John Steinbeck, American writer, is born
Steinbeck’s Use of Nonfiction Sources in "The Grapes of Wrath"
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?
List ways a writer of fiction can use nonfiction material to accomplish a specific purpose
Discuss examples of John Steinbeck’s use of the Tom Collins reports
How did John Steinbeck use Tom Collins’s Arvin Migrant Camp reports in The Grapes of Wrath?
How does the way Steinbeck uses nonfiction sources affect the reader’s perception of the novel’s authenticity?
John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath": The Inner Chapters
You say the inner chapters were counterpoint and so they were—that they were pace changers and they were that too but the basic purpose was to hit the reader below the belt. With the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader—open him up and while he is open introduce—things on an intellectual level which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up. It is a psychological trick if you wish but all techniques of writing are psychological tricks.
– John Steinbeck to Herbert Sturtz, 1953
John Steinbeck recognized that one of the most criticized elements of The Grapes of Wrath was his alternating use of inner (also known as intercalary) chapters that interrupt the narrative of the Joads. Steinbeck noted, in his response to a Columbia University student’s letter, that the inner chapters “…have been pommeled. You are the first critical person who seems to have suspected that they had a purpose.” Steinbeck is clear. “Its [The Grapes of Wrath’s] structure is very carefully worked out.” [See: John Steinbeck, “A Letter on Criticism,” Colorado Quarterly 4 (Autumn 1955): 218–219.] The way the book is put together is no accident. The inner chapters were designed by the author. Why did he include them?
The Grapes of Wrath opens with a brief ecological look at the Plains drought in the first inner chapter. What purpose does this chapter’s “inner” narrative serve? In this lesson, students will first determine the function of Steinbeck’s opening chapter which acts as the first “inner chapter.” They will then explore the relationship between inner chapters and the Joad narrative chapters throughout the novel.
Identify the purpose and reflect upon the effectiveness of the inner chapters in this novel
State the relationship between an inner chapter and the Joad chapter that follows it
How does Steinbeck’s image-filled opening chapter convey the intensity of the problems faced by Dust Bowl farmers?
Why does Steinbeck employ inner chapters and place them intermittently between the Joad chapters in The Grapes of Wrath?