John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath couples social protest with a celebration of life and humanity, securing it both a critical and public popularity that has remained since its publication in 1939. Steinbeck
combines intense understanding with a social awareness to portray the cruel journey of the Joad family from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to the fertile valley of Steinbeck's native California. Secure in the familiar surroundings of his home, Steinbeck is f
ree to dive into the social injustice set upon the starving migrant workers by the big farm owner associations. This struggle was raging at the time of the book's publication, giving its message added poignancy. Despite early labels of "communist prop
aganda", The Grapes of Wrath extolled the common humanity of man, as the Joads joined thousands of similar migrants on the road to the promise land of California. The common bond between man flows thematically throughout the book, supporting Steinbeck's
belief in human strength during times of strife. Reinforced by the movie release in 1940, the story of the Joads awoke in America a sense of outrage at the human suffering taking place around them. While this emotion was ever more prominent in the era
in which it was written, the continued popularity of the book gives testament to the universal realism of the Joad's plight. Relying on hard work and commitment in his work, Steinbeck conveyed his integrity to the public, thus aiding the truth of the bo
ok's message. Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath from the anger and passion in his heart, and the power of his statement has insured the book's popularity.
Published in April of 1939, The Grapes of Wrath's message of social protest led to its initial popularity. With the suffering of the migrant workers already spanning the country's newspapers, America finally got an inside look at the people involved.
With so prevalent a subject, book sales swelled. In writing about the publication of the Grapes of Wrath, Daniel Aaron describes the formula Steinbeck possessed that facilitated the novel's initial success: "A special combination of marketable literary
talent, historical timing, eye for the significant subject, and power of identification." He adds that this combination made the book "the first of the Thirties protest novels to be read on a comparable scale with?best-selling novels." The power of iden
tification allowed readers to empathize with the Joads suffering and thus recognize the social peril occurring in the country. The significance of the book's message thus ignited heated discussion over not only the book itself, but also the situation it
depicted. Peter Lisca illustrates the national impact of its publication: "The Grapes of Wrath was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens; it was debated on national radio hook-ups; but above all it
was read." Many reviews at the time of publication recognized the significance the book held for the American conscience. In writing for Atlantic Monthly, Edward Weeks displayed the power of the situation: "To me, The Grapes of Wrath is the summation o
f eighteen years of realism, a novel whose hunger, passion, and poetry are in direct answer to the angry stirring of our conscience these past seven years." Evoking emotion and awareness of the migrant workers' dismal condition, the book quickly became
the number one national best seller.
In order to evoke the emotional response which allowed his social criticism to flourish, Steinbeck fortified his book with solid realism. For two years prior to the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck spent his time with a group of migrant wor
kers making their way towards California. Travelling and working with the laborers, Steinbeck found the heartfelt material in which to base his book. Daniel Aaron explains the need for first-hand experience: "To make their story convincing, he had to re
port their lives with fidelity." Steinbeck was able to translate his experiences with the migrants into a careful realism that evoked sympathy and understanding in the reader. He possessed what Fredrick Bracher described as, "a way of looking at things ch
aracteristic of a biologist." This ability allowed him to create characters and scenes mirroring reality. Illustrating his objective approach, Steinbeck was not blind to the imperfections of the migrants. Warren French explains Steinbeck's description
: "He shows clearly that he writes about a group of thoughtless, impetuous, suspicious, ignorant people." Coupled with the book's authentic characters, the descriptive setting adds to the realistic portrayal. Steinbeck was a native of California, and as
Nancy McWilliams suggests, "his writings never succeeded very well when he tried to walk alien soil." Steinbeck's descriptive power shows clearly as the Joads come upon the fertile valley of California: "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." The power of Steinbeck's persona
lized account of the migrant workers and the land they work added weight and validity to his social criticism. In reading The Grapes of Wrath, the public discovered realistic suffering which illuminated the book's message and ignited its popularity.
Steinbeck's descriptive power was a perfect basis for a movie version, which aided the book's popularity tremendously. Released in 1940 starring Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath movie brought Steinbeck's authentic story of human suffering to even mor
e of the population. The novel itself contained all the ingredients for a film version, for, as Aaron writes, the novel "unfolds cinematically almost as if Steinbeck had conceived of it as a documentary film." As is often the case, the movie's release a
dded to book sales. Scott Simkins explains, "With the release of Grapes of Wrath and its film adaptation by John Ford a year later, Steinbeck's popularity with the American public soared, and with that public his reputation never diminished." In the ca
se of the religiously charged best-selling novel, The Robe, the release of the movie a decade after the publication of the book placed the book back atop the bestseller list. While not as extreme, the release of the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath h
elped the book to stay on the best seller charts two years in a row. Just as Steinbeck's realistic portrayal facilitates the reader's connection and understanding of the Joads, the release of the movie brought these characters to life for thousands of A
mericans, aiding the book's popularity.
From the initial boost of social relevance coupled with a film version, the book's popularity has remained high, owing, in large part, to its continued appeal both publicly and critically. As Jackson Benson points out, unswerving reader loyalty can of
ten adversely affect a writer's critical reception; however, this was not the case for The Grapes of Wrath. Even with the huge popular following garnered by the book upon publication, its critical reception remained strong. In examining the novel, the
answer becomes clear, as Steinbeck's obvious passion and positive celebration of man's strength in the face of adversity relates to a basic level of humanity found in everyone. Stemming from his first hand experience with the migrants, Steinbeck poured
his personal anger and indignation at their condition into the pages of The Grapes of Wrath. In addition to his ability to report his subjects objectively and realistically, Steinbeck's emotion permeated the story. Nancy McWilliams and Wilson McWillam
s elaborate on the strength of his writing: "The real power of The Grapes of Wrath is the savage anger at the impersonal process that uproots men from the land and rapes it." In almost every review of the book, the obvious power of Steinbeck's feeling c
omes through, exhibiting how real and attractive it is. Earle Birney defined it as "what Milton would call a 'deed' - the act of a man out of the wrath and pity of his heart." This passion adds weight to the story and appeals to the public and critics
alike. As noted earlier, Steinbeck had the formula based in social protest for writing a great novel, he just needed the heartfelt emotion to drive him to completion. Steinbeck's anger at the migrant condition flows neatly into his belief in the impor
tance of man's strength and life. This belief permeates throughout his works, and in the case of The Grapes of Wrath, his optimistic picture of man in the midst of suffering accounts for much of his popularity. In his review for the Saturday Review of L
iterature, George Stevens explained the special characteristic of the book: "The unique quality of The Grapes of Wrath?is an understanding of courage; courage that exists as the last affirmation of human dignity." Steinbeck's understanding of human chara
cter and dignity allows The Grapes of Wrath to raise man above suffering, offering a message of hope to readers. Walter Allen explains Steinbeck's philosophy and how it differed from even his social anger: "he has a generous indignation at the spectacle
of human suffering. But apart from this, he is the celebrant of life, any kind of life, just because it is life." By focusing on the resilience and glory of human life, Steinbeck set himself apart from his contemporaries. The anger of injustice couple
d with a belief in life form a crucial reason for the book's continued popularity.
In addition to the emotional philosophy behind the story, The Grapes of Wrath continues to stand out both because of the universal appeal of Steinbeck's depiction of a collective humanity. In combating the oppressive structure of large-scale growers, th
e migrants have to adapt in order to survive. Following a theme prominent in all his works, Steinbeck reveals man's tendency to find strength within a group. While the migrant's plight is uniquely American, their reverting to interdependence among one
another in order to survive is something that spans all cultures. This pervading theme contributes to the continued popularity locally as well as internationally. Translated into almost every language, The Grapes of Wrath promotes a universal identific
ation with the characters. As the migrants move steadily towards California, Steinbeck describes the phenomenon of human connection: "Because they were all lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and
because they were all going to a new mysterious place, they huddled together; they shared their lives?in the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family." Steinbeck shows man's natural tendency to group together in order to f
ind strength, thus illustrating his plea for a return to the importance of group dependence in the lives of individuals. While some called this a Communist attitude, Steinbeck saw it as the only way to heal an increasingly selfish society. Despite the A
merican setting of the novel, the universal theme of the importance of humanity earned it international success, while facilitating its continued popularity with the passage of time.
Though much of the book's success is based on the power of Steinbeck's writing and thought, his public persona as a man of integrity can not be overlooked. His work habit and public comments lent authenticity to the realism of his book's story. Wor
king with his publisher in advertising The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck flatly refused to publicly promote the book, asserting that it had to stand on its own merit. This decision reveals just how passionate he felt about the subject of his book, consequen
tly informing the public of just how strong a story it was. In a modern age in which anything and everything has been done in order to publicize a book or movie, the public can often fail to recognize sincerity when they see it. Earning the Nobel Prize i
n 1962, Steinbeck emphasized the integrity and passion that drove his literature: "the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit - for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion, and love?I
hold that writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature." His words clearly show his noble attitude toward his profession of writing. Throughout his career, his dedication, passio
n, and integrity have shown through to the public, increasing the popularity of his books.
The Grapes of Wrath is rich with the indignation and passion of a man deeply moved by human suffering. With it's popularity based in the social turmoil of Dust Bowl migration, Steinbeck combined detailed realism with powerful emotion to create a univer
sal notion of humanity. The book has appealed to both the public and critics since its publication, earning the status of a classic of American literature. While this gives the book an almost secure critical status, its potentially wavering popularity r
emains strong. Over 100,000 copies are still sold annually all over the world. The Grapes of Wrath is a moving story of human courage and strength with a universal appeal that has withstood the passage of time.