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Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)

The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck, 1939
Penguin Group USA
464 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780143039433


Summary
The Grapes of Wrath is a landmark of American literature. A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.

Although it follows the movement of thousands of men and women and the transformation of an entire nation, The Grapes of Wrath is also the story of one Oklahoma family, the Joads, who are driven off their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.

First published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath summed up its era in the way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin summed up the years of slavery before the Civil War. Sensitive to fascist and communist criticism, Steinbeck insisted that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” be printed in its entirety in the first edition of the book—which takes its title from the first verse: “He is trampling out the vintage where "the grapes of wrath are stored.”

At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s fictional chronicle of the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s is perhaps the most American of American Classics. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—February 27, 1902
Where—Salinas, California USA
Death—December 20, 1968
Where—New York, NY
Education—Studied marine biology at Stanford University,
   1919-25
Awards—Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, 1940;
   Nobel Prize, 1962.


John Ernst Steinbeck, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner, was born in Salinas, California February 27, 1902. His father, John Steinbeck, served as Monterey County Treasurer for many years. His mother, Olive Hamilton, was a former schoolteacher who developed in him a love of literature. Young Steinbeck came to know the Salinas Valley well, working as a hired hand on nearby ranches in Monterey County.

In 1919, he graduated from Salinas High School as president of his class and entered Stanford University majoring in English. Stanford did not claim his undivided attention. During this time he attended only sporadically while working at a variety jobs including on with the Big Sur highway project, and one at Spreckels Sugar Company near Salinas.

Steinbeck left Stanford permanently in 1925 to pursue a career in writing in New York City. He was unsuccessful and returned, disappointed, to California the following year. Though his first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929, it attracted little literary attention. Two subsequent novels, The Pastures of Heaven and To A God Unknown, met the same fate.

After moving to the Monterey Peninsula in 1930, Steinbeck and his new wife, Carol Henning, made their home in Pacific Grove. Here, not far from famed Cannery Row, heart of the California sardine industry, Steinbeck found material he would later use for two more works, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row.

With Tortilla Flat (1935), Steinbeck's career took a decidedly positive turn, receiving the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal. He felt encouraged to continue writing, relying on extensive research and personal observation of the human drama for his stories. In 1937, Of Mice and Men was published. Two years later, the novel was produced on Broadway and made into a movie. In 1940, Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Grapes of Wrath, bringing to public attention the plight of dispossessed farmers.

After Steinbeck and Henning divorced in 1942, he married Gwyndolyn Conger. The couple moved to New York City and had two sons, Thomas and two years later, John. During the war years, Steinbeck served as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Some of his dispatches reappeared in Once There Was A War. In 1945, Steinbeck published Cannery Row and continued to write prolifically, producing plays, short stories and film scripts. In 1950, he married Elaine Anderson Scott and they remained together until his death.

Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 "for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and keen social perception." In his acceptance speech, Steinbeck summarized what he sought to achieve through his works:

Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.... Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity of greatness of heart and spirit—gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature...

Steinbeck remained a private person, shunning publicity and moving frequently in his search for privacy. He died on December 20, 1968 in New York City, where he and his family made a home. But his final resting place was the valley he had written about with such passion. At his request, his ashes were interred in the Garden of Memories cemetery in Salinas. He is survived by his son, Thomas. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble, courtesy of the National Steinbeck Center.)



Book Reviews
(Older books have few, if any, mainstream press reviews online.  See Amazon and Barnes & Noble customer reviews for some helpful ones.)

It's simply a beautiful book. Not only are characters richly drawn, but the narrative concerns—the power of community to affect change, the consequences of greed and self-interest, and the sacredness of everyday life and everyday people—seem particularly apt for today. But then those issues are apt for any era, which is why the book has achieved its iconic status.
A LitLovers LitPicks (July '08)


[I]n this epic novel, as well as in Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, Steinbeck seems to question whether the mysteries of human existence can ever be fully explained. In these works that span the grim decade from 1937 to 1947, Steinbeck urges the dispossessed to challenge a system that denies them both sustenance and dignity, and to seek the spiritual belonging that enables individuals to achieve their full humanity. So we have the paradox of the author apparently denouncing injustice while also exalting acceptance of the sorrows visited on humanity, whether those sorrows are wrought by nature or by humans themselves.... Steinbeck may be understood to charge literature with serving not only as a call to action, but as an expression and acceptance of paradox in our world. "There is something untranslatable about a book," he wrote. "It is itself—one of the very few authentic magics our species has created."
Penguin Classics Edition



Discussion Questions
1. Are we meant to conclude that Tom's killing of the deputy is justified?

2. What makes Casy believe that "maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of" (p. 24)? 

3. Why does Steinbeck devote a chapter to the land turtle's progress on the highway? 

4. Why does Pa yield his traditional position in the family to Ma? 

5. What does Ma mean when she says, "Bearin' an' dyin' is two pieces of the same thing" (p. 210)? 

6. As Tom leaves the family, he says, "I'll be ever'where—wherever you look" (p. 419). In what sense does he mean "everywhere"? 

7. Why does Steinbeck interrupt the Joads' narrative with short chapters of commentary and description? 

8. Why does Rose of Sharon smile as she feeds the starving man with milk intended for her baby? 

9. What does Steinbeck mean when he writes, "In the souls of the people The Grapes of Wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage" (p. 349)? 

10. Why do different characters insist at different points in the book, "A fella got to eat" (p. 344, for example)? 

11. Why does the book start with drought and end with floods? 

12. Is the family intact at the end of the novel? 

13. Why does Uncle John set the dead baby adrift rather than bury it? 

14. What is the source of Ma's conviction that "we're the people—we go on" (p. 280)? 

15. Does nature function as a force for either good or evil in this book?

For Further Reflection

16. As his land is destroyed, an anonymous tenant says, "We've got a bad thing made by men, and by God that's something we can change" (p. 38). Is Steinbeck suggesting that a just social order is possible?  

17. When the narrator says "men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread" (p. 36), the implication is that this break diminishes humanity. Can spirituality be maintained with increasing automation?  

18. Casy tells Tom about a prisoner whose view of history is that "ever' time they's a little step fo'ward, she may slip back a little, but she never slips clear back.... They wasn't no waste" (p. 384). Do you agree with this view?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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