March 26, 2017

Grapes of Wrath Marches On

On this day in 1939, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was published. A series of shorter novels published in the mid-30s -- Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony -- had brought Steinbeck increasing success and fame, but he longed to do a longer novel reflecting "a very grave attempt to do a first-rate piece of work." With a lifelong empathy for the working poor, and months spent researching the "fruit tramps" and "Okies" who lived in the West Coast migrant camps, Steinbeck's subject and theme were never in question; less clear were the book's style and tone.

His first treatment of the material was unabashed propaganda, a vicious satire of the political groups and farmers' associations which, having bungled the camps into existence, now allowed those trapped within them to perish by hunger, sickness and vigilantism. Although a new book was already being advertised by his publisher, Steinbeck burned the manuscript: "a smart-alec book," he said, "full of tricks to make people ridiculous." Having first attacked the victimizers he would now tell the story of the victims; having a tendency to race and sketch, he would make himself go slowly; having chosen "L'Affaire Lettuceberg" as the title of the burned attempt, he would let his wife name the new book, as she had done for those previous. Steinbeck could not go slowly -- a 700-page novel written, revised and printed in 10 months -- but his story of the Joads got him his "big book," and "Carol's best title so far": "I like it because it is a march and this book is a kind of march -- because it is in our revolutionary tradition."

Steinbeck's hope was that a title drawn from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" would forestall "the fascist crowd" who, he knew, would attempt "to sabotage this book [and] try to give it the communist angle"; his fear was that the politics of his novel would prevent any wide popularity, and he tried to dissuade his publisher from a large first printing. He was wrong on both counts: The Grapes of Wrath was the best-seller of 1939, and the bannings, burnings, death threats and denouncements reached the House of Representatives, where an Oklahoma Congressman rose up to "say to you, and to every honest, square-minded reader in America, that the painting Steinbeck made in this book is a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind." Steinbeck's letters in the summer and early fall of '39 reflect his anxiety and ambivalence about both the fame and the furor:
    The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. . . . I'm frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing. It is completely out of hand – I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy. . . . It is far too far when Jack Benny mentions it in his program. Altogether may be some kind of new existence is opening up. I don't know. The last year has been a nightmare all in all. But now I'm ordering a lot of books to begin study. And I'll be in the laboratory. . . . One nice thing to think of is the speed of obscurity. Grapes is not first now. In a month it will be off the list and in six months I'll be forgotten.

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