How 'The Grapes of Wrath' Got Its Name

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John Steinbeck—born 112 years ago Thursday—wrote more than thirty books, and The Grapes of Wrath, which you were most likely assigned to read in high school, is widely considered to be his best work. The novel was published in 1939 to great acclaim, both critically and commercially; it “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national talk radio; but above all, it was read.” It was also the New York Times’ bestselling book of 1939, and won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

As for the title, where did the phrase “The Grapes of Wrath” come from? As David Greetham notes  in his 1998 book Textual Transgressions: Essays Toward the Construction of a Bibliography:

As is well-known, it was Carol Henning, Steinbeck’s wife, who provided the almost-finished novel with its title, drawn, of course, from Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As Steinbeck reported in his journal for September 3, 1938, “Carol got the title last night…The book has being at last.” But what was the “being” the novel had achieved…? The story proceeds: because Steinbeck had already destroyed a 70,000-word draft of an earlier version in which California growers were polemically attacked, he was very sensitive to the political meaning of the new version and decided that one way to avoid the charge of radicalism, foreign-inspired propaganda was (almost literally) to wrap the book in the flag by insisting that the words and music of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” be printed in the endpapers. In fact, when the first proof was returned by his editor with only one verse [of the song] as prologue, Steinbeck wrote back “I meant to print all, all, all the verses of the Battle Hymn. They’re all pertinent and they’re all exciting. And the music too.”

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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