Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Steinbeck’s Use of Nonfiction Sources in "The Grapes of Wrath"

Created September 17, 2012


The Lesson


Steinbeck image (women washing clothes)

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.

—John Steinbeck

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?

Guiding Questions

  • 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?

Learning Objectives

  • 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


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?

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Preparing the Student

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.]

Activity 2. Modeling Fictional Uses of Nonfiction

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.

Excerpt of the Tom Collins report

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:

  • Does the woman, Lisbeth Sandry, give the appearance (at least at first) of being “quiet and lovable”?
  • Does she “cuss”? Does she “disapprove of dancing”? Is she “a terrific gossiper”? Is she “religious”?
  • In what ways is Steinbeck’s portrait of Lisbeth Sandry different from Collins’s? In what way, if any, does that affect the students’ views of the book’s authenticity?
  • What label would students suggest to describe how Steinbeck used Collins’s account of the religious, gossiping woman?

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

  • Satirize the subject
  • Downplay what really happened
  • Stay faithful to the original material
  • Support a political position
  • Give a journalistic feel to a fictional account
  • Visualize an event or character
  • Exaggerate for dramatic effect
  • Influence feelings about a character or event
Activity 3. Comparison

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.

Activity 4. Reviewing the Matching Pairs

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:

  • How do the passages from the novel compare to Collins’s reports?
  • What is Steinbeck doing in the various passages from the novel? Does he generally use Collins’s reports in one way or a variety of ways?
  • Did Steinbeck simply “stay faithful” to the material? Did he ever stray far from the original? Is “straying from the original” license any fiction writer has no matter what the nature of the material?
  • Would you say that, on balance, Steinbeck conveyed an accurate picture of life for the migrants?
  • If a fiction writer is conveying a strong message—as Steinbeck certainly does—do the “facts” become more or less important?

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:

  1. Briefly list four ways an author of fiction can use nonfiction sources.
  2. Provide two examples of Steinbeck’s use of material from Tom Collins’s official reports in The Grapes of Wrath. Briefly explain how each was used.

Extending The Lesson

Extending the Lesson

  1. Share the dedication of The Grapes of Wrath with your students.
  2. “To CAROL who willed it. To TOM who lived it.” Have student write a reflection essay on this dedication. What did Steinbeck owe Collins in terms of public recognition? Should Steinbeck have given Collins more credit due to the amount of material from the reports he used in his story? Should he have clarified that the dedication was to Tom Collins rather than Tom Joad, as most of the public came to believe? Was Steinbeck right to allow Collins contribution to go unnoticed?
  3. As Steinbeck predicted, the publication of The Grapes of Wrath stirred a firestorm of controversy. Divide students into two groups and have each group review the following secondary sources:
    • The Oklahoma State Encyclopedia’s entry on The Grapes of Wrath notes the positive and negative effects of the novel (including Congressman Lyle Boren’s denunciation of the book in Congress as “a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted distorted mind”).
    • The Books That Shaped America exhibition at the Library of Congress Center for the Book identifies The Grapes of Wrath as one of the few novels that can claim that their message led to new legislation.
    • Finally, the NPR radio show Present at Creation reports the story behind this iconic novel and how it led to congressional hearings on migrant camp conditions that actually spurred changes in labor laws for farmworkers.
    • Have these groups stage a classroom debate on the subject: Resolved: Steinbeck did/did not convey the “truth” about the lives of migrants despite his use of the Tom Collins reports.
  4. Have students write a creative fictional essay using a nonfiction source, perhaps from the Tom Collins’s reports. This may take the form of a diary entry, a day in the life, a eulogy, or a testimonial using one of Steinbeck’s characters or one of the students’ own.

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):


EDSITEment-Reviewed Websites

American Memory

The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Internet Public Library

Annenberg Learner

National Archives

New Deal Network

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > AP Literature
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using primary sources
  • David Kleiner (Rydal, PA)

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