Literary Daybook, March 14

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published March 14, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 14, 1904, Albert Louis signs a two-year contract to build the Panama Canal.
-- "Tree of Life" (1987)
by Maryse Condé

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1939, John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" was published. A series of shorter novels published in the mid-'30s -- "Tortilla Flat," "In Dubious Battle," "Of Mice and Men," "The Red Pony" -- had brought Steinbeck increasing success and fame, but he longed to do a longer novel reflecting "a very grave attempt to do a first-rate piece of work." With a lifelong empathy for the working poor, and months spent researching the "fruit tramps" and "Okies" who lived in the West Coast migrant camps, Steinbeck's subject and theme were never in question; less clear were the book's style and tone.

His first treatment of the material was unabashed propaganda, a vicious satire of the political groups and farmers' associations that, having bungled the camps into existence, now allowed those trapped within them to perish by hunger, sickness and vigilantism. Though the book was already being advertised by his publisher, Steinbeck burned the manuscript: "a smart-alec book," he said, "full of tricks to make people ridiculous."

Having first attacked the victimizers he would now tell the story of the victims; having a tendency to race and sketch, he would make himself go slowly; having chosen "L'Affaire Lettuceberg" as the title of the burned attempt, he would let his wife choose the new title (as she had for the previous books). Steinbeck could not go slowly -- a 700-page novel written, revised and printed in 10 months -- but his story of the Joads got him his "big book," and "Carol's best title so far": "I like it because it is a march and this book is a kind of march -- because it is in our revolutionary tradition."

Steinbeck's hope was that a title drawn from the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" would forestall "the fascist crowd" who he knew would attempt "to sabotage this book [and] try to give it the communist angle"; his fear was that the politics of his novel would prevent any wide popularity. He was wrong on both counts: "The Grapes of Wrath" was the bestseller of 1939, and the bannings, burnings, death threats and denouncements were enthusiastic, delivered even in the House of Representatives by an Oklahoma congressman: "I say to you, and to every honest, square-minded reader in America, that the painting Steinbeck made in this book is a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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