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"The Grapes of Wrath: Historical Background"

John Steinbeck, American Writer


About John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath: Historical Background
by Dr. Susan Shillinglaw, San Jose State University

Print version of this article (pdf - 168kb)

Illustration from The Grapes of Wrath


Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, edited by Robert DeMott tells of the March-October, 1938 writing of Grapes, a book written in 100 “working days.”

“The new book is going well. Too fast. I’m having to hold it down. I don’t want it to go so fast for fear the tempo will be fast and this is a plodding, crawling book. So I’m holding it down to approximately six pages a day . . . Anyway it is a nice thing to be working and believing in my work again. I hope I can keep the drive all fall. I like it. I only feel whole and well when it is this way.”

“It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted. Slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges.” (June 10, 1938)


“Throughout I’ve tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness. There are 5 layers in this book; a reader will find as many as he can and he won’t find more than he has in himself.”

“You say the inner chapters were counterpoint and so they were—that they were pace changers and they were that too but the basic purpose was to hit the reader below the belt. With the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader—open him up and while he is open introduce—things on an intellectual level which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up. It is a psychological trick if you wish but all techniques of writing are psychological tricks.” (JS to Herbert Sturtz, 1953)


From “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” by Julia Ward Howe (1861—appeared first in Atlantic Monthly in February 1862). “I should like the whole thing to go in as a page at the beginning. All the verses and the music. This is one of the great songs of the world, and as you read the book you will realize that the words have a special meaning in this book. And I should like the music to be put there in case anyone, any one forgets. The title, Battle Hymn of the Republic, in itself has a special meaning in the light of this book.” (JS to editor Pat Covici)

Publication: April 14, 1939, $2.75

By May 6, two weeks after publication, it was at the top of the best seller list. Top best seller of 1939; it was in the top 10 bestsellers of 1940.

Viking had never had sales approaching this rate; books shipped from Viking in first month:

Up to publication: 45, 918
Week ending April 21: 10, 263
Week ending April 28: 4, 738
Week ending May 5: 7, 986
Week ending May 12: 8, 506
May 15, 16, 17: 5, 950

In the 1990s, The Grapes of Wrath sold 150,000-200,000 copies in the US annually.


By the San Jose Public Library (June 1939) as “unfit for patrons”

By the Kern County Board of Supervisors from schools and libraries (August 1939) for being “filled with profanity, lewd, foul and obscene language unfit for use in American homes . . . It has offended our citizenry by falsely implying that many of our fine people are a low, ignorant, profane and blasphemous type living in a vicious and filthy manner.”

By the Kansas City Board of Education (August 1939) from schools.


On the curb by the Salinas Public Library On the sidewalk in Bakersfield


Tom JoadBy the Associated Farmers (formed in 1934): “Although the Associated Farmers will not attempt to have the book banned or suppressed, we would not want our women and children to read so vulgar a book. This is a matter for consideration by public bodies. We deny the statements in the book, so consequently if we were to seek for a ban, our motive would be attacked. . . The only inference that can be obtained from Steinbeck’s book is that he is proposing exactly the same sort of overthrow of the present form of government and the substitution of collective agriculture as did Carey McWilliams in his Factories in the Fields. (August 1939)

By the Oklahoma City Times: “Any reader who has his roots planted in the red soil will boil with indignation over the bedraggled, bestial characters that will give Reading The Grapes of Wrath Susan Shillinglaw, San José State University See other side Tom Joad the ignorant east convincing confirmation of their ideas of the people of the southwest . . . if you have children, I’d advise against leaving the book around home. It has Tobacco Road looking as pure as Charlotte Bronte, when it comes to obscene, vulgar, lewd, stable language.”

Provoked political change

The Committee to Aid Agricultural Organization, or the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Agricultural Organization on Housing Health and Relief for Agricultural Workers in 1938 listed on their letterhead John Steinbeck as their “State Chairman.”

Bestsellers of 1939

The San Francisco Chronicle, on April 16, 1939, listed Grapes as the number one best seller (two days after publication). In order, other best sellers were Wickford Point by J.P. Marquand, Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig; Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield, and Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier . . . Mein Kampf was #3 in non-fiction.

ABA National Book Awards for 1939 honored Grapes as “The Booksellers’ Favorite Novel.” The ABA honored Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo as “The Most Original Book of the Year.”

The Grapes of Wrath received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, May 6, 1940

Film, 1940

Gone with the Wind opened on December 15, 1939 and John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath opened on January 24, 1940

  • Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson
  • Directed by John Ford *
  • Photography by Gregg Toland
  • Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
  • Twentieth Century Fox
  • Tom Joad: Henry Fonda
  • Casy: John Carradine
  • Muley: John Qyalen
  • Policeman: Ward Bond
  • Noah: Frank Sully
  • Grampa: Charley Grapewin
  • Uncle John: Frank Darien
  • Rosasharn: Dorris Bowdon
  • Winfield: Darryl Hickman
  • Pa Joad: Russell Simpson
  • Ruthie Joad: Shirley Mills
  • CampDirector: Grant Mitchell
  • Al: O.Z. Whitehead
  • Ma Joad: Jane Darwell *

* Academy Award


Into 43 languages





Stanford University


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