Can novels such as The Grapes of Wrath serve as history

Although John Steinbecks “The Grapes of Wrath” has generally been accepted as the definitive novel representing the great depression, it should in fact not be viewed as a historically relevant text due to the many inaccuracies peppered throughout the novel. This serves to detract from the historical significance of the novel and consequently casts it aside as fiction or merely myth making. This essay will deal with the inaccuracies in the novel and the possible reasons for them and will thus show that the novel is of little historical significance.

Initially it must be determined whether or not Steinbeck even intended for his novel to be viewed as a historically relevant account of the Great Depression. It can be seen that Steinbeck did indeed intend for his novel to be viewed as a historically relevant text through the comments he made to Pascal Covici (January 16, 1939) “I’ve tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are being written” as well as his comments made to Elizabeth Otis, “I’m trying to write history while it is happening and I don’t want to be wrong.”1 It is possible that Steinbeck believed his account of the Great Depression was factual and correct, especially after taking into account the fact that very little research had been done on the immigrants at this stage. However one cannot dismiss the idea that perhaps the factual inconsitancies present in the novel where not a mistake but rather a deliberate warping of the facts to support the political undertones present throughout the novel, such as blaming the banks for repossessing the land while it was rather an effect of a policy on agriculture present in the New Deal.2

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Some of the historical inaccuracies present in the novel are either grossly exaggerated or completely false all together, some examples of this are the reasons why the people migrated from places like Oklahoma and Texas as well as the number of actual immigrants and including the conditions under which they migrated. As was pointed out by Windschuttles article, many of the people who migrated to California, did so not because of the terrible draughts or the depression as Steinbeck portays, but rather because of the economic boom in the post war economy shortly after World War 2.

The majority of the migrants where infact educated and did indeed find work in California despite Steinbecks claims to the alternative, blaming massive dust storms and drought which plague the novel throughout. Steinbeck also blames the banks as a factor forcing the people off their land, this again however is false (as stated earlier) as it was infact an agricultural policy of the New Deal that led the people of Oklahoma and surrounding areas to migrate. Not only is this a warped portrayal of the events leading to the migration but is also purely fictional as there where no droughts in the Oklahoma area where the Joad family lived, this clearly indicates that atleast parts of the novel are purely fictional and of no historical relevance.3

The majority of the people who left for California where educated and found employment, however there was a small percentage of unskilled workers who did migrate too, although their migration was not as unbearable as Steinbeck would lead one to believe. Steinbeck portrays a life of misery and starvation for these families depicting them as wondering around aimlessly in the vain attempt to find work in order to keep themselves alive. In actual fact these people where not nearly as hard done by as Steinbeck portrays, in actual fact there where government grants for families who where out of work and wages at the time where higher by between 20 – 50% than anywhere else. Despite these two factors, work was in fact plentiful in stark contrast to Steinbeck’s portrayal of too many people for one job, in fact there were more jobs than workers.4

Steinbeck also exaggerates the terrible plight faced by the Joads on their arrival in California, depicting the Californian people as extremely unfriendly and hostile toward the migrants, in reality however, those arriving in California did find work with good wages and were able to settle in one place instead of continually moving around trying to eek out a living. Many of the migrants actually had relatives in California before they migrated to the area and if the worst came to the worst they could get help from them, however most never faced this problem as they earned a better living in California than they did in their previous homes.5

Many of the inaccuracies in the novel have been put down to a lack of information at the time of writing and publication of the novel, however due to the political overtones suggested by Steinbeck one must wonder whether the inaccuracies where indeed a result of a lack of information or rather a consequence of Steinbeck’s beliefs taking precedent over historical fact which could account for the drastic over exaggeration of the conditions endured by the okies.

In closing it is clear that Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath should not be viewed as historical fact due to the inaccuracies throughout the novel, which over exaggerate the conditions and plight faced by the migrant workers. Though Steinbeck intended for his novel to be a definitive portrayal of the Great Depression, it fails due to the inaccuracies caused either by a lack of research or over exaggeration to serve his own political ideologies. One must always keep in mind though that history is never objective and does represent even at the most simplistic level, the historians view on events, and consequently true objectivity cannot be reached. Steinbeck’s novel though has many historical inaccuracies, in fact to such an extent that one cannot accept it as a valid historical resource, but should rather cast it aside as a work of fiction based on a historical event, and consequently cannot count it as an accurate portrayal of the events themselves.