Women washing clothes. Tulare migrant camp. Visalia, California.
Credit: Library of Congress.
I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written.
In a 1939 letter, John Steinbeck wrote that his goal for The Grapes of Wrath was “to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” Through the novel, Steinbeck wanted readers to experience the life of the Dust Bowl migrants with whom he had spent time. To achieve the authenticity he desired, Steinbeck sought to pile genuine, specific detail upon genuine, specific detail. He found an invaluable source in the official reports of Tom Collins, the director of California’s Arvin Migrant Camp. Aware of the criticism the novel’s passion and partisanship were likely to arouse, Steinbeck noted in his writer’s journal (published as Working Days), “I need this stuff [i.e., Collins’s reports]. It is exact and just the thing that will be used against me if I am wrong.”
Eighteen of Collins’s reports are available from the EDSITEment-reviewed National Archives. Comparing the reports to The Grapes of Wrath offers students a rare look into a writer’s process of converting nonfiction material into fiction. What details did Steinbeck choose? How did he use them? What purpose was he trying to achieve?
The impetus for writing The Grapes of Wrath came out of John Steinbeck’s experience researching and publishing Harvest Gypsies, a seven-part San Francisco News series about the plight of agricultural migrant workers in California. While conducting that research, Steinbeck met and traveled with Tom Collins, the manager of the Arvin Migrant Camp (informally known as “Weedpatch Camp.”) The relationship Steinbeck formed with Collins evolved between 1936 and 1938, with the two traveling over the San Joaquin valley to gather information and offer aid to migrant families in crisis.
Tom Collins’s reports and background on the official Arvin Migrant Camp are available in digital form from the EDSITEment-reviewed website, the National Archives. Steinbeck frankly admitted mining information from the reports to write the novel. Archival Vintages for The Grapes of Wrath details the relationship between the two and how Steinbeck’s commitment to write the novel evolved out of experiences “on the road,” especially their attempts to rescue thousands of squatter camp families during the floods February 1938. When Steinbeck dedicated The Grapes of Wrath to his wife and “To Tom who lived it,” he was referring to Tom Collins.
There are indications that Steinbeck believed using nonfiction sources to ground the novel’s fictional migrant scenes would help fend off the expected storm of criticism after publication. Indeed, Oklahoma congressman Lyle Boren denounced the book as “a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted distorted mind.” Eleanor Roosevelt rallied to its defense saying: "The book is coarse in spots, but life is coarse in spots."
In his introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of The Grapes of Wrath, Robert DeMott notes that Collins’s “lively weekly accounts of the workers’ activities, events, diets, entertainments, sayings, beliefs, and observations provided Steinbeck with a ready documentary supplement to his own research.” Yet the question remains: How does Steinbeck’s portrayal of the Joads reflect the factual, nonfiction accounts of what happened to some families?
After the class has completed its reading of The Grapes of Wrath, assign one or more students one of the “cards” in the “Preparatory Activity.” Each card orients students to a specific subject group and asks them to find one brief passage from The Grapes of Wrath that could have been inspired by the cutting from the Collins reports. [Note: These subject groups will be used again in Activity 3.]
1. Share some of the critical responses of the American public to the novel upon its publication, both laudatory and hostile, to show students the necessity for Steinbeck to seek authenticity in the creation of the work. Valuable insights into the reception of The Grapes of Wrath received by the people of Oklahoma can be drawn from The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.
2. Share background information about Tom Collins with the students using the synopsis below.
Tom Collins was the director of two migrant camps in California. We know that John Steinbeck read and used as source material reports that Collins wrote as part of his official duties. Because these were official reports—and because we have corroboration from other observers’ notes about the camps—we have every reason to believe that these reports are factually accurate, though Collins sometimes enlivened his account with humorous stories and commentary.
3. Have students read the following cutting from page nine of Collins’s report of April 25, 1936.
4. Next, instruct students to turn to Chapter 22 of The Grapes of Wrath and read from the first occurrence of the phrase “‘So!’ she cried …” to the words “Dropped that baby dead.” Engage students in a comparative discussion between this passage and the cutting from the Tom Collins reports.
Questions to consider:
5. Ask the students to think for a moment of ways an author of fiction can use nonfiction material. Brainstorm with the class a list of brief explanatory “labels” for the different ways a fiction writer can use nonfiction [see bolded words in the list, below]. For example, students might suggest that authors could use nonfiction material to
1. Using PDFs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9, give a small group or individual student one of the eight group activity worksheets with cuttings from the Collins reports. The subject of each worksheet matches the subject “cards” of Activity #1, which students used to seek out narrative passages in the novel.
2. For each cutting from Collins, students should again find one matching passage in The Grapes of Wrath. Now, however, students must also give an explanatory “label” to this pair that describes how Steinbeck treated the nonfiction material. Students can either use the labels in the previous activity or suggest others.
3. After the students have finished, have them enter their matching pairs and labels into the Graphic Organizer PDF.
1. After all information has been entered in the organizer; provide an opportunity for the students to review the matching pairs from all of the groups.
2. Lead a discussion on the ways Steinbeck used the Collins reports:
Did the exposure to Steinbeck’s nonfiction sources enrich your experience of this novel?
Present the following questions (to be answered in writing) to the class:
Extending the Lesson
Suggested Topics for Further Research
For more information on Tom Collins and the Arvin Migrant Camp, look at the website for Weedpatch Camp (Arvin), a link from the National Archives at San Francisco. Students may want to read the complete Tom Collins reports.
Students interested in reading more of John Steinbeck’s nonfiction series on California’s migrants may access four complete Harvest Gypsy articles from the San Francisco News through the EDSITEment-reviewed New Deal Network. Links to two additional nonfiction pieces by Steinbeck are also available on the same page.
EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory offers field interviews about life in RA/FSA camps in its Voices from the Dust Bowl.
Two of particular interest are listed here (as .wav files):
2 class periods