The Grapes of Wrath

The Harbinger of Tom Joad: John Steinbeck’s Approach to Documentary Reportage in “The Harvest Gypsies”

Nearly sixty years after John Steinbeck put pen to paper and wrote the series of San Francisco News articles that would later inspire The Grapes of Wrath, a renowned singer-songwriter from Freehold, New Jersey wrote a beautifully tragic song about the anguish of poverty and social injustice in contemporary America. Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 album and title-track single “The Ghost of Tom Joad” aligned with Steinbeck’s own documentary mission and gave voice to society’s downtrodden through what Rolling Stone called “plaintive, bitter epiphanies” that resembled the “Depression-era sensibility” of Woody Guthrie. The magazine summarized Springsteen’s decree as such: “These are times for lamentations, for measuring how much of the American promise has been broken or abandoned and how much of our future is transfigured into a vista of ruin. These are pitiless times.”

John Steinbeck explored this same break with the American promise in writing “The Harvest Gypsies,” a series of articles published in the San Francisco News for one week in October 1936. The paper’s editor, George West, hired Steinbeck to chronicle the hardships of migrant workers in rural California—and there was no paucity of material. From 1935 to 1938, roughly 400,000...

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