Nearly 70 years after it was published, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” — which tells of the dirt-poor Joad family’s epic migration from drought-plagued Oklahoma to fruitful (if unfriendly) Central California — continues to resonate as few novels have. In fact, the book may well be more relevant today than at any time since it first appeared in April 1939.
“The Grapes of Wrath” has always been extraordinarily popular. More than 400,000 copies flew off the shelves its first year in print, making it the nation’s No. 1 seller. So powerful was Steinbeck’s portrayal of the Joads’ plight that people began referring to the fictional clan as if it were real. “Meet the Joad Family,” read one newspaper headline. “What’s Being Done About the Joads?” asked another. “The Joads on Strike,” declared a third.
Before long, thanks in part to Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad on the big screen and Woody Guthrie crooning about the Joads in his “Dust Bowl Ballads,” Steinbeck’s characters had become permanently etched into popular culture. When Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine sang about “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” legions of fans were already tuned in to the generations-old reference.
Indeed, wherever people exhibit tremendous strength amid terrible anguish, the Joads are a potent symbol. “I suspect I met a few Ma Joads and Tom Joads in Kabul,” said Afghanistan-born author Khaled Hosseini as he described the process that led him to write “The Kite Runner.”