Despite the fact that it was published in the late 1930s, the themes in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" remain as relevant today as they were in the days when it was first written.
The struggles man encounters as he attempts to wrest a living out of a land subject to the whims of nature are timeless ones. The novel begins with Tom Joad and the Joad family, but soon spreads out to the larger family – his neighbors, his fellow farmers and to the people of the 1930s Dustbowl Oklahoma, eventually spreading out across the drought-stricken 1930s American heartland.
The most vulnerable small tenant farmers become victims of larger landowners. In turn the landowners become victims of larger conglomerates, then of capitalist bankers and other of what Steinbeck’s illiterate call "the owner men." Farmers working their one-horse plots of land give way to men with tractors. The tractors become bigger and more powerful. Newer, more powerful technology drives out the most recent newer, once powerful and newer machinery. Left unchecked, capitalistic greed pits man against man, with no end in stop.
So it goes with mankind.
So it went during the 1930s Great Depression era. So went the plight of migrant fruit pickers of 1930s and 1940s California. So it goes with migrant and immigrant workers of today. Not only does capitalistic greed encroach onto the American farming landscape, but more recently, it has proliferated in American industry, in financial markets and throughout Wall Street.
Steinbeck, in this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is able to convey universal truths about mankind by telling the story of one man – Tom Joad. Steinbeck’s ability to see things in the larger sense and communicate them in what seems a simple tale is just one of the reasons his work went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. His early life was as the son of an ordinary farm supply plant manager who later owned a feed and grain store. His mother was a former teacher. Steinbeck grew up around farmers, out of which grew a deeply ingrained respect for the land, for America, a respect which becomes almost palpable in all his novels.
He went to Stanford University, but he only signed up for classes he wanted to take, primarily literature classes and writing classes. He was a writer and knew so from the start. Steinbeck devoted his life to his craft and the world is the richer for his having done so.
At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most American of American classics. Although it follows the movement of thousands of men and women and the transformation of an entire nation during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath is also the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, who are driven off their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California.
From their trials and repeated collisions against the hard realities of this new America, Steinbeck creates a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision—tragic but ultimately stirring in its insistence on human dignity.
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