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John Steinbeck

STUDYWORLD STUDYNOTES

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck

 

John Steinbeck has been a major literary figure since the 1930’s. Steinbeck often centered his themes around the poor and the oppressed. His characters are often trapped in an unfair world but they remain sympathetic and heroic human beings. He won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for his most famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which he wrote in 1939.

John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He took classes at Stanford University for a few years but left without a degree. He then worked as a ranch hand and fruit picker to support himself while he wrote. His first book Cup of Gold (1929), is about the famous 17th century Welsh pirate, Sir Henry Morgan. His next book was The Pastures of Heaven (1932) which was a collection of short stories about a community of southern California farmers. After that, he wrote To a God Unknown (1933), a story about a farmer who took his own life during a severe drought. But it was not until the publication of Tortilla Flat in 1935 that Steinbeck received critical and popular acclaim. In this novel, Steinbeck sympathetically portrays Americans of Mexican descent dwelling near Monterey, California. Steinbeck went on to write In Dubious Battle (1936), a story that realistically portrays labor strife in California during the 1930’s. Steinbeck’s next novel was Of Mice and Men (1937). It is a tragic story about a physically powerful but mentally retarded farm worker and his best friend and protector. Steinbeck also adapted this novel into a popular play in 1937.

Steinbeck’s most famous novel was The Grapes of Wrath. The novel tells the story of the Joads, a poor Oklahoma farming family who migrate to California, using the famous Route 66, in search of a better life during the Great Depression and the dust bowl. Steinbeck demonstrated how the struggles of one family mirrored the hardship of the entire nation. Through the inspiration of the labor organizer and preacher, Jim Casy, the Joads learn that the poor must work together in order to survive.

Steinbeck’s characters are forced into poverty but keep their dignity and pride throughout their struggles. Steinbeck focused on the sacrifices made by people for their children and friends. Steinbeck points out the simplicity of their lives and the fact that they wanted respect and recognition. They are forced into constant migration by the same large land-owning companies that prevent them from rising above poverty. The Grapes of Wrath portrays an era of hopelessness and increasing rage, and the people trapped within it.

The dispossessed were drawn west from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless--restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do—to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut—anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.

Some people consider some of Steinbeck’s work, like The Grapes of Wrath, to be more of social importance than literary importance. Some of these people even think that his work is a warning to the nation’s leaders and an analysis of the forces that create political strife. Steinbeck makes the reader have sympathy for the novel’s protagonists by pitting them against the wealthy, distant company owners who rule blindly and heartlessly. Steinbeck died in New York City on December 20, 1968.



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