Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Grapes of Wrath (1940) >> Issue Essay >>

Reader (and Viewer) Beware!

By Rachel Brooks

[1] Keith Windschuttle's "Steinbeck's Myth of the Okie" demolishes the historical accuracy of John Steinbeck's novel. According to Windschuttle, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath "became the principal story through which America defined the experience of the Great Depression." This famous novel -- still sold in millions of copies around the world and still "a widely studied text in both high schools and universities" -- tells the story of the Joad family and their struggles to escape the horrors of the dust bowl. "Although it is about the experiences of the fictional Joad family," says Windschuttle, The Grapes of Wrath was always meant to be taken literally." But his assessment of that purpose is devastating:

Unfortunately for the reputation of the author, however, there is now an accumulation of sufficient historical, demographic, and climatic data about the 1930s to show that almost everything about the elaborate picture created in the novel is either outright false or exaggerated beyond belief.

Here follows just a fraction of the examples throughout Windschuttle's critique that contradict what was supposedly fact in The Grapes of Wrath.

• Steinbeck clearly implies that the Dust Bowl was the cause of the migration of the people in Oklahoma to California. Windschuttle explains that although the Dust Bowl did affect certain areas of the country, Oklahoma was not one of the affected areas. Oklahoma farms did suffer in the 1930s because of a major drought, not the Dust Bowl.

• In Steinbeck's novel we are led to believe that the depression caused by the Dust Bowl is the sole reason for the Okies to migrate to California. Windschuttle states that "The real mass migration of Okies to California actually took place in the 1940's to take advantage of the boom in manufacturing jobs during World War II and its aftermath."

• In The Grapes of Wrath the Joad family, along with the rest of the Okies, blame the banks for their tragedy. Steinbeck refers to the bank as a "monster," something that does not have human qualities. Winschuttle clarifies that, in reality, it was not the bank that was demanding the landlords to rely less on their tenant families, but it was "government handouts" causing this hardship.

• The Joad family begins their journey with twelve family members and one friend of the family, Casy, a former minister of the town. All thirteen people pack themselves into an old, broken-down truck, and they begin their long drive across Route 66. Windschuttle explains that "Rather than large families extending over several generations, the most common trekkers from the south-west to California were composed of husband, wife, and children, an average of 4.4 members."

• In the novel, it is suggested that the Joad family packed up their entire lives and traveled to California solely based on a yellow handbill saying that there were "good wages and plenty of work in California." The Joads knew nothing of California or where exactly they were going to find work. Their only information was a handbill that Pa Joad came across. Windschuttle argues that, in reality, the migrants usually found information about work and living conditions in California before deciding to move there. He also says that, "Some families generated their own migration chains, sending out a teenage son or young male relative to explore California before deciding whether to follow him."

• A "half-crazy" character in Steinbeck's novel, Muley Graves, gives a speech refusing to leave the farm because he "had been born on it, worked on it, and died on it." In this speech, Steinbeck is implying that the tenant farmers had lived, and were planning on living, on their current farms for the rest of their lives. Windschuttle refers to a sociologist that performed a study in 1937 who found that the average Oklahoma farmer moved four times in his working life and five times if he was a tenant.

• Steinbeck clearly states in his novel that "the migrants, flowed into California, two hundred and fifty thousand, and three hundred thousand." Those statistics given in the novel are much higher than the 90,000 migrants that actually migrated to California, says Windschuttle.

• Steinbeck's novel portrays "a proletariat who learned collectivist values during a downward spiral towards immiseration." But Windschuttle explains that "In the 1940's and beyond, the migrants retained their essentially individualist cultural ethos, preserved their evangelical religion, and prospered in their new environment."

[2] Hardly anyone would disagree with the statement that The Grapes of Wrath had a huge impact on America's idea of the Great Depression and the 1930s in general. The story of the Joad family is compelling and tragic, yet for the most part hopeful. Steinbeck is incredibly famous for many reasons, one of which is because he writes novels that seem so real it's like you know the characters. This was definitely the case in The Grapes of Wrath, where the Joad family seems so real the reader believes everything that is going on in their world. Unfortunately, in the case of this specific Steinbeck novel, the story of the Joad family is not completely realistic or accurate. Windschuttle points out instance after instance in which the plot does not match up with history. He successfully "demolishes" the "real" dimension of Steinbeck's novel, without forgetting the excellence of the actual story line. That story line -- the "application of a great Biblical theme to the experience of an ordinary American farming family" -- explains why the novel became the story that defined the Great Depression, but none of it, Windschuttle concludes, "has much connection to the history of the Great Depression or the experience of the great majority of the Okies." Reader (and viewer) beware!