The Great Depression of the early 1930s was accompanied by a disaster of environmentally epic proportions: the Dust Bowl era—a period of roughly ten years of crippling drought, dust storms, poverty, famine and a mass migration out of the Midwest.
A vast region of the Great Plains had been over-cultivated by wheat farmers in the years following World War I, creating millions of acres of loose, exposed topsoil. In the absence of rain, crops withered and died and the topsoil, no longer anchored by growing roots, was picked up and carried in billowing clouds. Huge dust storms blew across the region (some reaching Chicago, Washington D.C. and even New York), obscuring the sun and even suffocating those caught unprepared. The afflicted region covered areas in Colorado, Kansas and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, which were hardest hit. The region became known as the Dust Bowl.
The Dust Bowl reached its climax in 1936 with a storm known as “Black Sunday,” when the sun was blotted out by a howling wall of dirt two miles high carried forward by 60 mile per hour winds. People caught unawares found themselves crawling on the ground unable to see. To those huddled in their homes and cars, it seemed the end of the world had begun."
As a result of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, many farmers went bankrupt and were evicted from their land, or forced to abandon their farms to survive. The Grapes of Wrath depicts the journey of the 350,000 souls who fled the poverty and suffering of the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl era in search of a better life.
The migrants were called Okies (which basically meant ‘scum’). They were called ‘reds’, ‘vagrants’, and ‘shiftless’. And they were called bums. But in reality they were people that just wanted to work hard and live off the land. They wanted nothing handed to them, merely an opportunity to earn decent wages, and a fair chance to support their families. They were trying to survive.
The prejudice, mistreatment and inhumanity they suffered, the sacrifices they made as they were shoved on unwanted from one place to the next, and the grace, dignity and strength they displayed as they tried to survive, are a testament to that which is the best part of our humanity.
Steinbeck’s choice of title (a decision he struggled with) was inspired by Julia Ward Howe’s famous abolitionist hymn, and reflects his sympathies for the impoverished and downtrodden in American society.
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
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, Julia Ward Howe, 1861.
Steinbeck’s greatness as a writer lies in his empathy for common people—their loneliness, joy, anger, and strength, their connection to places and their craving for land. There are other powerful themes in The Grapes of Wrath: man’s inhumanity to man, self-sacrifice, the saving power of family, and the desire for unity among our fellow humans.
And we cannot forget the theme in the play’s title.
There is virtue in a certain kind of wrath; not in the uncontrolled, wanton and destructive kind, but in strong, stern, fierce anger that represents the deep and resentful indignation towards injustice that keeps our spirits from breaking and allows us to maintain our dignity.
I think there is no better time for this story to be told on our stage. Perhaps we may we find that we keenly identify with the struggle, and be inspired by the Joads’ strength. Perhaps we will find that as we face tough times in our country, in our economy, and in our own individual lives, we don’t have it half as bad as the Joads. Either way, we will find we can indeed survive any trial if we can only come together.