NEA Big Read
The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.

John Steinbeck, 1939 (Bettmann/Corbis)

Josephine Reed: Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. Here's your host, poet and former chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: Today, we will discuss John Steinbeck’s epic 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Music from Woody Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Disaster"...

On the 14th day of April, 1935,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin', the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.
From Oklahoma City to the [...]

Ed Harris reads from The Grapes of Wrath...

The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. [...]

As the day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land. The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and little rocks. The men sat still—thinking—figuring.

Jay Parini: It's a great American novel for many reasons. First of all, its subject is America at a moment of crisis. It's a great epic of the American landscape. He's talking about the different groups of people and the ranges of people in society he sees along the way. And so, it's a great portrait of American life.

Richard Rodriguez: There hasn't been anything like this novel since it was written. And this is the great American novel that everyone keeps waiting for but it has been written now. It was never the story we expected. It was the story of people who did not quite make it in America. It's about that story in America that gets repressed over and over again, the losers in America.

Susan Shillinglaw: That's the book that speaks for the homelessness and the poverty and the suffering of so many people and that said it; it gave voice to people suffering.

Susan Straight: It's this huge American story about loss and violence and land and it's always about family.

Thom Steinbeck: I think it has to do with grace and power under pressure. You don't know what people are capable of until they're put into the crucible of disaster.

Gioia: During the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted through the '30s, much of America underwent a historic drought that left many farmers and ranchers hungry, broke and desperate. A huge region across the center of the nation became known as the “dust bowl”. As crops failed and conditions grew grim, rural families were forced to leave the land they'd always called home and set out in search of work and food.

Many of them came to California along Old Route 66. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath describes the Western migration and plight of the fictional Joad family, who represent hundreds of thousands of real families who suffered a similar fate. Bill Ramsey’s family was among these displaced country people.

Ramsey: My dad lost his business in 1929/1930 along with the whole bunch of other people and he had leveraged himself right to the hilt and the bank made their call and so they auction off my dad’s equipment. My dad took some of the money that he still had bought a new car, put the nine children and his wife in that car. My family in Texas was not destitute. My dad was in business. He raised cattle, cotton, so it wasn't like the kids were going hungry. They just decided that, like so many thousands of people, they started and they became part of that migration from the Midwest from the “dust bowl days,” if you will, to California.

Ed Harris reads from The Grapes of Wrath...

The people in flight streamed out on 66, sometimes a single car, sometimes a little caravan. All day they rolled slowly along the road, and at night they stopped near water. In the day ancient leaky radiators sent up columns of steam, loose connecting rods hammered and pounded. And the men driving the trucks and the overloaded cars listened apprehensively. [...]

How far between towns? It is a terror between towns. [...] Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of your hand on the gear-shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses. Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars—wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road, abandoned. Well, what happened to them? What happened to the folks in that car? Did they walk? Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from?

Rodriguez: The story is about tragedy, and it is about people whose lives are defined by migration, by exodus, but whose lives are not necessarily improved by it.

Gioia: The parents of writer Richard Rodriguez immigrated to California from Mexico in search of opportunity, rather like the migrants described in The Grapes of Wrath.

Rodriguez: They were broken by their journey, but they were also unbroken. They were people held upright by their faith in each other and by their enormous moral rectitude.

Ramsey: Almost everybody there was there for the same reasons. They'd come from another place. Oklahoma, yes. Texas, Missouri, Arkansas—our neighbors were not any richer nor poorer than us and no one stole from anybody. It was another time in this country.

Rodriguez: One of the things about this novel that I love so much... the way it honors the poor is, I think, that it never forgets that they are people with minds. And it's a remarkable reminder, because I think it is a thing that we've forgotten about them.

Gioia: While Steinbeck was working on The Grapes of Wrath, native Oklahoman Woody Guthrie was writing his "Dust Bowl Ballads." These songs were inspired by the same injustices that Steinbeck illuminated in his novel. The two men admired each other. Guthrie later wrote, "There was a feller that knew us Oakies, and he knew about the dust and the debts that covered us up—that man was John Steinbeck."

Here is Steinbeck’s son, writer Thom Steinbeck.

Steinbeck: Of course, my father knew of Woody Guthrie, everybody knew of Woody Guthrie, and they, I guess, communicated a couple of times, they'd never met at one point. But any rate, he had just written this song, called “If You Don't Have The Do Re Mi,” and the song basically is about migrants trying to get into California and the border guard saying, "If you don't have the Do Re Mi, go back to Tennessee or wherever you're coming from. And Grapes of Wrath had just come out. My father struggles with this book, and he writes this book and it finally comes out, and then Woody comes out with "If You Don't Have The Do Re Mi.” So, my father wrote him a letter and he said, “Woody, if you'd just written that song a year earlier, you could have saved me a whole damn novel.” [laughs] You know that sense that somebody had to do it? You know, why don't you do it? Come on. Someone had to say something.

Music from Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi"...

Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin' home every day,
Beatin' the hot old dusty way to the California line.
'Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin' out of that old dust bowl,
They think they're goin' to a sugar bowl, but here's what they find.
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
"You're number fourteen thousand for today."

Oh, if you ain't got the do re mi, folks, you ain't got the do re mi,
Why you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a Garden of Eden...

Rodriguez: Then there comes John Steinbeck. He is native to California, but it seems to me that his genius and his generosity as a writer is that he was able to imagine California from the outside. There is a scene in the novel where the Joad family comes upon California from the Tehachapis. They see the valley of California, the fields of California, the fruit trees of California, and they are amazed at it. It is almost biblical.

Ed Harris reads from The Grapes of Wrath...

They drove through Tehachapi in the morning glow, and the sun came up behind them, and then—suddenly they saw the great valley below them. Al jammed on the brake and stopped in the middle of the road, and, “Jesus Christ! Look!” he said. The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees, set in rows, and the farm houses. And Pa said, “God Almighty!” The distant cities, the little towns in the orchard land, and the morning sun, golden on the valley. [...]

Ruthie and Winfield looked at it, and Ruthie whispered, “It's California.”

Parini: Steinbeck was born in 1902 in this beautiful part of California, which was really quite like a Garden of Eden. I mean, everything grows there. You drop a stick in the ground and it becomes a tree.

Gioia: Poet and Novelist Jay Parini wrote a biography of John Steinbeck.

Parini: Steinbeck grew up on his grandfather’s farm outside of King City and Steinbeck loved to talk to all the migrant workers. He was himself a farmhand, a ditch digger; he really identified with the local people, with migrants who came to the region, but he knew California in the way that you could only know it if you had a peculiar openness to the landscape and the people.

Gioia: As Dust Bowl refugees flooded into California through the 1930s, Steinbeck became increasingly interested in their struggle for survival and equality. Although he wouldn't publish The Grapes of Wrath until 1939, much of his work in that Depression decade already explored the tension and discrimination he witnessed along California's widening class gap. Steinbeck got fired from his only full-time newspaper job for lack of interest, but he had a great reporter’s eye for detail and ear for what he called, "the poetry of folks talkin'."

Jay Parini.

Parini: In fact the whole Grapes of Wrath story came out of an assignment he had taken from the San Francisco News where he was sent down into the Central Valley to report on these migrant camps in places not too far from were he grew up.

Gioia: Susan Shillinglaw is the scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.

Shillinglaw: He went down to Bakersfield. He saw what was happening in the Central Valley. He saw how people were living by the sides of roads. He saw that they didn't have enough to eat. Social services were incredibly inadequate, and he knew that there was something happening. You know, he said at one point, "Everyone should open their eyes and ears to what's happening in this state."

Parini: And so Steinbeck had the open eyes and ears of a journalist, and he had this sense of place, the rootedness in California. So, all of this background went into the making of The Grapes of Wrath.

Shillinglaw: And so, really, he started on assignment and that the assignment grew into a novel that I think you can see its journalistic roots. Much about The Grapes of Wrath is reportorial.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read, from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we're discussing The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck’s novel appeared at the very volatile time. Not only was the country on the verge of World War II, but California’s vast social problems threatened to escalate into violent class struggle.

Rick Wartzman is a writer and the editor of West Magazine.

Rick Wartzman: 1939 was a really nervous time in rural California. You had lots of communist labor organizers running around. The unemployment rate was still incredibly high. I think it ran at like 17% nationwide in '39. America was teetering on the edge of war. And it's funny... and we think we've got polarization today with the country split politically largely down the middle and red state versus blue state. And that's all true, but the politics in the ‘30s in some ways were so much more polarizing. I mean there when people called each other 'communist' and 'fascist,' they really meant it—they were!

Steinbeck: Among his own generation and his own contemporaries in Salinas, I mean, they drove him out of town because he betrayed his own class. The worst crime you can commit.

Gioia: Thom Steinbeck.

Steinbeck: By going out and taking the side of the migratory workers, who are basically taking the money out of the pockets of the growers, Steinbeck's related to all the growers.

Gioia: Steinbeck’s tale of the Joad family struck a cord that both mesmerized and polarized readers. While The Grapes of Wrath was wildly popular across the country, there was also a backlash, especially in the author’s home state.

Wartzman: I think he knew that the book was going to get pounded by the establishment. In particular this group, the Associated Farmers, which had its own hand in the banning of the book and certainly in the burning of the book in Kern County where the Joads had settled. You had the board of supervisors come out and ban The Grapes of Wrath from schools and libraries.

So this novel again, it's just a like match being thrown into this tinder box. And so when you read passages like this, it means Steinbeck's calling in an essence for revolution at a time where people really were contemplating revolution.

Ed Harris reads from The Grapes of Wrath...

And then suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed on the highways. The movements changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and the hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants. And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them—hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people. [...]

The fields were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads. [...] The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line. And money that might have gone to wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, for blacklists, for drilling. On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.

Gioia: Thom Steinbeck.

Steinbeck: Everybody but everybody screamed and yelled and said, "It's a lie. It's not happening," until Eleanor Roosevelt went out on the road and saw what was happening to the migrants and went back and told the President and said that this is really a problem. And she literally stood up in front of the Senate, and said, "Steinbeck is right. You guys are lying about this."

Wartzman: She touted The Grapes of Wrath in her My Day column and talked about the controversy, too. She addressed it head on.

Gioia: Rick Wartzman.

Wartzman: She said that the book is coarse in spots, but life is coarse in spots. And it really is a true portrayal of what's happening in the fields of California with these migrants and I know it to be true.

Gioia: In this historic 1950 recording from NBC Radio, John Steinbeck discusses his work with one of his biggest fans, former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt: I always think that one of the most difficult things must be the gaining of insight into human nature. How did you get your understanding of people and your ability to write of what goes on inside of people?

John Steinbeck: There's some critical section, which says that I don't have any. I haven't any idea. I think I have a fairly observant eye, and a fairly good ear. I think these two things are necessary in a writer. Outside of that, I don't know. And of course, I'm never sure, whether what you're kind enough to call insight is insight or not. How can one tell until an audience finds a likeness of experience?

Gioia: And Steinbeck’s audience certainly did find a "likeness of experience." Of all the social protest novels of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath stands as the one enduring classic.

Starr: It's as if this book is writing itself when you read it, that's this part of this documentarian and this almost folk-art quality to the book.

Writer and former California State Librarian, Kevin Starr.

Starr: The documentarian impulse in The Grapes of Wrath is so strong that President Roosevelt, in one of his Fireside Chats could refer to the Joads almost as if he was reporting on real people out there in California.

Gioia: Thom Steinbeck.

Thom Steinbeck: Steinbeck’s observations are always tied up with a real journalistic sense. And yet, he can't resist twisting and molding characters to fit a moral that he's trying to tell. He's always telling several underlying tales at the same time, usually built on a piece of mythology.

Gioia: Steinbeck usually took his book titles from other literary works. The title for The Grapes of Wrath came from Julia Ward Howe’s 19th Century abolitionist anthem, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Its apocalyptic theme was the perfect accompaniment to Steinbeck’s biblical language.

Thom Steinbeck: It's real easy. If you sort of look at what Steinbeck is talking about and then go back and reflect on what the title means, you see he's got a whole 'nother layer of story going on in there.

Parini: Steinbeck’s first wife was the brilliant Carol, and Carol said, “Oh no, let's call it The Grapes of Wrath from 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.'” It made a great deal of sense because it evokes the Garden of Eden. It's just an amazingly symbolic title on so many levels. A title should ideally be like a watermark that bleeds through every page in the book. And this is one of those unifying titles that is present at every moment.

Music from Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"...

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

Gioia: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Julia Ward Howe.

Part of the power of The Grapes of Wrath comes from its language. Steinbeck describes contemporary events in a powerfully timeless way by using language that often recalls the King James Bible. This sonorous, elusive style gives the novel both poetic force and moral authority.

Jay Parini.

Parini: He always read the Bible. I think that was another one of his great sources. You know, if you read The Grapes of Wrath, the language it is endlessly echoing the Bible and it resonates with biblical imagery.

Gioia: Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez: The Joad family are not freaks. They come as close as any biblical characters to telling us who we are as people, as human beings, in their fear of the future, in their insecurities, in their sense of the toughness of life. These are the themes that most of the people in the world know and it is an astonishing thing, finally, in a culture that has never acknowledged suffering as a part of its story, that we would be presented with this theme so powerfully by John Steinbeck.

Gioia: Whatever the initial political controversy about The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck was soon vindicated as an artist. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and Steinbeck went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

Parini: The reception of this book was extraordinary, 450,000 copies were sold in the first year alone and the book has never lost its readership. We are talking about decade after decade in which hundreds of thousands of copies of this book are regularly sold, so Steinbeck certainly struck a note that appealed to readers, not just in the late '30s but in all time. This book is permanently a bestseller in a sense. There is always an audience for The Grapes of Wrath.

Gioia: The 1940 film of The Grapes of Wrath became a classic in its own right. Directed by John Ford, who earned an Oscar for his work, the film also won an Academy Award for Jane Darwell’s heroic performance as Ma Joad. Actor Henry Fonda was also nominated for his iconic role as the fugitive Tom Joad, whose farewell speech to his mother has been burned into the memory of millions.

Ed Harris reads from The Grapes of Wrath...

They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said "How'm I gonna know 'bout you? They might kill ya an' I wouldn' know. They might hurt ya. How'm I gonna know?"

Tom laughed uneasily, "Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one—an' then—" "Then what, Tom?"

"Then it don' matter. Then I’ll be all aroun' in the dark. I’ll be ever'where–wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an'— I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an' they know supper’s ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there. See? "

Wartzman: What he wrote in the context of the times—it was an incredibly brave act.

Gioia: Rick Wartzman.

Wartzman: To see this misery among the migrants, to tell the story from the point of view he did and in as strong a language as he did.

Gioia: Richard Rodriguez

Rodriguez: One of the things about this novel is that it overturns the world. It is about people who come to California, this lush landscape, who come to work within this generosity of nature, within this fruit that ways down the trees every summer and are themselves underfed and within that irony, there is so much criticism implied to the country, but there is also a criticism implied of those who us who are plump and who forget too much.

Gioia: Novelist, Susan Straight.

Straight: This novel has so many contemporary echoes right now with modern-day farm workers. If you have a huge willing and desperate labor force, and there is no organization, then really how is anything different?

Gioia: Thom Steinbeck.

Thom Steinbeck: I remember this when I was young and a journalist in Vietnam, we all have the sense that we can write that one passage or take that one photograph that's going to stop the war, that's going to make everybody stop and look around and see what's really going on. I mean, how could you look at these things and not want it to stop? I think he had that driven enthusiasm of youth and say, if they can just see how strong these people are, and how real these people are, they won't treat them like crap.

Straight: The novel reminds us really of how timeless the fight is for land and for dignity and for survival.

Ed Harris reads from The Grapes of Wrath...

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

Music from Woody Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh (Dusty Old Dust)"...

I've sung this song, but I'll sing it again,
Of the place that I lived on the wild windy plains,
In the month called April, county called Gray,
And here's what all of the people there say:
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh...

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Assistant Producer, Adam Kampe. Readings from The Grapes of Wrath were by Ed Harris. Music by Woody Guthrie is from Dust Bowl Ballads used by permission of Sony/BMG. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, used by permission of Sony Classical. Original music by Clint Hoover and Pat Donohue. Special thanks to the National Steinbeck Center, Philip Brunelle, Kate Kaizer, Erika Koss and Molly Thomas-Hicks.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to That's

Music from Woody Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh (Dusty Old Dust)"...

The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed,
An' that dusty old dust storm blowed so black.
Preacher could not read a word of his text,
An' he folded his specs, an' he took up collection,
Said: So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin' my home,
And I got to be driftin' along.

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