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11 Facts About The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s award-winning political novel about the Great Depression. It follows the Joad family as they’re forced to leave their Oklahoma farm and go west to California for work. The 1939 book humanized the “Okies,” captured history as it was happening, and earned its author so much personal trouble that he started carrying a gun for protection. Find out more about the classic below.

1. THE NOVEL WAS INSPIRED BY VISITS TO LABOR CAMPS. 

In 1936, the San Francisco News hired Steinbeck to write a series of articles about migrant labor camps in California. The articles, which you can read here, were later reprinted in a pamphlet along with Dorothea Lange’s iconic photographs. In the pieces, Steinbeck described Americans living in filthy shacks without running water and suffering from malnutrition, illness, and death. He used much of what he saw in The Grapes of Wrath.

2. STEINBECK INADVERTENTLY USED RESEARCH FOR SOMEONE ELSE'S NOVEL.

The author dedicated The Grapes of Wrath to Tom Collins, who managed the Migratory Labor Camp in Kern County, California and helped Steinbeck research the novel. "I need this stuff,” Steinbeck wrote of the detailed reports Collins gave him about the camps. “It is exact and just the thing that will be used against me if I'm wrong.” But Steinbeck didn’t know that another writer, Sanora Babb, had written the reports and was using them as the foundation for her own novel, Whose Names Are Unknown. It was going to be published by Random House when The Grapes Of Wrath hit the bestseller list. Steinbeck’s novel upstaged Babb and her book was shelved until she finally published her work in 2004, the year before she died.

3. WHILE HE WAS RESEARCHING THE WORK, THERE WAS A RIOT IN STEINBECK'S HOMETOWN. 

Steinbeck grew up in Salinas, California, a farming community that was politically divided between workers and agricultural landowners. Although born into the middle class, Steinbeck sympathized with the workingman and worked on a sugar beet farm as a young man. (He used to pay workers a quarter to tell him their life stories, which sometimes made it into his fiction.) At the time Steinbeck was writing about the labor camps, the Salinas Lettuce Strike broke out when tension between workers who wanted to unionize, landowners, and the police erupted in violence in the streets. Here’s footage of the riot:

4. STEINBECK FOUND WRITING THE NOVEL HARROWING.

While writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck kept a journal of his process. The account shows the emotional ups and downs of an intense writing experience. He knew he was writing something that could be potentially great, but he doubted his ability to do it. “This book has become a misery to me because of my inadequacy,” the journal reads. He seemed to find writing not only mentally difficult, but hard on the nerves. “My stomach and my nerves are screaming merry hell in protest against the inroads,” he wrote. And again later, “And now home with a little stomach ache that doesn’t come from the stomach.” For more, here's a podcast of an actor reading from the journal. 

5. THE TITLE COMES FROM 'THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC.'

Steinbeck’s wife Carol thought of taking The Grapes of Wrath from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic": “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” The poem—later a song—was written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861. She got “grapes of wrath” from Revelation 14:19 in the Bible. In choosing the title, Steinbeck was emphasizing that the book was American, not Communist propaganda, as he knew it would be called.

6. THE BOOK WAS BURNED AND BANNED.

The novel was critically acclaimed and a bestseller—some 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940. But it was also controversial. The Associated Farmers of California was angered by the book, which implied that they used the migrants for cheap labor. They called the book a “pack of lies” and launched an attack against it, publicly burning the work and calling it Communist. Other institutions banned the book because of profanity and because of the ending, when a woman breastfeeds a starving man. 

7. STEINBECK GREW SO AFRAID THAT HE STARTED CARRYING A GUN. 

Steinbeck encountered so much hostility after The Grapes of Wrath came out that he considered giving up writing altogether. Articles in the press, buoyed by the Associated Farmers of California, launched a “hysterical personal attack” on Steinbeck. “I’m a pervert, a drunk, a dope fiend,” he wrote. For a time, the FBI put him under surveillance. In Salinas, people he knew his entire life became unfriendly toward him. He received death threats and was advised by the Monterey County Sheriff to carry a gun. Steinbeck complied. His son, Thomas Steinbeck, said, “My father was the best-armed man I knew, and went most places armed.” 

8. THE 1940 MOVIE VERSION WAS A BOX-OFFICE SMASH.

While the book did well on its own, the 1940 movie cemented The Grapes of Wrath as a classic. Directed by John Ford, it starred Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. Steinbeck reportedly liked Fonda’s performance, saying it made him “believe my own words.” Ford won an Oscar for Best Director and Jane Darwell won Best Supporting Actress as Ma Joad.

9. WOODY GUTHRIE WROTE THE BALLAD OF TOM JOAD.

When the movie came out, Victor Records asked Woody Guthrie to write 12 songs about the Dust Bowl for an album called Dust Bowl Ballads. One song was supposed to be based on the movie. So Guthrie borrowed a friend’s typewriter, sat down with a jug of wine, and typed out the lyrics to “Tom Joad.” 

10. THE GRAPES OF WRATH GAVE ROUTE 66 ITS NICKNAME. 

In the book, Steinbeck writes about Route 66, the 2,500-mile-road between Chicago and Los Angeles, which used to be a major artery in the United States. “66 is the mother road, the road of flight,” Steinbeck penned. Since then, the "Mother Road" has been portrayed in everything from Bobby Troup's song "Route 66" to Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road

11. THE NOVEL LED STEINBECK TO THE NOBEL PRIZE. 

The Grapes of Wrath won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and was a major factor for Steinbeck winning the Nobel Prize in 1962. Here’s his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. 

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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