John Steinbeck wrote one of the most controversial and one of the most banned books in America, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940. Steinbeck wrote about his ending for The Grapes of Wrath,
You know that I have never been touchy about changes, but I have too many thousands of hours on this book, every incident has been carefully chosen and its weight judged and fitted. The balance is there. One other thing–I am not writing a satisfying story. I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied.
And still one more thing–I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written.
— written by Steinbeck in his letter to Pascal Covici on January 16, 1939
This is fiction, and it’s also American history. Even in the gravity and tragedy of the Joad family situation, knowing this was real life for many migrant workers in the 1930s and even still, some migrant workers today, I could not put it down nor could I turn away, for the plight of ordinary people is enticing. The power of hope marches heavy through death, fatigue, hunger and flood, even though obstacles appear at every turn. Steinbeck nailed it in his quote. While I understand the empathy he presents in the last scene of the book, it leaves me unsatisfied, wondering if the hope of settling down ever happens for the remaining strongest members of the Joad family and the extent of Tom’s involvement in battling the social injustices he sees.
The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, and it’s still relevant today. Labor workers are still having problems getting fair wages. If you ever see protesters out in front of a Publix grocery store, it’s because they haven’t joined The Fair Food Program which asks companies to commit to using growers who adhere to a strict code of conduct that includes fair wages and prohibits forced labor and sexual harassment.
In a world of high deficits, unemployment, corporate corruption, and layoffs that put people months or weeks away from being homeless, the thought of living through anything remotely comparable to a journey like the Joad’s is unsettling. This is a good read for anyone who believes they are entitled to anything.
I like how Steinbeck reveals the difference in how men and women cope with stress and the thoughts and motives of his antagonists (like the used car salesmen). This book gave me a better understanding for why laborers desire to be organized. I admire Steinbeck’s courage to bring social issues to the forefront, unwavering and unapologetic as “facts is facts,” no matter the criticisms that follow. How good he must have felt writing what he needed to say and the changes his writing caused to benefit the ordinary person.
If you’re interested in an education and a classic, this is Steinbeck at his best. Find a quiet place and read or listen to this one.