John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a ghastly portrait of poverty, filth, human misery, starvation, and injustice. It tells the story of the Joad family, Oklahoma tenant farmers or “Okies,” dispossessed from their Dust Bowl homestead by bankers and wealthy landowners. In a jalopy, the Joads go west along Route 66 in search of greener pastures, the proverbial Promised Land, only to confront the scorn of Californians.
Steinbeck imbued the novel with an essentially ecological message, about how “machine-man” with his iron tractors loses connection to the land, destroys the land, then consequently destroys his own humanity.
His political observations in the novel, one literary scholar has pointed out, “grew largely from his interest in Ed Ricketts’ ideas.” (Ricketts was a pioneering marine ecologist and the inspiration behind the Jim Casey character in Grapes.)
The reaction to Grapes—which weighed in at a mammoth 850 pages—shocked even Steinbeck, who thought it wouldn’t be a popular book at all and advised his publisher to “print a small edition.” After one month, 83,000 copies were in print, a number that would swell to 430,000 by year’s end, a staggering success then and now. Since the first edition appeared seventy-five years ago, the novel has never been out of print or sold less than 50,000 copies annually, in English alone.
Ecstatic reviews rolled in from critics at Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and North American Review. Clifton Fadiman at The New Yorker summed up the novel’s power: “If only a couple of million over comfortable people can be brought to read it, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath may actually effect something like a revolution in their minds and hearts.” Such praise, however, only fed the hysteria of detractors—namely the Associated Farmers, conservative politicians, the clergy and communist witch-hunters.
Steinbeck wrote the novel in a marathon session—ninety-three working days over five months starting on May 26, 1938. It physically and emotionally crippled him and his wife Carol, who served as his stenographer and initial editor and who came up with its title from a verse in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” With the manuscript completed in early 1939, they moved into a secluded Spanish-style ranch near Los Gatos, seventy-five miles from Monterey. Medical tests at the time showed that Steinbeck’s metabolic rate was “shockingly low” and neuritis left him bedridden for two weeks. The publication of The Grapes of Wrath in April of that year thus heralded the worst of times for Steinbeck, “a nightmare all in all.”
Hollywood stars quickly came knocking at his door—Burgess Meredith, Charlie Chaplin, Spencer Tracy, Anthony Quinn—the “swimming pool set” as Steinbeck dubbed them. They became occasional visitors around the pool at his Los Gatos home. He was offered $5,000 a week to write screenplays, and the film rights for Grapes sold for $75,000, one of the highest prices ever paid for a novel at the time.
Director John Ford turned it into an Academy Award–winning blockbuster in 1940, starring a young Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, a character who has been ranked as one of the greatest screen heroes of all time by the American Film Institute.
It was too much for John Steinbeck—the money, adoration, invidious innuendo and threats. “This whole thing is getting me down,” he wrote his agent, “and I don’t know what to do about it. The telephone never stops ringing, telegrams all the time, fifty to seventy-five letters a day all wanting something. People who won’t take no for an answer sending books to be signed. I don’t know what to do.” By the beginning of July, the Los Angeles Times reported that the famous writer had retreated to “a secluded canyon three miles from [Los Gatos], and padlocked himself against the world.”
Steinbeck fled to Hollywood that summer to hide out, but also to get away from Carol. Suddenly she seemed to be turning on him too. Her behavior, including bouts of heavy drinking, had become erratic and hateful toward the writer. She had suffered greatly for his career and grew resentful. In Hollywood Steinbeck struck up an affair with actress Gwen (or Gwyn, as she later spelled it) Conger, a petite starlet twenty years his junior.
When Steinbeck returned to Los Gatos he found Carol hysterical. In late July, while at a party in Beverly Hills, she blew up, screaming viciously at her husband in an embarrassing public feud. Distraught and bewildered, John Steinbeck needed help. And there was only one place where he could hide out from his estranged wife, snooping FBI agents, newspapermen and scandalmongers. He ended up at Pacific Biological Laboratories, the home and business owned by Ed Ricketts on Cannery Row.
“Once, when I had suffered an overwhelming emotional upset,” he later recalled. “I went to the laboratory to stay with [Ed Ricketts]. I was dull and speechless with shock and pain. He used music on me like medicine… I think it was as careful and loving medication as has ever been administered.”
By autumn, Steinbeck was spending most of his time on Cannery Row, helping Ricketts with work at the lab and reading science books. He had tired of the “swimming pool set,” which he felt Carol had fostered.
On a number of levels, he sensed he was undergoing some kind of slow death—matrimonially, professionally, creatively, physically. He had barely written a word in 1939, his marriage had effectively collapsed, his health was frail, and war in Europe, which began in September, cast a doomsday spell over his psyche.
“The last two days I have had death premonitions so strong,” he scribbled in his journal on October 19, “that I burned all the correspondence of years. I have a horror of people going through it, messing around in my past, such as it is. I burned it all.” But with death came a rebirth too—a rebirth that would confound many who knew him.
He began an era of “new thinking” which involved the study of science. It became “a sort of sea anchor with which he tried to ride out the storm.” Steinbeck completely abandoned fiction writing and, oddly, wanted to produce a high-school level textbook on the marine biology of San Francisco Bay under Ricketts’ tutelage. Why, at the height of his literary career, with cash and kudos flooding in, would America’s best-selling author abandon the very craft he seemed to have mastered? The answer eluded many literary critics.
One of the greatest American men of letters in the twentieth century, Edmund Wilson, set the tone—and one can arguably say the misunderstanding— for a generation of critics who excoriated Steinbeck, notwithstanding his popular appeal. “Mr. Steinbeck almost always in his fiction is dealing either with the lower animals or with human beings so rudimentary that they are almost on the animal level. . . , ” wrote Wilson in an influential review of The Grapes of Wrath. “This animalizing tendency of Mr. Steinbeck’s is, I believe, at the bottom of his relative unsuccess at representing human beings.”
Steinbeck’s fiction was weak, flawed, belittling, Wilson argued, because his characters were simply not human, or not human enough. But Wilson completely missed the philosophical and scientific import of what Steinbeck was actually saying.
Anthropocentricism—the placing of human beings at the center of the universe—has been the very foundation of Western thinking, from ancient times through the Age of Reason into modernity. In eras bubbling with religious and imperial zeal, society saw nature as a gift from God, and its exploitation as a divine right. “The world is made for man,” Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “not man for the world.” The Enlightenment harkened a new world in which science would give mankind absolute dominion, in a biblical sense, over nature. With the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution, humans polluted and plundered the planet’s bounty: the soil, oceans, forests, lakes and rivers, and their myriad creatures.
Singularly, however, one event effected a sea-change in this man-centered worldview in North America. In the 1930s, huge dust storms blew over the Great Plains, transforming the sun into a lusterless ball in a gray sky. The Dust Bowl, vividly described in the opening chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, is arguably the worst environmental catastrophe of the twentieth century. It destroyed entire harvests, displaced some 300,000 farmers and precipitated violent social unrest and even starvation. A group of pioneering Midwestern plant ecologists concluded, however, that the Dust Bowl was a wholly man-made disaster; misguided farming practices had destroyed the native sod which was a vital buffer against wind and drought.
It’s a conclusion that resonates throughout Steinbeck’s epic novel—“The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died,” he wrote—and made John Steinbeck, argues his biographer, “the only major literary figure of his time to embrace and bring to his writing one of the most—if not the most—important concepts of the twentieth century, a concept that has changed radically the way man views himself and his relationship to his environment.”
As Galileo rankled the Vatican for confirming that the earth was not the center of the universe, so too was Steinbeck attacked for trying to show that the earth itself was not a man-centered world. Humans were biological beings, Steinbeck suggested, and were thus united by the same natural laws that shape the rest of the animal kingdom. He was not denying the uniqueness of the human species—its distinct cognitive, linguistic and emotive powers—as Wilson contended, but rather recognizing that humans were one with nature.
The fate of civilization, in effect, rests perhaps less on how man treats his fellow man than on how man treats the environment. That humanity’s survival depended on the health of the global commons—a fact that sounds trite today in light of global warming, species extinction and habitat destruction—was a prophetic statement half a century ago. And while literary scholars criticized Steinbeck for animalism and gross sentimentalism, it has been the scientific community who has largely vindicated the writer, proclaiming Steinbeck a conservationist, an ecological prophet and the first American writer to herald the Age of Ecology.
John Steinbeck knew, as Ricketts had once written, that “the study of animal communities has this advantage: they are merely what they are, for anyone to see who will and can look clearly; they cannot complicate the picture by worded idealisms, by saying one thing and being another: here the struggle is unmasked and the beauty is unmasked.”
In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck unmasked the human struggle and was persecuted with “worded idealisms” for doing so. By turning to marine biology and the tide pools, he hoped to apply his own eye to this “peep hole,” and to fish for the same beauty and struggles among animal communities that he had unmasked among human society. “Our fingers turned over the stones,” Steinbeck said of seashore collecting, “and we saw life that was like our life.”
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