“And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”
When I read John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, (which also happened to win the 1940 Pulitzer Prize) back in high school, it instantly became one of my favorite books of all time. It shouldn’t have had such a profound effect on me as a teenager, I’ll admit—besides being poor, I couldn’t relate to it on many levels. But Steinbeck’s writing is so raw, so authentic, so bare-bones, unapologetic, and scathing that it couldn’t NOT leave a lasting impression on such a young mind.
There are only two Pulitzers that describe the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl during that decade—this and Now in November; but Now in November, which Joshua and I both adored, doesn’t even come close to accurately summarizing the horrors Americans in this era faced on a daily basis. This novel, in terms of voice and atmosphere, is close to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but it’s not a Dystopia or a post-apocalyptic world; no, this book details real life and real events that actually happened in a very real time in the United States’ history.
At heart Steinbeck wasn’t a novelist; his professional background was in journalism, and that really comes through in this novel. Steinbeck builds the feeling of the time by interspersing the chapters about the family with chapters about what is happening around them. These chapters create a mood that helps the reader better see the bigger picture of the times.
What I didn’t realize about this book, however, was the intense amount of trouble Steinbeck got himself into with it. Detractors accused Steinbeck of being sentimental and one-sided, of greatly exaggerating the effect that the period and the surrounding had on the people he describes, of being a socialist, a Marxist, a communist and a propagandist. Associated Farmers of California called the book “a pack of lies” and “communist propaganda”, while Burton Rascoe writing for Newsweek added that The Grapes of Wrath was nothing more than superficial observation, careless infidelity to the proper use of idiom, tasteless pornographical and scatagorical talk. The book was banned across the country and sometimes publicly burned by enraged citizens; Steinbeck received hate mail and death threats. The book made him a lot of powerful enemies, like the FBI and the aforementioned Associated Farmers of California organization, who stopped at nothing to discredit him and destroy his career.
The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most successful social protest novels of the 20th century, and its message remains fresh and accurate even today.