As waves of people surged across the country in search of a better life, America in the 1930s seemed like it was moving as well. The struggles, discrimination and poor working conditions migrant workers faced put them at odds with those in power, bringing America to the brink of what seemed like a revolutionary labor movement to author John Steinbeck. He was inspired to capture the unique environment of his time as well as the way families remained hopeful and survived in the face of adversity.
From his inspiration came The Grapes of Wrath: a fiery and polarizing novel that extolled human virtue while warning those in power that America was on the precipice of social change. Upon its publication, it shocked audiences and critics who either lauded it as a great work of fiction or denounced it as communist propaganda. Even today, it continues to impact its readers and is widely debated for its literary merit. In his time, Steinbeck's use of bold themes and passionate language in The Grapes of Wrath evoked vehement responses in America where his novel was banned and criticized for containing elements of communism and melodrama. However, his celebration of the human spirit in the face of hardships continues to endure past the controversy it faced eighty years ago, proving that his novel possesses significant literary merit.
While most of the controversy surrounding The Grapes of Wrath has not survived into today, there is still some criticism about communism that continues to undermine this work's literary merit. Passages from his book such as, "And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, [must] know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away" show that much of his book aligns itself closely with communist theory. His work has thus been labeled by some as Marxist written with the intention of bolstering a party platform rather than expressing ideas of his own.
John Steinbeck's work has also been criticized as historically inaccurate by many, and his account of the Joad's journey along with the scale of the worker migration have been proven to be exaggerated. Keith Windschuttle argues that, "Instead of Steinbeck's 300,000, there were actually about 90,000 agricultural workers" that fit Steinbeck's description of migrant workers. Out of these, "a Californian government health survey estimated there were 3,800 of these families living in squatter villages of the kind portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath." While that number is not insignificant, it misrepresents the reality of the time and gives people a false or exaggerated image of the Great Depression. Since his chapters document the political, social, and economic conditions of the time, it's arguable that The Grapes of Wrath was meant to be taken literally as a piece of history. In this sense, it has failed its purpose by giving readers and students a false perception of history.
Despite this, any of these claims can be refuted simply by looking at his novel from a humanistic and fictional perspective. Though Steinbeck uses collectivist values to argue for common action among people, he does so mainly with the intention of promoting human faith and spirit. Leonard Ashley says, "Steinbeck's faith seems to have been in something more like a Life Force than the strident socialism of his day; he had a sort of mystical belief in people, not a political belief in the proletariat. And so he wrote a work of art that went beyond the propaganda novel…an angry and unorthodox New Testament of a religion of mankind." His novel focused more on the spiritual communion of people rather than political unity under the law. Denouncing the novel as communist propaganda doesn't acknowledge that Steinbeck's views of human interconnectedness were complex. Though there are certain passages in the novel that seem communist, the novel's main focus on human unity and compassion remains more prominent.
Additionally, Steinbeck's novel was emotionally charged not necessarily to sensationalize the plight of migrant workers but to accurately capture the sentiments of downtrodden migrants. Steinbeck said one of his purposes in writing this novel was to depict, "what a large section of our people are doing and wanting, and symbolically what all people of all time are doing and wanting." His focus on dreams and hopes required exaggeration for the audience to feel and identify with his characters- Steinbeck's focus on the human struggle and the nobility of human perseverance couldn't have been accomplished with stoic reporting. Historical inaccuracy also has no effect on the humanistic central message of the novel established earlier which gives The Grapes of Wrath its literary merit. Instead, this novel can be read as a fictional, representative account of the plight of migrant workers and the oppressed in America.
Thus, despite its ideological biases and sensationalism, Steinbeck conveys themes in his novel which capture the essence of humanity. The ability of The Grapes of Wrath to survive through its struggles further parallels its description of the ability of humans to survive theirs. And just like people, it is complex in its imperfections and contradictions. Thus, The Grapes of Wrath is unique in the way it presents the human condition. Though it has its faults, it is ultimately is one of the most American and humanistic texts in its nature cementing its legacy as an impactful novel for readers.