Drought farmers line the shady side of the main street of the town while their crops burn up in the fields. "The guvment may keep us a little I reckon." Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Dorothea Lange: August 1936
Credit: Library of Congress
Steinbeck’s conscious and unconscious borrowings, echoes, and reverberations throughout The Grapes of Wrath came from a constellation of artistic, social and intellectual sources so varied no single reckoning can do them justice.
— Robert DeMott, Introduction, Working Days
The historical record of John Steinbeck’s working method that culminated in The Grapes of Wrath includes his accounts of the migrants in the camps gathered through his fieldwork and accompanied by photographic documentation by Dorothea Lange and other national photojournalists. These observations found expression in Steinbeck’s The Harvest Gypsies series of news articles which served as a seedbed for The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck also kept a personal journal with daily entries during the writing of The Grapes of Wrath, later published as Working Days. An examination of The Harvest Gypsies and Working Days provides valuable insight into the author’s mindset and vision as he composed the novel.
In this lesson, students will study the sources of visual images that influenced Steinbeck’s writing in The Grapes of Wrath and its precursors. They will examine Dorothea Lange Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs from the 1930s and trace Steinbeck’s method of drawing upon and further honing such images into pictorial prose through the “crucible of his imagination.” Students will then analyze and interpret the role the imagery based upon these verbal pictures plays in key passages within The Grapes of Wrath.
What earlier writing and what influences did Steinbeck draw upon to compose The Grapes of Wrath? Steinbeck’s The Harvest Gypsies newspaper articles along with nationally published FSA photographs from the 1930s depicting Dust Bowl Oklahoma and California migrant life provide one answer. A second answer is provided in Working Days, a meticulous account of the one-hundred “working day” period of writing the novel, from March 1938 through October 1938. In his entry #18, dated June 18  — 9:45 Saturday, Steinbeck reflects: “This is a huge job. Mustn’t think of its largeness but only of the little picture while I’m working. Leave the large picture for planning time.”
The similarity between Steinbeck’s descriptive style of prose and the style of photography found in FSA photographs including Lange’s images reflects the author’s “sharp, detailed focus upon “the little picture ‘within’ the large picture.” The daughter of the director of the FSA photography division “had the impression that Steinbeck based his description of the Joad family on pictures from the FSA files in the Library of Congress,” Steinbeck developed a pictorial prose style that matched the photographic images from the newspaper articles of the day, which were already becoming lodged in the minds of the American reader.
Steinbeck’s String of Pictures, available in Image Magazine Online, pairs Farm Security Administration photographs and other images with passages from Steinbeck, maintaining that he drew inspiration from these images when conceiving his fictional account of migrant life in The Grapes of Wrath. EDSITEment-reviewed Wessel’s Living History Farm contains an overview of the Farm Security Administration and FSA Photographers whose images illustrated Steinbeck’s newspaper articles and were a source of inspiration to him. For an extensive repository of these photographs, see the Library of Congress resource: America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935–1945. Finally, an overview of the novel’s journalistic roots is provided in “Of Migrants and Misdeeds” California and The Grapes of Wrath by Susan Shillinglaw, San Jose State University (available from John Steinbeck Voice for a Region, Voices for America).
In writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck set out to supply enough accurate, imagistic details to provide authenticity and help the reader get a clear picture of his characters. These characters channeled the outrage and indignation he had felt after traveling California, researching The Harvest Gypsies. Steinbeck simply couldn’t shake from his mind the conditions of abject misery and horror he had witnessed among migrants in Visalia-Nipomo floods of 1938. The imagistic immediacy with which Steinbeck invests in these characters also ensured that their struggle to rise above their circumstances and maintain dignity against enormous odds chronicled their heroism. His fictional Joad family is imbued with such poignancy and pathos that he raised them to the level of tragic heroes.
Figure1. Dorothea Lange, Migrants, family of Mexicans, on road with tire trouble. Looking for work in the peas. California, February 1936.
[Note to the teacher: omit the above caption for the following activity.]
Share this information with the class:
By 1936, John Steinbeck was an established author with a not-altogether-accurate reputation as a voice for labor. As a result, the editor of the liberal San Francisco News invited him to report on migrant workers in California. Steinbeck didn’t know it, but his investigation would supply authentic visual details as well as sow righteous indignation, and crystalize his own personal morality which later emerged into his masterwork of fiction, The Grapes of Wrath. The Harvest Gypsies newspaper article series was illustrated with Dorothea Lange photographs. These articles, along with their documentary visual images, foreshadowed the imagistic style of the novel to come. The Lange photo (Figure 1) appeared on the cover of a compilation of Steinbeck’s The Harvest Gypsies articles.
While displaying the photo in Figure 1, read this brief excerpt from The Harvest Gypsies with the class:
… suddenly the roads will be filled with open rattletrap cars loaded with children and with dirty bedding, with fire-blackened cooking utensils … Often they patched the worn-out tires every few miles. (The Harvest Gypsies: Article 1)
Have students note three details in The Harvest Gypsies excerpt that could apply to the family in the Lange photo; then ask them to create a descriptive title for it.
2. Now, show students a second Dorothea Lange photo, using the hotlink, below, to obtain a larger view.
Figure 2. Dorothea Lange, Migrant pea pickers camp in the rain. California, February 1936.
Have students compare this photo to the following excerpt from The Harvest Gypsies.
This is a family of six; a man, his wife and four children. They live in a tent the color of the ground. Rot has set in on the canvas so that the flaps and the sides hang in tatters and are held together with bits of rusty baling wire. (The Harvest Gypsies, Article 2)
Ask students to list the details in the Steinbeck excerpt that correspond to the family in Figure 2.
For this activity, students perform a visual and textual analysis of an FSA photographic image taken by Dorothea Lange that underlies a specific passage of Steinbeck’s novel, and then trace the evolution of this image into its final form as a major literary symbol in The Grapes of Wrath. (For further information on the symbolic significance of this passage, see the video dialogue on Chapter 14 mentioned in “Preparation Instructions,” above.)
Figure 3. Dorothea Lange, Drought farmers line the shady side of the main street of the town while their crops burn up in the fields. "The guvment may keep us a little I reckon." Sallisaw, Oklahoma. August 1936.
To begin this activity, have students complete the Graphic Organizer/Flow Chart Worksheet. This graphic organizer records their initial observations of the visual descriptive details found in the following sources as a preliminary activity to their analysis and interpretation of this important image in Steinbeck’s writing. The organizer contains a page with the following excerpts provided for easy reference while completing each Block. (A Teacher Key with suggested responses is also provided.):
Block 1. The original Lange photograph of 1936
Block 2. Working Days Journal excerpt June 23, 1938
Block 3. Working Days Journal excerpt June 24, 1938
Block 4. The Grapes of Wrath Chapter 14, excerpt published 1939 (in which Steinbeck’s transformation of this photographic image is built into the narrative)
Teachers may want to have students further visualize Steinbeck’s final version of this image by providing them with an opportunity to illustrate their interpretation of The Grapes of Wrath Chapter 14 excerpt. This may be done independently or as a class activity with teachers reading the passage out loud.
For the rest of Activity 2, teachers guide students sequentially through Worksheets 1, 2, and 3 using the questions to track Steinbeck’s evolving use of this image.
Worksheet 1. Unpacking the photographic composition and considering its historical context: students are guided through an examination of the original FSA August 1936 photograph by Dorothea Lange Figure 3.
Worksheet 2. Developing the visual image into an important literary theme: students are guided through a close reading of two Working Days journal entry excerpts recorded by Steinbeck June 23 and 24, 1938.
Worksheet 3. Integrating the image into a major literary symbol: students are guided through a close and deep reading of a short passage from Chapter 14 in The Grapes of Wrath.
If desired, have students view the video excerpt of scholar, Susan Shillinglaw, reading from Chapter 14, where she articulates the theme “‘I’ to ‘We.’”
Students select one FSA photograph from this lesson or one they have located on their own. (See Steinbeck’s "‘String of Pictures’ in The Grapes of Wrath” or the Library of Congress resource: America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935–1945.) They should describe details in the photograph that reflect the story of the Dust Bowl migrants as told in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Students should quote sections of the novel to support their argument.
PBS’s The Dust Bowl
San Jose State’s online Center for Steinbeck Studies
1-2 class periods