Much of John Steinbeck's prolific output falls, with a little coaxing, into suites of three books apiece. First comes his semi-experimental trilogy, consisting of the historical novel Cup of Gold (1929), the loosely linked story collection The Pastures of Heaven (1932), and the myth-maddened To a God Unknown (1933). All are journeyman works, promising but somewhat frustrating when read in sequence. A reader drums his fingers, waiting for the prodigious leap that's coming.
Steinbeck was now ready to undertake what's come down to us as his Labor Trilogy: the defiantly clear-eyed, unsentimental strike novel In Dubious Battle (1936), the haunting, fable-like Of Mice and Men (1937), and, of course, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Of Mice and Men also pioneered a form that Steinbeck more or less invented, the play-novelette. In that book, and also in the 1942 wartime allegory The Moon Is Down and the abstruse parable Burning Bright (1950), Steinbeck wrote short, dialogue-heavy novels whose exposition could be stripped out, leaving stage dramas almost ready for production.
Steinbeck's travel literature, too, sorts itself into three principal texts. Sea of Cortez and his reworking of it into The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) record Steinbeck's and Ed 'Doc' Ricketts's findings on their exploration of Baja California. In Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962), Steinbeck brought his prodigious observational powers to bear on the country around him. Finally, America and Americans (1966) cannibalized six months' worth of newspaper essays.
One can get carried away with this sort of literary numerology, but even Steinbeck's ephemera lends itself to tripartite groupings. There's the episodic, strongly regional, still endearing black comedy of Tortilla Flat (1935), Cannery Row (1945), and Sweet Thursday (1954). There are the late, less than successful novels The Wayward Bus (1947), The Short Reign of Pippin IV (1957), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961).
The major book left over after all this sorting and re-sorting may be East of Eden (1952). Here Steinbeck captures his feel for time's toll on the landscape as well as anything he ever wrote. The family dynamics have an elemental quality that he never approached again. The Grapes of Wrath may be his best book, but the rest of his corpus offers intelligent, humane company at almost every turning in a reader's life: Of Mice and Men for friendship, Cannery Row for laughter, Travels with Charley for wisdom, or some yet undervalued Steinbeck, just waiting for the next reader to see in it what no one else has.
Within twenty-four hours during December of 1939, John Steinbeck had an experience unsurpassed in the whole long tango between literature and Hollywood. After traveling down to Los Angeles, he and his wife Carol got their first look at not one but two new masterpieces made from his work: Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.
Of the latter film, Steinbeck himself claimed that, "[Producer Darryl] Zanuck has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly has a hard, truthful ring.... It is a harsher thing than the book, by far. It seems unbelievable but it is true."
We should take Steinbeck's claim with a large grain of salt, but also recognize the genuine cinematic artistry that enabled him even to compare the filmmakers' achievement with his own. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson stands as first among equals beside his colleagues. Johnson reversed the Joads' stays in the two migrant camps, allowing the more humane government-run sanitary facility to come last, and blunt a bit of the novel's bleakness. He also bowed to the censors' expected rejection of the book's final, unforgettable image, transposing a speech of Ma's to improvise an ending hopeful enough to pass muster, yet plaintive enough to generate real, productive anger among audiences.
Johnson's was one of seven Oscar nominations for The Grapes of Wrath, but only Jane Darwell's performance as Ma and Ford's direction won their categories. The film is director John Ford's most atypical movie and, for some, still his best. It's not a western, except geographically. It's about survival, not gallantry, and John Wayne is nowhere in sight. Instead Ford relies on the lantern-lit cinematography of Gregg Toland and the remarkable work of his actors. Besides Darwell's heroic incarnation of Ma Joad, the ensemble includes Henry Fonda in his iconic Oscar-nominated role as Tom, John Carradine as Jim Casy, and the luminous Dorris Bowdon as Rosasharn. Ford once said, "The main thing about directing is: photograph the people's eyes." There's hardly a face in the picture that doesn't stare back at the audience in tacit accusation.
Some filming took place near the actual sites that Steinbeck and his friend, Tom Collins, visited during research for the novel. Collins, director of the compassionately run Weedpatch Camp in Arvin, California, was a consultant on the film, ensuring as much accuracy as possible. The result is a starkly beautiful movie, suffused in every scene with the intensity of craftsmen working on what even they must have suspected was the most important picture they might ever make.
"Then I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there.... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'—I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build."
—Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath
What Steinbeck did for the Dust Bowl's dispossessed in fiction, the great American folksinger Woody Guthrie did for them in song. Guthrie saw the film of The Grapes of Wrath, which strongly influenced his classic song cycle "Dust Bowl Ballads"—sometimes directly, as in "Tom Joad, Parts 1 and 2."
As Guthrie wrote, "There was a feller who knew us Okies, and he knew what it was like in Oklahoma, and he knew about the dust and the debts that covered us up."