This Day In Literary History
On April 14th, 1939, The Grapes of Wrath, the classic, Pulitzer Prize winning novel by the legendary American writer John Steinbeck, was published.
Steinbeck had previously scored a literary triumph with his acclaimed and controversial novella, Of Mice and Men. The Grapes of Wrath would also court controversy.
The Grapes of Wrath - the title comes from a line in the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic - told the story of the Joads, a poor family of Oklahoma sharecroppers.
Driven from their home by the Great Depression and the dust storms, go to California hoping to improve their fortunes. Instead, they encounter more hardship. The novel opens with son Tom Joad being paroled after serving time in prison for manslaughter.
On his way home, he meets Jim Casy, an ex-preacher he once knew. Casy, who shares the same initials as Jesus Christ, lost his faith after having affairs with his congregants and realizing that religion can provide no real answers or solace for the difficulties that people are experiencing in the Depression.
Tom and Casy go to Tom's uncle's house, where Tom finds his family loading their truck with their possessions. Their crops were destroyed by the dust storms and their farm has been repossessed.
So, the Joads have decided to go to California after an advertisement convinces them that the Golden State holds the key to prosperity. Leaving Oklahoma would violate Tom's parole, but he believes that it's a risk worth taking.
They head out on Route 66, and soon realize that their prospects in California may not be as good as they thought. The road is full of other families making the same journey and the makeshift camps in which they live.
The Joads hear many stories of hardship from people who have been to California, but they feel they have no choice but to continue their journey.
When they finally arrive in California, the Joads find no hope of making a decent living. There's an oversupply of labor and no rights for workers, thanks to a collusion of big corporate farmers. Smaller farmers are suffering from a collapse in prices.
The Joads find hope at Weedpatch Camp, a clean camp operated by the Resettlement Administration, one of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal agencies. Since the camp is a federal facility, the poor migrant workers are protected there from the sadistic California state policemen.
The vigilante cops had been constantly harassing and brutalizing migrant workers in an attempt to drive them out of the state. Unfortunately, there's not enough money and space at Weedpatch to care for all the needy.
The novel reaches its apex when the Joads end up working (unknowingly) as strike breakers at a peach orchard. A strike turns violent and Tom Joad's friend Jim Casy is murdered. Tom witnesses the crime and kills the attacker to avenge his friend's death.
Now a fugitive, Tom says goodbye to his mother and flees, vowing that wherever the road takes him, he'll act as a defender of the oppressed.
The publication of The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 was described as "a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national radio hook-ups; but above all, it was read."
Loved by most and denounced as communist propaganda by some, The Grapes of Wrath would become one of the most thoroughly discussed and studied novels of the twentieth century.
Though author John Steinbeck had been accused of exaggerating the camp conditions to make a political point, he had actually underplayed conditions that he knew had been much worse than what he'd described in his novel. He did this to avoid being labeled a propagandist, but he was denounced as a communist nonetheless.
In 1940, the legendary filmmaker John Ford directed a feature film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad and John Carradine as Jim Casy.
Though the ending of the film differs greatly from the novel, it's still rightfully considered one of the greatest films ever made. It won big at the Academy Awards, taking the Oscars for Best Actor (Fonda), Best Director (Ford), Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The legendary American folksinger Woody Guthrie was a big fan of the film. After he saw it, he wrote a song summarizing the plot for people who couldn't afford to see the movie. The result, Guthrie's classic song Tom Joad, turned out to be so long that it had to be broken into two parts.
In 1962, John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature. The prize committee cited the brilliance of The Grapes of Wrath as one of their main reasons for giving Steinbeck the award.
Quote Of The Day
"The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true." - John Steinbeck
Today's video features an episode of the series Great Books dedicated to John Steinbeck's classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Enjoy!