It was on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath was published (books by this author). Between 1936 and 1938, Steinbeck drove an old bakery truck around California’s Central Valley, visiting migrant camps and writing articles about their terrible conditions for The San Francisco News. In his first article, he wrote: “They are never allowed to feel at home in the communities that demand their services.”
He decided that all this material was worthy of a longer book, so he furiously went to work. His new novel, titled The Great Pig Sticking and then L’Affaire Lettuceberg, was a satire — Steinbeck himself described it as mean and nasty. By May of 1938, he had finished a 70,000-word draft, but he realized that it was no good, and he decided to burn it. He wrote to his editor: “My father would have called it a smart-alec book. It was full of tricks to make people ridiculous.”
He began again. He wrote for six months, and toward the end he wrote to his agent: “I’m desperately tired but I want to finish. And meanwhile I feel as though shrapnel were bursting about my head. I only hope the book is some good. Can’t tell yet at all. And I can’t tell whether it is balanced. It is a slow, plodding book but I don’t think it is dull. [...] Never have worked so hard and so long in my life.”
Steinbeck’s wife, Carol, suggested the title The Grapes of Wrath, a phrase from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe during the Civil War. Steinbeck thought the title was a perfect fit. He wanted the song’s lyrics and music printed at the front of the book.
Steinbeck wrote to his agent: “This will not be a popular book,” and he tried to convince his publisher to do a smaller print run than they intended. The Grapes of Wrath was the best-selling book of 1939 and won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.