratives and take the Dust Bowl as its own unit, separate from music and movies. It remains difficult to find sources that fail to mention The Grapes of Wrath or John Steinbeck in any capacity.
In fact, the novel was so successful that few other writers of the time could even publish their own stories on the Dust Bowl and migrant workers, whether fictional or personal. One such writer by the name of Sanora Babb, whose book was based on personal stories from her work in a government camp, could not be published in her entire lifespan because it would have fallen in the shadow of The Grapes of Wrath. Babb’s book, Whose Names Are Unknown, finally published in 2004.
Regardless of these issues, The Grapes of Wrath, as both a book and a film, is still regarded as an American classic and one of the most important books to American history. Its historical accuracy and further discussion on its significance, alongside its movie counterpart, is further discussed throughout this website.
- The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford (20th Century Fox, 1940), DVD.
- John Steinbeck (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), xxxvi.
- Charles J. Shindo, Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination, Rural America (Lawrence, Kan.) (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 148.
- Sanora Babb, Dorothy Wixson, Dorothy Babb, and Douglas C. Wixson, On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps, 1st ed., Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Imprint Series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 36.