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The 2019 Book

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Widely considered Steinbeck’s finest and most ambitious novel, The Grapes of Wrath traces the journey of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California, where they find not the fabled land of their dreams but a place with few jobs, low wages, and inadequate worker housing. Capturing the mood and angst of the nation during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath was one of three books Steinbeck wrote on labor issues in the 1930s, with In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men rounding out the trio.

The New York Times listed The Grapes of Wrath as the best-selling book of 1939, and by February 1940, 430,000 copies had been printed. That same month, the novel won The National Book Award, and later that year it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. At the height of its popularity, The Grapes of Wrath sold an astonishing 10,000 copies per week. While wildly successful, The Grapes of Wrath has also proved to be Steinbeck’s most controversial novel.

Both Steinbeck’s wrath and optimism are woven into the pages of The Grapes of Wrath, a book that he researched for nearly two years after his first investigative trip to the Central Valley of California. While composing the novel, Steinbeck wrote to his literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, in 1938: “I must go over into the interior valleys. There are about five thousand families starving to death over there…The states and counties will give them nothing because they are outsiders. But the crops of any part of this state could not be harvested without these outsiders. I’m pretty mad about it..Funny how mean and little books become in the face of such tragedies.”

The roots of The Grapes of Wrath are journalistic. In the fall of 1936, Steinbeck was asked by the San Francisco News, to investigate conditions in the migrant labor camps of California. 75 years after he first wrote them, The Harvest Gypsies, a compendium of all seven of Steinbeck’s newspaper articles was published. Included in The Harvest Gypsies, are twenty-two photographs by Dorothea Lange and others, many of which accompanied Steinbeck’s original articles. With the inquisitiveness of an investigative reporter and the emotional power of a novelist in his prime, in The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck offers an eyewitness account of the plight of the migrant worker, and provides the reader with insight into the factual foundation for his literary masterpiece.

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