Is The Grapes of Wrath Plagiarism? A Pulitzer Prize Deep Dive

There are a handful of books frequently named whenever the topic of The Great American Novel comes up. The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 by John Steinbeck, is one of them.

I’ve talked at length about what the concept of The Great American Novel means, particularly as I’ve worked my way through a project where I am reading every book that has won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. To me, the Pulitzer feels uniquely tied to the quest for a quintessentially American great novel.

I’d read Steinbeck’s books before, but only his California books (Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Red Pony). I had never ventured into his larger novels. I’m glad this project finally got me to dive in because (spoiler alert) it’s a great book. But as I was reading it, a commenter on my YouTube channel pointed me to a book called Whose Names Are Unknown and its author, Sanora Babb.

The story of Sanora Babb is intricately tied to John Steinbeck in an interesting and very complex way. We’ll expand on that later, but the introduction to it is that Babb took notes based on her interactions with Dust Bowl migrants while she was working at a Farm Security Administration (FSA) camp in California. She used those notes to shape her novel about people who had been displaced by the Dust Bowl and the hardships they faced in California. Unfortunately, when she finished that novel her publisher informed her that they would not be moving ahead with her book after all because they didn’t want to compete with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which was eating up bestseller lists and covered many of the same topics.

What Sanora Babb didn’t know at the time was that her supervisor, Tom Collins, was making copies of her notes and giving them to John Steinbeck, who was relying on Collins for on-the-ground background information that shaped The Grapes of Wrath.

Plagiarism is a serious accusation (and this won’t be the only time we have a discussion centered around the theft of ideas in my Pulitzer Prize Project). There are a lot of people online who are very upset about how Steinbeck may have inadvertently suppressed the career of a woman who was doing good work. As a spoiler, I don’t think Steinbeck plagiarized The Grapes of Wrath, but I do think this is a great opportunity to elevate the work of Sanora Babb, which is well worth your time. It is also a very complex conversation worth having because even if I don’t think it qualifies as plagiarism, what happened to Sanora Babb is still very unfair (I promise, it’s not just clickbait).

Snapshot: 1939

I always like to take a look at what was going on in the world when a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner was published as a way of setting the stage for a discussion about it. Just as a reminder: the Pulitzer is awarded the year after the eligibility period. So while The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer in 1940, it was published in 1939.

In bookstores:

According to Publisher’s Weekly, the bestselling book of 1939 was (drumroll please) The Grapes of Wrath! Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was third on the list and the book that won the Pulitzer in 1939, The Yearling, came in seventh. The 1939 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Frans Eemil Sillanpää “for his deep understanding of his country’s peasantry and the exquisite art with which he has portrayed their way of life and their relationship with Nature.” To this date, he is the only Finnish person to have won the prize.

Batman also made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27.

In movies:

1937’s Pulitzer winner, Gone With the Wind, released its famous film adaptation, which was the highest-grossing movie of the year and would go on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards the following year. But since the Oscars are given out the following year (like the Pulitzer), it was You Can’t Take It With You that won Best Picture in 1939.

In the news:

The big news is that WWII officially broke out, although it would be a while before the United States joined in. Understandably, that dominated headlines. Aside from that huge news, Amelia Earhart was officially declared dead 18 months after she disappeared in her plane and the Spanish Civil War came to an end.

What Is The Grapes of Wrath About?

We begin in 1930s Oklahoma. Tom Joad is released from prison, where he has been for four years after killing a man during a fight (the other guy knifed Tom, who hit him with a shovel in retaliation). Not to get sidetracked, but Tom’s status as a murderer is an interesting throughline in the book. Steinbeck carefully makes sure that the incident is couched as self-defense and an accident so you don’t think unkindly of Tom, a notion subtly reinforced because Tom was released early for good behavior and other characters constantly inform you that the other guy had it coming. However, this murder is also used as a form of shorthand to frame Tom as a noble person with a strict moral code. It’s just weird to use a murder to get this point across. I think what Steinbeck really wants to impart to the reader right away is that Tom is willing to go against the law to do what he feels is right. It’s important that we know that for where Tom’s story goes at the end of the novel, but I don’t think we needed a murder to get there. It sort of accidentally steps into a whole thing that feels like toxic masculinity when you read the book from the lens of 2023. I don’t think Steinbeck intended to wade into those waters, but by using murder, he did.

Anyway, Tom returns home to find that the Dust Bowl has changed everything. Even though the Joad family does not live in the region hit hardest by the Dust Bowl, they are reeling from its impact. The land has become difficult for families to farm and banks have exploited desperate farmers by buying up their farms (or kicking them off the land when they can no longer pay their mortgages). The banks have put big corporations in charge of the farms and severely monetized the land to the detriment of the people who live there, who are already going through a very hard time. Families have been pushed out of their homes and left without any work because these corporations are limiting the number of jobs they offer and they’re offering almost no pay because they know the displaced farmers are too desperate to turn them down. This is being done largely at the behest of the banks, who are forcing them to cut costs and maximize profits.

In case you can’t tell, banks are a big villain in The Grapes of Wrath, a sentiment many Americans would be primed to agree with after a decade of living through the Great Depression. I can’t spend a lot of time explaining why that’s relevant to real-world events, so if you want more I encourage you to do a bit of research.

Even though it means breaking his parole, Tom and the rest of the Joads begin a desperate journey west to California, where they have been promised that jobs are plentiful and the land is beautiful.

When the Joads do arrive in California, drained of the funds and the food they depleted to arrive, California turns out to be no Eden. Countless others have arrived just as desperate (or even worse), and Californians are exploiting them for cheap labor and pushing them off their land. Basically, the same dynamic from Oklahoma, where banks exploited the need for food and work in order to pay shockingly low wages, is happening here, too.

There’s a big push-pull dynamic in The Grapes of Wrath between the need to save yourself and the need to be a good citizen. Of course, there are also strict social and economic hierarchies that complicate how these dynamics play out. Mostly, the people who have things tend to want to keep their things and will use whatever systems they can to prevent others from taking what they believe they own. Even if they aren’t using it. Perhaps ironically, the people who don’t have things are more likely to share what they can spare (even if they can’t really spare it at all).

Through telling the story of the Joad family, John Steinbeck is humanizing the larger story of the Dust Bowl and the people who were displaced because of it. He is also reflecting on the American Dream and the ways in which the powerful exploit circumstances for their own benefit. It’s a very anti-capitalist, pro-organizing novel–which I wasn’t expecting when I picked it up.

What Does The Title of The Grapes of Wrath Mean?

A few month’s into writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s then-wife Carol recommended that he title the book after a line from Julia Ward Howe’s abolition song “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.”

Here’s how my Penguin Classics edition explains the title in the introduction written by Robert DeMott:

The novel’s title–from Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”–was clearly in the American grain–and Steinbeck, a loyal Rooseveltian New Deal Democrat, liked the song “because it is a march and this book is a kind of march–because it is in our own revolutionary tradition and because in reference to this book it has a large meaning”

Robert DeMott, introduction to the Penguin Classics edition

I knew what The Grapes of Wrath is about long before I finally read it, but I didn’t know how sharply political it is. This is a book that seethes with indignation at injustices committed by the powerful, a novel that encourages citizens to organize in the face of that injustice, and a battle cry against systemic structural imbalances that unfairly malign the poor.

I actually didn’t even know that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” had ties to the Civil War, where it was originally an anthem for anti-slavery forces. Suddenly, the line that declares “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” makes a lot of sense. And it makes sense that Steinbeck would find its message appealing.

I began and ended my reading journey with The Grapes of Wrath by listening to Judy Garland’s iconic rendition of the song on television shortly after the Kennedy assassination. I recommend it (even if you don’t like the song). It’s a towering performance.

Why Did This Win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?

I think there are four factors we need to consider when trying to answer why The Grapes of Wrath won a Pulitzer Prize. The first is that John Steinbeck was on a roll when it was published.

Steinbeck first achieved significant critical success when he published Tortilla Flat in 1935. He followed that up with In Dubious Battle in 1936 and Of Mice and Men in 1937. The latter title was Steinbeck’s biggest critical success yet. Steinbeck would have felt primed for recognition after a run like that. He created a lot of momentum for himself that ensured people were bound to pay attention to his next book, and they were probably starting to feel like he was due for some big prizes. It’s the perfect runway to The Grapes of Wrath, which was published in 1939.

The second factor is that The Grapes of Wrath was a massive success. It was the bestselling book of 1939 and by 1940, it began racking up book prizes–including the National Book Award and the American Booksellers Association’s favorite fiction book of the year. Gone With the Wind had similarly ridden a wave of success to a Pulitzer only three years earlier.

And then there’s the fact that The Grapes of Wrath was extremely timely. It reflected the reality that countless Americans were still reeling from in 1939. If early Pulitzer Prize-winning novels like His Family had been concerned about the slow shift in societal norms brought about across a generation after the Civil War and Industrialization, the Great Depression was much more seismic. It was like an extinction-level event for ways of life across large parts of the country. Again, I don’t have time to talk about all the things that made this so significant and why The Grapes of Wrath reflected them. The big thing to know for our purposes here is that a lot of people were displaced. According to PBS, 200,000 people left the Plains states to migrate to California by 1940. They did not get a warm reception.

The Grapes of Wrath is sort of spiritually linked with another Pulitzer winner: Now in November by Josephine Johnson. Together, they neatly bookend the Dust Bowl. Josephine Johnson had been smart enough to see the coming environmental disaster and what it would mean for farmers and families. Now in November was published the same year the Dust Bowl exploded. Four years later, The Grapes of Wrath summed up everything that happened after that.

For Americans who hadn’t lived through the Dust Bowl themselves, Now in November and The Grapes of Wrath provided crucial context to the news stories they had been reading. They put human faces to the news and, hopefully, allowed more people to empathize with those who had been most impacted. And they reflected the anger and frustration many Americans felt because circumstances beyond their control had spiraled so spectacularly.

If those reasons weren’t enough, the final factor is that Steinbeck makes The Grapes of Wrath a quintessentially American story, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was created to recognize works that deal with American life. The Joads are headed to California because factually, that is where most migrants went. But Steinbeck, who is an expert in using California in literature, is smart enough to recognize this as an opportunity to riff on the American Dream and the concept of Manifest Destiny. It’s pretty brilliantly done.

Is The Grapes of Wrath a Socialist Novel?

There’s another interesting thing about Now in November and The Grapes of Wrath. As I discuss in my deep dive on that book, Josephine Johnson may have been blacklisted for what was seen at the time as socialist sympathies. An article in The Cut pointed out that “While Ernest Hemingway could get away with lionizing the Spanish Communists and their swashbuckling allies in For Whom the Bell Tolls, a woman depicting grassroots activism at home could not.” But Steinbeck is a man who actively encouraged grassroots activism at home in The Grapes of Wrath. Instead of being canceled, he was celebrated. He even went on to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. It makes you think.

However, The Grapes of Wrath did not escape entirely unscathed. There were a lot of people who saw it as socialist propaganda–and Nicholas Butler, the President of Columbia University (which administers the Pulitzer Prizes) was both not a fan of this novel and afraid that awarding it the Pulitzer would look like Columbia was endorsing a socialist message. I’m not at all going to defend Butler here, but remember that in 1940 it was in the best interest of people and institutions to distance themselves from communist or socialist ideology lest they find themselves on a blacklist.

At any rate, Columbia downplayed the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940–almost as if they were hoping people wouldn’t notice. They could have refused to award a prize at all, which they would do to Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls the following year. What was different in this case? Here’s a great quote from W.J. Stuckey’s The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Look Back:

And despite what may have seemed to some readers to be an advocacy of government paternalism and labor unionism, Steinbeck’s argument finally comes to rest upon a concept that is not foreign to the Pulitzer novel tradition. The Joads are not radicals spouting a revolutionary ideology; they are, as Clifton Fadiman assured the readers of The New Yorker, “a people of old American stock,” deprived of their birth-right: “the privilege of working for a living.”

… in the early days of the Depression, Pearl S. Buck and T.S. Stribling suggested that honest toil could bring security. Now, near the end of the Depression, while agreeing with Buck and Stribling, Steinbeck makes the idea a tragic focus rather than an optimistic solution. That is, work would solve all woe, but work is unavailable.

W.J. Stuckey’s The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Look Back (2nd edition), page 119-20

In a way, although The Grapes of Wrath is extremely critical of capitalistic enterprises, it straddles the line enough that it can be deemed acceptable to anyone afraid of (or critical of) this message.

There are no records of the Board meeting where The Grapes of Wrath emerged triumphant, but interestingly, two Board members issued letters to the rest of the Board to protest the novel’s inclusion on the shortlist. Neither addressed the topic of socialism. According to John Hohenberg in The Pulitzer Prizes, one was concerned that Steinbeck’s depiction of Californians as villains was factually incorrect. The other was more worried that “the seal of the Pulitzer selection will write an approbation of smut in contemporary work that I am not quite willing to participate in. Such a decision would encourage more efforts in erotica by a host of authors writing for the market and promote a false sense of value with the immature reader…”

In the end, the victory of The Grapes of Wrath was celebrated, and so was the Pulitzer Board for their decision. Malcolm Crowley wrote in The New Republic that Steinbeck’s novel stood “very high in the category of great angry books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin that have aroused a people to fight against intolerable wrongs.”

Is This Novel Any Good?

First of all, yes: The Grapes of Wrath is a fantastic book.

But I have two quibbles with The Grapes of Wrath. First: it’s too long. It feels like the Joads have very repetitive conversations as they leave Oklahoma, make their way to California, and then travel around California. Someone will tell them there’s no work to be found in California and the Joads won’t believe them and will continue on their way regardless. That scenario plays out again and again and again. Steinbeck could have saved a lot of pages by cutting those conversations in half.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s still important for us to spend time in all of those places where the Joads stop. It shows us a lot of different facets of migrant life at the time. It allows us to see many different stories and experiences, which is kinda crucial. So I’m actually on board with the structure of the book and how it takes its time. I just wish we didn’t keep echoing the same conversation beats. It makes the book feel longer than it is.

And here’s the other thing about that: the Joads don’t really have a choice anyway. They couldn’t stay in Oklahoma, where there was nothing left for them anymore. They had limited funds for their trip, so by the time they got going, they had no options to change course. They chose California because it was the best (and only) option presented to them. It’s not like they could have Googled places to go or jobs to secure. They couldn’t research to make an informed decision. All they could do was hop in a car and hope for the best.

My other quibble is that The Grapes of Wrath is a bit heavy-handed. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a novel that signposts its themes for its readers, but there are definitely moments where Steinbeck’s very pointed thematic work feels a touch labored and a bit clumsy.

I do agree with W.J. Stuckey, who comments in The Pulitzer Prize Novels that Steinbeck has a tendency to treat the Joads as ‘others.’ While he sympathizes with them, he often seems to be looking at them from the outside. And their accented dialogue can be a touch patronizing. But I don’t think it’s bad enough to call this a flaw of the novel.

At the end of the day, yes, The Grapes of Wrath is a good book. I’d even say it’s a great book.

John Steinbeck

Who Is John Steinbeck?

John Steinbeck is one of the most celebrated American authors of all time. The Grapes of Wrath is popularly considered to be his most significant work, but this is a career stacked with classics. Among them: East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men. Given his contributions to literature, it probably isn’t very surprising that Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, cited “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception”.”

Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California–a region he would make famous through his fiction. He studied at Stanford University but left without a degree. He had a series of odd jobs while he worked to get his writing career off the ground, which finally happened in 1935 with the publication of Tortilla Flat.

Steinbeck was a war correspondent during WWII and returned to the United States with shrapnel wounds and a bit of psychological trauma. He also began to work in the movie industry.

Although he courted a fair amount of controversy during his career (including for The Grapes of Wrath‘s anti-capitalist themes) and been the focus of some critiques about his skill, Steinbeck was a celebrated writer throughout his life–as evidenced by his 1962 Nobel Prize.

He died at age 66 in 1968 of congestive heart failure.

Is The Grapes of Wrath Plagiarism?

Again, the short answer is no–however, the situation here is complicated and kind of fraught. And, I think, worthy of discussion.

And I guess this is where I admit that using the term plagiarism is a bit provocative on my part to lure people in so I can teach them about Sanora Babb. Because Whose Names Are Unknown is a phenomenal book. In fact, I think it’s better than The Grapes of Wrath. And let’s be honest: what happened to Sanora Babb, regardless of whether or not it constitutes plagiarism, was unfair.

The dedication to The Grapes of Wrath reads “To Carol who willed it; To Tom who lived it.” Carol was Steinbeck’s first wife. They divorced not long after this book was published. Tom refers to Tom Collins, a federal relief camp specialist who worked for the FSA. Collins and Steinbeck met while Steinbeck was working on a series of articles for The San Francisco News called “The Harvest Gypsies.” These articles were published in October of 1936 alongside the famous photography of Dorothea Lange. These articles gave Steinbeck the idea to work on a novel about the topic of the Great Depression and the migration of people from Oklahoma to California. I think that’s important to note: Steinbeck came to the idea for The Grapes of Wrath on his own.

Steinbeck did visit labor camps while researching his novel, but he heavily relied on Tom Collins for information that would help him portray the lives of the people impacted by the Dust Bowl. Here’s where we get to the connection: Tom Collins was Sanora Babb’s supervisor. She took notes on her interactions with the people in FSA camps and gave them to her supervisor. Unbeknownst to her, he gave her notes to John Steinbeck.

Now, I don’t really see any evidence that we know how much of Babb’s work Steinbeck used in his research (if any). And if he did use Babb’s notes, it is very likely that he had no idea that Babb was also planning to write a novel based on her experiences in the FSA camps. For this reason, I don’t think you can make a case that The Grapes of Wrath represents a theft of ideas. Both Steinbeck and Babb worked independently of each other, drawing from the same sources. It’s just unfortunate that Babb didn’t give consent for her work to be shared. She didn’t agree to be anyone else’s source material. She had no idea that Steinbeck had been given access to her notes until much later. Here’s a quote from Smithsonian Magazine:

“We have no proof that Steinbeck used her notes,” says Dearcopp. “We know her notes were given to him, but we don’t know whether it was in the form of a FSA report of not. If that’s the case, he wouldn’t have known they came from her specifically. So we can’t know to what degree he used her notes, or didn’t, but at the end of the day, she was in the fields working with the migrants. She was the one doing that.” 

Smithsonian Magazine, “The Forgotten Dust Bowl Novel That Rivaled “The Grapes of Wrath”

We do, however, know that Sanora Babb’s notes were meticulous and very detailed. For one thing, she had been trained as a journalist. That means she was both thorough and had a keen eye for detail. For another thing, she was planning her own novel and knew that she could refer back to her notes while writing. And we know that Babb’s notes included details of her own life growing up poor in Oklahoma.

We also know that Babb’s notes included many observations that became central themes in both her novel and in Steinbeck’s: the resilience of the displaced, the unfairness of a capitalistic system stacked against them, ways in which the powerful work to maintain their own power at the expense of the poor, and ways the displaced were prevented from organizing to improve their situation.

Given that Steinbeck was already inspired to write a novel on this topic based on his experiences writing “The Harvest Gypsies,” it’s likely he was already gravitating toward these themes. But we’ll never know just how much Sanora Babb’s life and work helped provide a foundation for his most celebrated novel. Interestingly, both Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and Milt Dunne in Whose Names Are Unknown come to the same philosophical and political crossroads at the end of their respective novels.

Does The Grapes of Wrath represent plagiarism? No–at least not to any extent that can be proven if it did occur. Is what happened wildly unfair? Yes. Because no one cared enough to ask Sanora Babb if she wanted her work shared with anyone. No one cared to ask her about her goals or dreams, so no one would have known that she was working on her own novel. And who suffered for the fact that no one cared? It wasn’t John Steinbeck and it wasn’t Tom Collins. It was Sanora Babb who paid the price.

Perhaps this appropriation of Sanora Babb’s work could be more easily forgiven if she had been permitted to publish her own novel. Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened. In early 1939, Babb sent four chapters of Whose Names Are Unknown to an editor at Random House named Bennet Cerf. He immediately committed to publish the novel. But in April of that year, The Grapes of Wrath was released and became a runaway success. The Smithsonian has this to say about Cerf’s response: “In a letter to Babb, he wrote, “Obviously, another book at this time about exactly the same subject would be a sad anticlimax!” She sent the manuscript to other publishers, but they too rejected it. Aside from the fact that many of these editors were Steinbeck’s personal friends, to publish her novel after a hit like The Grapes of Wrath would look like imitation.”

Steinbeck managed to write The Grapes of Wrath in a mere six months, which meant that it made it to press before Babb’s novel, which, although shorter, probably took longer given that she didn’t have the resources of an established writer to focus on her writing.

By all accounts, Babb was justifiably devastated. She did ultimately publish other books, but her career never really took off. It was only in 2004, one year before her death, that Whose Names Are Unknown was finally published.

At the end of the day, I’m not going to vilify John Steinbeck for what happened to Sanora Babb. I don’t think that would be fair. But I am going to bring her and Whose Names Are Unknown up every time The Grapes of Wrath comes up. I think more people should know her story, and I think more people should read her novel alongside Steinbeck’s.

Who Is Sanora Babb (And Is Whose Names Are Unknown Any Good?)

The story of Dust Bowl migrants was appealing to Steinbeck, but it was Sanora Babb’s life. She was born in Oklahoma in 1907 and grew up in poverty. She wasn’t even able to attend school until she was 11–but she caught up well enough to become valedictorian of her class (although she wasn’t allowed to give a speech at commencement because she was both a woman and the daughter of a known gambler). The early years of Babb’s life were marked by struggle. She was even periodically homeless during the Great Depression when she was trying to get a career in journalism going. She had seen dust storms during her childhood and had many family members who were impacted by the Dust Bowl. I don’t think it’s surprising, therefore, that Steinbeck occasionally others the Joad family while Babb’s novel feels empathetic and authentic. Steinbeck is writing from the outside and Babb is writing from lived experience.

Babb’s experience is all over Whose Names Are Unknown. Even the format of her childhood home (a one-room dugout on a broomcorn farm) figures into the setting of her novel. It introduces Milt and Julia Dunne, who live in a dugout basement in Oklahoma. Try as they might, the Dunnes can’t get ahead financially, and as suffocating dust settles in and begins to make their children sick, they move to California.

Whose Names Are Unknown is also a great deal more intersectional than The Grapes of Wrath. While Steinbeck makes Ma Joad an endearing figure and prizes her powerful role within her family, Babb makes the female perspective more central to her own novel. And unlike Steinbeck, she actually includes characters of color.

Babb spends a lot more time in Oklahoma, too, which allows the reader to get to know the hardships the Dunne family faces–making their departure for California feel more resonant and urgent. Steinbeck rather quickly moves the action to the road, leaving the hardship the Joads left behind more of an abstract concept.

Whose Names Are Unknown is remarkably similar to Josephine Johnson’s Now in November in approach and style. While Steinbeck uses heavy-handed imagery, taking the form of a political novel, both Johnson and Babb are more subtle–and they understand that the personal is political, allowing them to get at larger political themes without using a hammer.

Look: I love The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a great novel. But in my opinion, Whose Names Are Unknown is even better. And it really makes me wish that Sanora Babb had been given the same opportunity to publish this book and get recognized for her work. I guess I’m just grateful that we can read this novel and appreciate it now. It was finally published by University of Oklahoma Press in 2004–one year before Sanora Babb’s death.

For all I know, her work may have gotten swallowed up in an alternate timeline where Whose Names Are Unknown was published in the wake of Steinbeck’s novel–and we may never have gotten to know Sanora Babb or the gorgeous novel she wrote based on her own experiences. Maybe, in a weird way, we should be thankful things turned out the way they did.

Is The Grapes of Wrath Problematic?

I don’t think it is. It definitely centers white people, and there’s at least one problematic depiction of a Native American. But I think Steinbeck was coming from a place of good intentions and, for the most part, executes this novel with a high degree of empathy and compassion for humans.

People frequently object when you refer to an older book as problematic and are very quick to claim that the book is a product of the time in which it was written. I think The Grapes of Wrath is a case where the places where it has blind spots or makes errors in representation are, in fact, a reflection of the time. I don’t think Steinbeck necessarily intended to be offensive or racist, but it is still gross.

Are There Adaptations or Sequels?

There is a famous film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath that was rushed into theaters to capitalize on the book’s success. It stars Henry Fonda, who was praised by Steinbeck for his portrayal of Tom Joad. At the time I am writing this, I have not seen it yet.

Is The Grapes of Wrath Readily Available?

Oh yes. Walk into any bookstore and you are likely to find several of Steinbeck’s books–including The Grapes of Wrath.

Is The Grapes of Wrath the Great American Novel?

If you’ve read my larger work on The Great American Novel as a concept, you know that I don’t think any one novel can adequately encompass the entirety of America. The best you can do is create a shortlist of books that together create a tapestry that becomes representative of all the aspects of American life. And in my opinion, The Grapes of Wrath should be one of those books.

(But so should Whose Names Are Unknown. And if I could only choose one, I would go with Babb’s work)

What Was The Grapes of Wrath’s Competition for the Pulitzer?

The jury for 1940 unanimously recommended The Grapes of Wrath to be the winner of the Pulitzer and, despite the previously discussed concerns of two Board members expressed before they met to decide on a winner, it ultimately prevailed.

The jury did offer some other options, though: Escape by Ethel Vance, To the End of the World by Helen White, Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield, and Night Riders by Robert Penn Warren. I hadn’t heard of any of these books before looking this information up, and the only writer in that group that I’m familiar with is Robert Penn Warren–who would win a Pulitzer in 1947 for All the King’s Men.

Looking outside of the finalists, I don’t see much of note–at least not through the prism of someone who wasn’t alive at the time. The likeliest challengers would be Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got a Gun, or Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro–none of which I have read.

For the record: even if her publisher hadn’t canceled her book deal, Sanora Babb and Whose Names Are Unknown would not likely have been direct competition for the Pulitzer. She hadn’t been scheduled to meet with her publisher until late 1939, which means her novel wouldn’t have been expected until 1940 at the earliest.

Should The Grapes of Wrath Have Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?

It’s difficult to parse through books that were published 84 years ago to adequately measure the field, but I think it’s safe to say that both the jury and the Board got it correct when they chose The Grapes of Wrath. It really is a great American novel by a great American author who was perfectly timed to release his magnum opus.

But if you asked me to choose between The Grapes of Wrath and Whose Names Are Unknown, I prefer Whose Names Are Unknown.

Other Pulitzer Prize Deep Dives

His Family (1918) Now in November (1935)  Gone With the Wind (1937)  Lonesome Dove (1986)  Less (2018)  The Netanyahus (2022) TIE: Trust and Demon Copperhead (2023)

Deep Dives On Pulitzer Years With No Winner

1917  2012

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (first edition)

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