Term Paper: 1939, John Steinbeck Published

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[. . .] In the months before the crash, there was widespread speculation. Some economists warned that this boom could not last and pointed out that the price of stocks no longer had any relation to the earning power of the corporations issuing them. Most Americans refused to listen and kept on buying. The market started to fall apart in Autumn of 1929 as prices began to drop. Some bankers purchased more stocks to keep up public confidence, but a panic developed on "Black Tuesday" and produced the crash as stocks in many companies became completely worthless:

By 1929 the market had entered a fantasy world. Conservative financiers and brokers who counseled caution were ignored... On Tuesday, October 29, the most devastating single day in the market's history, the index dropped another 43 points (Tindall and Shi 1090).

The stock market crash was unique in that stock prices were so high and conditions were such that when prices of securities started to tumble they brought down the whole business structure. This started the Great Depression and produced a new era of government regulation over stock exchanges. This would provide much greater protection for investors, but that would be later. Just prior to the crash, Americans believed that they had found a way to achieve permanent prosperity. The political climate seemed conducive to continued prosperity and business success. Then, at the lowest point in the depression in 1932, there were between 13 and 15 million Americans unemployed in a total population of about 130 million. At least that many more people were working on short time, and wages had dropped sharply. Many banks failed:

The crash had revealed the fundamental business of the country to be unsound. Most harmful was the ability of business to maintain prices and take profits while holding down wages and the cost of raw materials, with the result that about one-third of the personal income went to only 5% of the population (Tindall and Shi 1091).

The state of California in that era did indeed show a willingness to exploit others and then to blame them for being exploited. The Chinese had been brought in as low-wage workers and had then been discriminated against by those fearing the existence of such a workforce. Families like the Joads came to California in the Depression and were treated in much the same manner. We have only to consider more recent instances of exploitation of Mexican farmworkers and braceros to see that this sort of treatment has recurred again and again in California history. Steinbeck was not exaggerating the nature of labor relations in the 1930s and the degree to which those who had land and power used both to preserve their position and to prevent others from gaining power and position. California had experienced considerable tension as the labor movement had started organizing in the state, and the plight of the so-called Okies revived the same tensions and the same concerns on both sides. Rawls and Bean cite the labor violence of the depression era in the state, and Steinbeck portrays the dynamics of this violence and of the tensions that produced it. Rawls and Bean note that labor problems had always been at their worst in agriculture (Rawls and Bean 310). This is precisely what Steinbeck depicts in his novel.

The book had its critics from the first. Authorities and librarians in places like Kansas City and Buffalo removed the book from circulation, stating as their reason its vulgar language, casual sexuality, and graphic portrayal of terrible living conditions. Collier's magazine viewed the book as Communist propaganda. In Congress, Representative Lyle Boren of Oklahoma denounced the book as "a lying, filthy manuscript" that denigrated people from Oklahoma, claiming that they were shiftless. On the other hand, Eleanor Roosevelt extolled the book as supporting the policies of her husband, and the book contributed to a movement leading to a Supreme Court decision in 1941 overturning migrant labor laws in twenty-seven states (Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 59-311).

Oklahoma was not the only state that felt denigrated, for California also responded by criticizing and even banning the book, which painted a devastating portrait of the way migrants were treated once they arrived in the Golden State. The movement to ban the book started in Kansas, when the Kansas City board of Education ordered all copies removed from the city libraries. The leader of this effort claimed that the book portrayed women "living like cattle in a shed" and portrayed life "in such a bestial way" (Sillen 23). Sillen stated that this was a minor issue:

The campaign against The Grapes of Wrath is motivated by fear -- justified, of course -- that the conditions which it exposes will arouse the resentment of the American people (Sillen 23).

In California, the board of supervisors of Kern County banned the book, and the Associated Farmers of Kern County started a campaign to extend this censorship to the state as a whole. A meeting was held in San Francisco of an organization called Pro-America, a Hearst-sponsored group of Republican women, also intent on countering the image of California offered by the book (Sillen 24).

The Grapes of Wrath is an important historical document of an era, telling a story as a novel but doing so in a realistic and informative manner. However, the book remains widely read more because it is an excellently written work of literature and creates vivid characters who remain in the mind of the reader. The book is also remembered because of the film, which plays often on television and in other arenas and which also opens a window onto a different age.

Works Cited

Banks, Ann. First-Person America. New York: W.W. Norton, 1980.Caldwell, Mary Ellen. "A New Consideration of the Intercalary Chapters in The Grapes of Wrath." Markham Review 3 (1973), 115-119.

Ford, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1939.

The Grapes of Wrath." Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 59. Chicago: Gale, 1989.

Groene, Horst. "Agrarianism and Technology in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath." Southern Review (9:1)(1976), 27-31.

Rawls, James J. And Walton Bean. California: An Interpretive History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Sillen, Samuel. "Censoring 'The Grapes of Wrath.'" New Masses (23:12)(September 12, 1939), 23-24.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New… [END OF PREVIEW]

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