Grapes of Wrath Marches On

March 14: On this day in 1939, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was published. After a series of shorter novels, published over the previous decade, Steinbeck longed to do something reflecting "a very grave attempt to do a first-rate piece of work." With a lifelong empathy for the working poor, and months spent researching the "fruit tramps" and "Okies" who lived in the West Coast migrant camps, Steinbeck had his theme early; less clear were the book's style and tone.

 

His first treatment of the material was unabashed propaganda, a broad satire of the political groups and farmers' associations responsible for the camps and the life-threatening conditions within them. Although it was already being advertised by his publisher, Steinbeck burned the manuscript of his "smart-alec book … full of tricks to make people ridiculous." Having first attacked the victimizers he would now tell the story of the victims; having chosen "L'Affaire Lettuceberg" as the title of the burned attempt, he would let his wife name the new book, as she had done for his previous novellas. Within ten months the new, 700-page novel was on bookstore shelves, with  "Carol's best title so far … because it is a march and this book is a kind of march—because it is in our revolutionary tradition."

 

Steinbeck's hope was that a title drawn from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" would forestall "the fascist crowd" who, he knew, would attempt "to sabotage this book [and] try to give it the communist angle." His fear was that the politics of his novel would prevent any wide popularity, and he tried to dissuade his publisher from a large first printing. He was wrong on both counts: The Grapes of Wrath was the top seller of 1939, and the bannings, burnings, death threats, and denouncements reached the House of Representatives, where an Oklahoma Congressman rose up to "say to you, and to every honest, square-minded reader in America, that the painting Steinbeck made in this book is a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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