March 14:On this day in 1939, John Steinbeck’s TheGrapes of Wrath was published. After a series of shorter novels, publishedover the previous decade, Steinbeck longed to do something reflecting “avery grave attempt to do a first-rate piece of work.” With a lifelongempathy for the working poor, and months spent researching the “fruittramps” and “Okies” who lived in the West Coast migrant camps,Steinbeck had his theme early; less clear were the book’s style and tone.
His first treatment of thematerial was unabashed propaganda, a broad satire of the political groups andfarmers’ associations responsible for the camps and the life-threateningconditions within them. Although it was already being advertised by hispublisher, Steinbeck burned the manuscript of his “smart-alec book … fullof tricks to make people ridiculous.” Having first attacked thevictimizers he would now tell the story of the victims; having chosen”L’Affaire Lettuceberg” as the title of the burned attempt, he wouldlet his wife name the new book, as she had done for his previous novellas.Within ten months the new, 700-page novel was on bookstore shelves, with “Carol’s best title so far … becauseit is a march and this book is a kind of march—because it is in ourrevolutionary tradition.”
Steinbeck’s hope was thata title drawn from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” would forestall”the fascist crowd” who, he knew, would attempt “to sabotagethis book [and] try to give it the communist angle.” His fear was that thepolitics of his novel would prevent any wide popularity, and he tried todissuade his publisher from a large first printing. He was wrong on bothcounts: The Grapes of Wrath was the top seller of 1939, and the bannings,burnings, death threats, and denouncements reached the House ofRepresentatives, where an Oklahoma Congressman rose up to “say to you, andto every honest, square-minded reader in America, that the painting Steinbeckmade in this book is a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distortedmind.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.