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October 13, 2009
Washington, DC

"Toward Los Angeles, California, 1937" by Dorothea Lange. From Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information collection at Library of Congress

Writer Jay Parini's extensive bibliography includes John Steinbeck: A Biography. In this interview excerpt, the writer speculates on how Steinbeck's personal history influenced his writing of The Grapes of Wrath. 

When you think about The Grapes of Wrath it's  an American masterpiece, and a very long process goes into the making of such a book.  It's almost impossible to think of the different elements, all of the different rivulets that would be like streams flowing into the great river that becomes this novel, with its thousands and thousands of details.

First of all there's Steinbeck?s unusual rootedness in this part of California. Steinbeck was born in 1902 in this beautiful part of California, which was really quite like a garden of Eden. I mean everything grows there; you drop a stick in the ground, and it becomes a tree. . . . His Grandfather Hamilton, his mother?s father, was a farmer, and Steinbeck followed him around as a boy. Steinbeck loved to play in the woods, in the fields, he loved to talk to all the migrant workers. He was himself a farmhand, a ditch-digger. He really identified with the local people, with migrants who came to the region, but he knew California in the way that you could only know [it] if you had a peculiar openness to the landscape and the people. And I think it's that rootedness in time and place, especially place, that made Steinbeck such an appropriate person to write this novel, where California becomes essentially the goal of this drive westward of the Joad family. 

But Steinbeck was also always a traveler with open eyes and ears. . . .He started off, as you know, writing for newspapers. He wrote for many different newspapers in New York City and various places. . . .In fact the whole Grapes of Wrath story came out of an assignment he had taken from the San Francisco News where he was sent down into the Central Valley to report on these migrant camps in places not too far from where he grew up.  And so Steinbeck had the open eyes and ears of a journalist, and he had this sense of place, the rootedness in California.  So all of this background went into the making of The Grapes of Wrath

When he finally set about to write this novel he made this journey, with his then wife, across the country in a brand new car he had bought. Route 66 really opened up for him: he was thrilled by the local hamburger stands, the people he met along the way, the astonishing shifts of landscape with panoramas of valley floor, desert, and high mountains. I mean it's quite an epic journey that he describes in that novel.  He somehow makes The Grapes of Wrath into an American epic, and it's got that epic dimension. Traditionally speaking an epic is a journey home, if you think of Odysseus wandering from the Trojan wars back to the island of Ithaca. This is a journey to an emotional home for Steinbeck. [It] begins with displacement. This entire poor family is cast off the land by the economic system, which Steinbeck in a sense is condemning, because it has done wrong by these people. And they're heading back like the great wandering of the Jews . . . they're in the deserts of Egypt, they're wandering, looking for the promised land of Canaan. The promised land for John Steinbeck was always his home, California.

Hear more from Parini and others on The Grapes of Wrath radio show. Visit The Big Read calendar to find out where a Steinbeck celebration is taking place near you.

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