The Grapes of Wrath-Researching the Context

August 31, 2011 — Leave a comment

This summer, 11th and 12th grade Advanced Placement students at Wamogo High School are reading The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck developed the novel from a series of articles commissioned in October of 1936 by the San Francisco News under the title “The Harvest Gypsies”. The novel was published in 1939, won the Pulitzer Prize for Steinbeck in 1940, and is largely credited for winning Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

The novel is centered around the story of the Joads, a family forced by economic hardship and drought to abandon their homestead to seek jobs and a future in California. The book chapters alternates between their story and the stories of others, including the point of view of a turtle watching the diaspora of the “Okies”, sharecropper families who fled the Dust Bowl and travelled across the mid-west in search of migrant farm work. Steinbeck’s depiction of the treatment of these migrant workers and the migrant camps was controversial, and he was attacked by political and social organizations from the right and the left. Undeterred, Steinbeck wrote, “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].”

Advanced Placement Students in grades 11 & 12 will read this American classic and create a digital museum

In order to understand the social and political turmoil that marked the 1930s, we are having the students organize an online museum of digital artifacts from that decade on a wiki, a website that allows for the collaborative creation and editing of any number of interlinked web pages via a web browser. Students have been organized in teams of three or more and assigned a particular topic from the time period. Topics include:

  1. Okies
  2. Entertainment of the 1930s-Movies-Radio Shows
  3. Herbert Hoover-The Crash of 1929
  4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  5. Journalism in the 30s-William Randolph Hearst-Dorthea Lange
  6. John Steinbeck-the author
  7. Migrant Workers-Farming in California 1930s
  8. Hoovervilles-Weedpatch-Community Associations within the Camps
  9. 1930 Fashion
  10. Dustbowl
  11. Works Project Administration in the 1930s
  12. Woolworth-General Store
  13. Sears Catalog and other Catalogs
  14. Music of the 1930s–1940s
  15. Route 66-Jalopies- Truckstops and Cafes

Click here to see a sample of one of the online museum pages from past years.

In doing this project, students are able to become an “expert” on one of the topics explored in the novel. They scan the Internet looking for primary documents, videos, audio recordings, photos, and art from the 1930s. For example, the Library of Congress website and the Internet Archives website  are excellent sources for digital museum artifacts. Members of the team embed these digital items onto a wiki page and make the page attractive for the reader. Each page must have the bibliographic information; links to other web pages are also permitted. Once the topic pages are completed, every team will have a chance to reflect and review their own web page and the other web pages created by other teams. Using wiki software, students are able to build a body of knowledge that helps them better understand the context that created Steinbeck’s novel.

We have several copies of The Grapes of Wrath on our library shelves; some editions are newer than others. There was a special 50th anniversary publication published in 1989, and the book received an Oprah “bump” when another Steinbeck classic, East of Eden, was picked for her book club in 2003. I will pick up copies at used book stores that are in very good to excellent condition only. The full text of the book was scanned by Google as part of their efforts to make the world’s great books available online, so I can place the link to the text on the same wiki webpages as the online museum. Students can choose to read a hard copy or a digital copy of the text.

This book should only be assigned for summer reading to students who expect to encounter a more challenging text.  The alternating narrative points of view and the length of the text can be stumbling blocks to an inexperienced reader. However, there is the opportunity to have students draw connections from the 1930s to today’s current economic difficulties and political problems. For example, in Chapter 25, food crops are destroyed in order to keep the prices high. This chapter contains the title phrase, “…and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” Steinbeck’s biblical allusion to social justice and workers is powerful and current in the light of statistically high unemployment today. He also incorporates environmental complications, issues in immigration and migration, and the role of government  in ways that reverberate in the politics of America today.

The novel will be 75 years old in 2014 and celebrate its centennial in 2039. Political issues facing America in the future will differ from today, however, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath can inform every generation about the clash between the promises of democracy and stark economic realities. Steinbeck himself noted the power of this novel when he said,  “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”

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