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Left-wing Radicalism in the United States: A Foreign Creed?

A Conspiracy of Silence: The Suppressed Protest of The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath

Adam Nemmers


À l’avant-garde du mouvement ouvrier aux États-Unis, les écrivains radicaux cherchaient à faire passer l’idéologie marxiste par le biais de la littérature prolétarienne, en particulier dans la première moitié du xxe siècle. Pour éviter les accusations d’anti-américanisme, des auteurs comme Upton Sinclair et John Steinbeck ont cherché à transmettre leurs histoires en adoptant les codes de la fiction populaire et commerciale, afin de toucher un public plus large que celui des lecteurs et lectrices de revues ou des militants et militantes. Tous deux y sont parvenus, dans une certaine mesure ; leurs romans ont connu un grand succès et sont aujourd’hui considérés comme des classiques de la littérature états-unienne. Pourtant, il s’agissait là d’une victoire à la Pyrrhus, qui sacrifiait le message politique des œuvres. Cet article vise à démontrer les raisons pour lesquelles la postérité de ces ouvrages s’est faite au prix de leurs intentions radicales et révolutionnaires.

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Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
John Steinbeck

I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.
Upton Sinclair

1In his article “What Life Means to Me,” published immediately after the 1906 release of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair mounted a spirited defense of proletarian sentimentality, denouncing “those academic critics who think that the book is nothing but the sensation of a moment” (1906 594). In contrast to middle-class “realists of the French school,” who are “expert psychologists” and “assemble their material with infinite skill,” Sinclair believed proletarian writers were “beginning to find a voice,” in large part because “the proletarian writer is a writer with a purpose” (594). Some thirty years later, relying heavily upon his own brand of proletarian sentimentality, John Steinbeck composed The Grapes of Wrath (1939) with “a definite job to do”: “rip a reader’s nerves to rags” and “put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible” (1976 178, 162). Sinclair’s novel ends with stirring a call for a Socialist revolution; Steinbeck’s title is an allusion to the book of Revelation, where the phrase appeals to deliverance and divine justice. Given these broadcast intentions, it is apparent that Steinbeck and Sinclair designed their novels with a similar purpose: to illuminate the plight of (im)migrant workers; to decry exploitative wage-slavery; to excoriate rapacious businessmen; in all, to protest and subvert the callous capitalist system that proved so tragic for their protagonists.

2If one were to ask the lay reader for a précis, however, their response would be unlikely to feature Socialism, industrial agriculture, wage slavery, exploitation, capitalism, or anything of the kind. In the popular consciousness of the twenty-first century The Jungle is best known as a disgusting book about meat-packing, while The Grapes of Wrath features the maudlin plight of poor Okie fruit-pickers—each a disrupted distillation of the radical political content of the novels. In addition to information gleaned from friends, family, students, and colleagues, I would flag as representative impressions registered by readers such as Slate’s Karen Olsson, who was assigned The Jungle in high school and reports “what I remembered best […] was that gruesome image of men falling into vats.” In turn, the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read program, a nationwide initiative attended by 4.9 million Americans over the past decade, cites The Grapes of Wrath’s “quintessentially American themes of hard work, self-determination, and reasoned dissent” as primary reasons for its selection as a public text (“Grapes”). I do not, of course, advance such a conception as shared by every member of the reading public, especially those who study literature for a living. But it is nevertheless my contention that such perceptions are shared by most, if not many, Americans—both those who have read the novel(s) and those who have not. Put simply, Americans did not read these books, and do not remember them, in the radical, revolutionary spirit their authors intended.

3The epigraphs to this article speak to this fundamental misapprehension, a disconnect between expectation and execution that scuttled the authors’ overall design. The Jungle reached an audience who felt with “stomachs” rather than “hearts,” while Grapes encountered a readership of “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” rather than the exploited proletariat. That the novels missed the mark, I posit, is not due to authorial flaw but rather the work of publishers, politicians, academics, critics, and capitalists who sought to suppress, diminish, and marginalize the novels’ ideological content. That is, The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath proved too popular, too political, too powerful to be read according to their authors’ intentions, and have accordingly been disseminated through a century of persistent (if not always parallel) opposition that subjugated, bifurcated, and otherwise diluted their provocative messages. The following study of the novels’ production, reception, and afterlives proves instructive in how such subtle measures may steer and sterilize the public memory of an otherwise incendiary text. In doing so, I answer the question of how, as Mollie Godfrey poses of Grapes, “a novel so critical of American capitalism [could] become a cornerstone in America’s romantic mythology about itself,” surviving not as a scathing critique of the status quo but “an iconic tale of ‘noble’ individuals who face poverty in the American way with hard work and determination” (107).


4Positing an ideological suppression of these novels warrants an exposé of their radical politics. Doing so for The Jungle takes little effort or imagination, as Sinclair was an avowed, card-carrying Socialist and the novel was originally published in the Socialist weekly Appeal to Reason. According to Leon A. Harris’s biography, the author, “appalled that he could have gone through years of college and graduate school and not known about modern Socialism […] decided if ‘the professors refuse to teach the students about modern life, it was up to the students to teach themselves’” (75). Indeed, The Jungle’s last third promulgates the basic Socialist program through the conversion of protagonist Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant and laborer in the Chicago slaughterhouses. After a period of tribulation including illness, incarceration, and eviction, Jurgis is rescued from wage-slavery by Ostrinski, a fellow worker who introduces him to the gospel of Socialism. Much of the final act is set in a Socialist meeting hall, where Jurgis absorbs the rousing speeches of fictional provocateurs Mr. Lucas and Nicholas Schliemann, cribbed nearly word-for-word from the orators’ real-life analogues. The novel’s last pages lapse into the evangelist rantings of a Socialist narrator who issues a call for revolution in Chicago. It is sufficient to conclude that The Jungle was designed, however cumbersomely, to “introduce its readership of various classes to the core principles of Socialism” (Harris 75).

  • 1 For more this relationship, see Stauffer and Soskis.

5In contrast to The Jungle, The Grapes of Wrath has only occasionally been classified as a Marxist text, despite the radical ideology it expounds. To be fair, the Marxist label is something Steinbeck himself—never a professed Socialist or Communist—would have shirked. Simon Stow outlines the author’s inherent contradictions, explaining that “Steinbeck was a staunch critic of capitalism but despised its state-centered alternatives; he championed community but feared the mob […]. Capitalists called him a communist, communists a capitulator. […] [He] was, and remains, dangerous precisely because it is impossible to pin him down to any single position” (9). Rather than a novel of straight propaganda (such as Sinclair’s), Steinbeck hoped to write an American book in the American protest tradition, as typified by American patriots and abolitionists—particularly John Brown, to whom Julia Ward Howe dedicated “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” from which the novel’s epigraph is excerpted. As Jennifer Banach explains, “Steinbeck worried about writing an ‘honest’ book […] he meant his novel to be a thoroughly American and patriotic one—one that, like Howe’s poem, would make social reform not a political matter but a matter of nonpartisan justice and personal reform” (37).1 In composing Grapes Steinbeck took pains to frame himself and his characters as fully American (i.e., not un- or anti-American), working hard through democratic institutions in order to expose and correct existing injustice. As Kurt Hochenauer writes, it is no coincidence that Steinbeck’s protagonist, Tom Joad, embraces “an all-encompassing mythology—the story of American protest” and further “mythologizes rebellion and protest as the natural right of all Americans” (393). By tying his narrative to larger American themes and truths, Steinbeck advanced his characters’ actions not as radical, not as revolutionary, but instead practical, inevitable, and patriotic. While not as overtly “proletarian” as Sinclair’s, Steinbeck’s message is perhaps more incisive, framed not as a rhetorical tool to promote a general agenda of what could be, but instead an unvarnished reflection of what already is. Steinbeck wished to hold a mirror to society, as Barbara Heavilin explains, “so that readers may see themselves and their society as they actually are, warts and all, in the hope that there will be reform and a return to right reason in governing human affairs” (2).

6Despite Steinbeck’s efforts to compose The Grapes of Wrath as an honest American novel, he realized opponents would “try to sabotage the book” by giving it “the Communist angle” (1976 174). Indeed the novel was initially read in Marxist terms by partisans on both right and left: while the Associated Farmers of California “denounced the book as a ‘pack of lies’ and labeled it ‘communist propaganda,’” the Communist Party’s Daily Worker proclaimed “it is hard to think of a more satisfying proletarian novel in America” (Wartzman, 2013 24; Yancey 42). There was ample reason for both parties to regard the novel as political propaganda. Like Sinclair in The Jungle, Steinbeck in Grapes exposes the ignoble underbelly of late capitalism and, through his depiction of the Joads’ pitiful plight, condemns a predatory economic system that exploits sharecroppers, migrant workers, and wage laborers alike. In chapter twenty-two, for instance, Steinbeck details a conversation between Mr. Hines, a small-time landowner, and an anonymous migrant worker who has recently arrived to California and is unaware of the community’s evolving argot:

‘Mr. Hines, I ain’t been here long. What is these goddamn reds?’ Well, sir, Hines says, ‘A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we’re payin’ twenty-five!’ Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an’ he scratches his head, an’ he says, ‘Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain’t a son-of-a-bitch, but if that’s what a red is—why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever’body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we’re all reds.’ (298).

  • 2 In content and tone the pronouncement is well in line with Steinbeck’s own thoughts on capitalism ( (...)

As the laborer concludes, if wanting to earn more money makes one a “Red,” then every person should be labeled so (especially, Steinbeck implies, the greedy landowners who would wring every last nickel from their workers). During the frequent interstices, which Steinbeck inserted to “hit the reader below the belt” (1990 13), the author’s revolutionary message is delivered directly by a sagacious narrator, who offers the following matter-of-fact observation: “When property accumulates in too few hands [...] it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need” (1997 238).2 Using plain prose and earnest reason, Steinbeck offers a pragmatic assertion regarding the inevitability of violent revolution—the exact threat levied by Marxist radicals. The linkage is made explicit in an interstitial passage that offers warning to capital-holders who hoard wealth and oppress workers:

This is the beginning—from “I” to “we.”
If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.” (1997 152)

The pairing of Paine and Jefferson, the ideological backbone of the American Revolution, with Marx and Lenin, who played a similar role for Communist revolutionaries, advances revolutionary action as the inevitable “result” of heartless capitalist excesses, further linking Marxism with the American revolutionary tradition. As Rick Wartzman argues, “If Steinbeck wasn’t calling for open revolt, he was surely tiptoeing close to that end” (2013 5). So it is that John Steinbeck, while not an avowedly Marxist author, designed his novel to promulgate a number of collectivist themes and ideals, framing them not as radical ideology, but merely a matter of rational and realistic human behavior common to American tradition.

7Although Steinbeck studiously avoids direct endorsement of Socialism or Communism, like Sinclair he promotes the promise of collective organization via the Weedpatch workers’ camp, which stands as a bastion against capitalist oppression. Sponsored by the federal government against the wishes of landowners, the camp offers the vision of a better life—fuller, happier, more equitable—for migrant workers according to progressive principles. Weedpatch is a haven for the destitute and road-weary Joad family, featuring democratic elections, self-policing committees, no-interest and forgivable micro-loans, and communal work groups that sew quilts and clothes. In exchange, migrant families are asked to pay a modest campsite fee—one dollar per week—used to provide common utilities such as water, toilet paper, trash removal, and indoor toilets. Parasitic religion has been removed beyond the camp bounds; so too has the brutal caprice of outside law enforcement. Instead the society is centered on equality, hard work, clean living, and a jubilant Saturday night dance that attracts workers in droves from the nearby countryside. In this light, Weedpatch is at once an Okies’ utopia and workers’ paradise. The soundness of the camp’s collectivism is felt all the more bitterly when the Joads are forced to depart Weedpatch in search of work: driven into ramshackle company housing, then a rickety boxcar, and finally a leaky barn in the dénouement. So dismal is the novel’s ending that when adapting the film version of Grapes, screenwriter Nunally Johnson realized that “there had to be some ray of hope—something that would keep people who saw it from going out and getting so drunk in utter despondency” (Wartzman, 2008 205). In order to inject some optimism without reinventing the basic narrative, Johnson reversed the ending so that the Joads first suffered while working at various ranches and ultimately found relief with their arrival to Weedpatch. This transposition underscores that for the Joads (as for workers on the whole), communitarianism was the remedy for life’s travails, as well as an opportunity to go out on a Hollywood high note.

8This extended survey demonstrates that both Steinbeck and Sinclair subscribed to a radical ideology and wrote for a political purpose, intending to use their works as a popular vehicle to spread a subversive message to their audience. Were these authors’ message to reach the public unconstrained, Grapes and The Jungle might have dangerous consequences for American capitalism and American society. It was for this very reason that the novelists’ efforts have been redirected and suppressed by an array of opposing forces, ensuring their works were read and are remembered for reasons less threatening to the capitalist status quo.

Composition and Publication

  • 3 For a detailed, dissenting viewpoint, see Christopher Phelps’s takedown. Suffice it to say that whi (...)

9The history of The Jungle’s publication is particularly instructive in charting the methods by which radical literature is abridged, diluted, expurgated, and otherwise suppressed to keep it from reaching the public as intended. As detailed earlier, the novel was originally published in installments via Socialist magazines such as Appeal to Reason and One-Hoss Philosophy, where it found a small but receptive readership. Heartened by his success, Sinclair sought a larger audience in order to “educate” the proletarian populace, first submitting the manuscript to the American Macmillan Company, with whom he had published previously. Reviewers initially approved of the first half of the novel but after reading the second, more political portion, notified Sinclair that “that they could not publish it as it stood, and would have to require omissions and alterations that would ruin the book for the purpose for which [he] had written it” (Sinclair, 1970 13). In turn Sinclair asked his devout Socialist readership to fund a self-published version of The Jungle, but when he found he “could not raise the revenue to adequately publish, promote, and distribute his book, the only alternative was to revise the novel in such a way that a capitalist publisher would accept it” (De Grave ix). Sinclair’s original manuscript, lost for over eighty years, was only recently recovered and published as The Jungle: The Uncensored Original Edition, featuring five additional chapters and a word count longer by a third.3

10In the introduction to that edition, Kathleen de Grave outlines how the publication process caused Sinclair’s more radical version to be heavily edited for the commercial press. She asserts that, in order to conform to the dictates of Doubleday, Page, “Sinclair systematically cut references that widened the purposes of the book, realizing that if he wanted the novel published at all, he would have to appear to restrict the problem to Chicago and meatpacking” (xviii). Although many of the excisions were ostensibly made in light of the reading public’s palate, Sinclair was allowed to retain many of the most gruesome scenes, including the grisly details of—literally—how the sausage was made. As Laurie Pap reports, “most of the deletions pertained to socialism and the workings of the Socialist Party, paragraphs critical of the press, and derogatory comments about ‘big business,’ self-made men, and captains of industry” (286). To be fair, not all of the novel’s Socialist content was removed—as mentioned, the final third is comprised largely of uninterrupted Socialist speeches given at a workers’ rally. But even this content was compromised by the commercial press. Among other passages, Sinclair was compelled to remove “pro-union statements,” “references to class warfare, a debate on the evils of capitalism,” “an argument that socialism works,” “and the idea that Democrats and Republicans are the same” (De Grave xxiii). Even before the novel reached the public, then, Sinclair’s political message had been disrupted on account of supposed excesses and insensitivities.

11Though Steinbeck had comparable success in pushing his subversive message through his publisher, Viking, his novel was influenced by its composition in the tinder box that was agricultural California during the Depression years, where the same Upton Sinclair, now running as a recent convert to the Democratic Party, nearly won general election as governor in 1934. Although not as radical as “Uppie,” Steinbeck, already famous for Of Mice and Men, became politically active as the state chairman of the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Agricultural Organization, a liberal group working to unionize California’s farm-workers. As early as 1936, Steinbeck had warned of the impending class struggle against the tyranny of the Associated Farmers, a powerful group of local landowners that opposed any effort to organize migrant workers. With the emergence of a permanent “peon class,” he wrote, “California agriculture is economically unsound” (1988 61), and predicted that “when the Associated Farmers becomes excited about our ancient liberties and foreign agitators, some one is about to lose something” (1996 1024). Given his heightened profile, Steinbeck was quickly singled out as an un-American agitator and enemy of agricultural interests. An anecdote related by Wartzman illustrates the pressure Steinbeck faced while writing Grapes: “As one account has it, Steinbeck was attending a picnic […] when a white pickup truck jumped the curb and sent everyone scattering. Two men leaped out, and one thrust a gun into Steinbeck’s chest. The assailant told Steinbeck that ‘he better stop writing what he was writing—or else’” (2013 1). As a result of these threats Steinbeck began carrying a gun and keeping a daily diary of people he saw in order to establish an alibi or list of suspects were a crime to occur. That Steinbeck felt his enemies “capable of anything” testifies to the fervor with which they sought to prevent his subversive message from reaching the wider world.

Public and Political Reception

12Despite efforts to censor, suppress, or diminish the radical intent of their authors, The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath found immense and immediate popularity in the commercial marketplace. Yet, when the power of their messages became apparent, entrenched capitalist interests quickly opposed both novels in order to channel public reading and discourse into a more “appropriate” direction. The Jungle was urgently opposed by the meat-packing industry, which commissioned editorials and articles to deny Sinclair’s charges and slander the author’s reputation. The controversy only added to the novel’s popularity, however; within six weeks of publication it had sold more than 25,000 copies, and within a year that number jumped to more than 150,000 in the United States, with thousands more overseas. As highlighted in this article’s epigraph, in a cruel twist of irony Sinclair had sought a larger readership in order to disseminate his Socialist gospel, yet that same massive audience ignored the plight of the immigrant laborer in favor of the safety of its own food. Robert Downs points out that:

the most extraordinary aspect of the national furor over The Jungle […] was that public attention was concentrated almost exclusively upon material regarded by Sinclair as incidental […]. Scarcely a dozen pages out of 308 were concerned with the gruesome details of meat production […]. But it was these casual references to the food they were buying and eating that excited and angered the people and created irresistible demands for reform. (150)

Mark Van Wienen details how this “groundswell of popular outrage, linked with the threat of radical political alternatives,” convinced politicians that “if they did not act swiftly, consumer confidence in the American food-production system would surely crumble” (87). Indeed, widespread public outcry caused Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act less than five months after The Jungle’s publication. After reading the novel, Roosevelt wrote Sinclair personally, telling the author: “I agree with you that […] in the long run radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist” (Roosevelt). Yet, as soon as the Act passed, Roosevelt publicly distanced himself from Sinclair, declaring himself a Progressive, not a Socialist, and enacting reforms that fell far short of the revolution Sinclair had intended to spark. Roosevelt sided with political currency over personal conviction, and “from a Socialist perspective, the public was receiving half a loaf, and a worm-eaten and stale half loaf, at that” (Van Wienen 87). Indeed, Sinclair was maligned as a yellow journalist in the vein of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, with the imputation that he had sensationalized slaughterhouse conditions to stir up the public and sell more copies. The Jungle was similarly lost amidst a sea of muckraking efforts, its ideological content overshadowed by the menace of bad meat.

13A related incident involving another President Roosevelt reinforces how Sinclair’s Socialist text was appropriated for political expedience and then discarded, like a stale half-loaf of bread, once its flavor had expired. When Sinclair was running for governor of California in 1934, he sought to enlist the support of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself recently elected and on shaky footing as the Great Depression deepened. Sensing an opportunity to win support among populist and reform-minded voters, Roosevelt agreed to meet with Sinclair and the duo engaged in a series of policy conversations at Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park. As a result Sinclair came to believe an endorsement from the President was outstanding; at one point, Van Wienen reports, Sinclair even “believed he had received a pledge from Roosevelt that […] the president would declare in favor of ‘production for use’” (305). Yet in his revolutionary fervor, Sinclair jumped the gun and broadcast his conversations with the President; in response, Roosevelt quickly distanced himself from the radical. When asked about his relationship with Sinclair, Roosevelt responded not by detailing their extended political talks, but by relating an amusing anecdote about his mother reading from The Jungle at the kitchen table. When pressed for further details, Roosevelt “could say little more about his affinity with Sinclair than that The Jungle had once spoiled his breakfast,” downplaying the novel’s radical content as well as his interest in reform (309). As a novel about bad meat The Jungle was strangely palatable, even popular, but as an ideological document it was to be roundly disavowed by those in power.

14These episodes are instructive insofar as they detail the political effort to capitalize upon the popularity of The Jungle while simultaneously ignoring the basic tenets of its radical reform agenda. For all the commercial success of the novel, Sinclair’s design had failed. Life was no better for the immigrant laborer; “the Socialist vote in America did not increase, nor did the social revolution appear to be any closer. There was only a prodigious commotion about beef and pork” (Downs 122). While Sinclair’s famous quip seems to attribute blame to the author himself, it is clear that a number of forces shaped the public’s reception and eventual memory of the work. Eager to profit from the novel’s popularity, politicians and publishers seized upon its most salacious aspects while flouting its indictment of capitalism. Once the public recovered from its shot to the gut, it remembered The Jungle only as the deliverer of such a blow, neglecting its broader political dimensions.

  • 4 This divergence is in large part due to changes in the American political climate after the Russian (...)
  • 5 Coincidentally, in 1933 The Jungle had itself become a target of the Nazi book burnings due to Sinc (...)

15Unlike The Jungle, The Grapes of Wrath was immediately censored, and suppressed—even burned.4 In the end, however, the effect was the same: commercial success with little reform to the capitalist system. Immediately after the novel’s publication, especially “in farming communities in the Midwest and on the west coast, citizens either compelled municipal governments to remove the book from public libraries or destroyed copies in bonfires” (Wartzman, 2008 21). Kern County, California, where Steinbeck had set the bulk of the novel, became the epicenter for debate when its Board of Supervisors, acting on grounds of “decency,” banned it from their library and schools. The stated charge of “obscenity” was likely a pretext to suppress the novel’s political content. After all, Grapes’ depiction of sexuality was relatively tame, even for the time period, and “despite what the supervisors’ resolution stated, it’s doubtful that the board members were too upset by it” (Wartzman, 2008 52). In fact, as Marci Lingo reports, the Kern County ban was conducted “on behalf of the Associated Farmers and other powerful political forces,” for whom “Steinbeck’s novel hit too close to home” (359, 373). They went so far as to commission and disseminate counter-propaganda in the form of a thirteen-page pamphlet that defamed both the Okies and Grapes, claiming that an extensive survey of the county found “no Joads here” (Taylor, 1939 644). Steinbeck’s political opponents brought their battle all the way to Congress, where Lyle Boren of Oklahoma declared “‘I cannot find it possible to let this dirty, lying, filthy manuscript go heralded before the public without a word of challenge or protest’” (qtd. in Shockley 357). Such rhetoric eventually proved untenable, however, especially in light of lurid stories about the book-burning of the Nazis5 and suppression of literature under Stalin’s regime, but Boren’s grandstanding epitomizes the concerted effort to keep Grapes from the reading public.

16As authorities begrudgingly allowed the novel’s distribution, concerned parties utilized other methods to filter and dilute Grapes’ radical message. Hoping to capitalize on the novel’s commercial success, 20th Century Fox swiftly commissioned a film of the same name. The difficulty of adapting such a provocative novel for mainstream public consumption was amplified by a Hollywood production policy requiring the film to comply with the formal production code of the motion picture industry’s Hays Office, whose chief censor, Joseph Breen, was responsible for reviewing all movies containing a “social message.” So discriminating was the office’s purview that by 1939 “fewer than 10 percent of all Hollywood productions featured any serious or political connotations” (Wartzman, 2008 206). It was left to screenwriter Nunally Johnson to somehow express the essence of the novel without running afoul of the Hays Code. With cuts, alterations, and emendations he managed to do so: “all in all, Breen was satisfied that whatever Marxist propaganda was coursing through Steinbeck’s book had been satisfactorily drained from the film” (207). The process, however, muted Steinbeck’s most radical language and incendiary ideas, such as depictions of unscrupulous landowners and language linking Marxism to America. As Robert Morsberger reports, the final product “leaves out the dialogue about reds, deletes the novel’s tragic ending, reverses the sequences of the benevolent government camp and the vicious Hooper ranch, and ends with an upbeat note, leaving the impression that everything will be ‘awright’ and that nothing needs to be done” (33). What emerged after bowdlerization was the heartwarming tale of an American family’s struggle to survive and stay together during hard times. Promoters at 20th Century Fox particularly sought to emphasize this theme, urging local theaters to sponsor a contest to accompany with the film’s release: “‘Every woman can appreciate the great human problem that faced Ma Joad,’ they said, suggesting that local newspapers offer prizes ‘for the best 200 word letters on this subject: How can a mother help keep a family together in the face of all adversity?’” (Shillinglaw). The capitalist source of this “adversity” went unnamed.

1720th Century Fox’s marketing approach was embraced and amplified by film critics such as Whittaker Chambers, who championed the film as a feel-good “human story” and worthy alternative to a mediocre novel:

The Grapes of Wrath is possibly the best picture ever made from a so-so book […]. Camera craft purged the picture of the editorial rash that blotched the Steinbeck book. Cleared of excrescences, the residue is a great human story which made thousands of people, who damned the novel’s phony conclusions, read it. It is the saga of an authentic U.S. farming family who lose their land. They wander, they suffer, but they endure. They are never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph. (22)

Characterizing Steinbeck’s political message as “excrescence” and an “editorial rash,” such reviews urged readers to see the film not only for entertainment value, but also for counter-ideological reasons—in order to purge any unpleasant memory of the novel’s politics from their systems. Coming so quickly on the heels of the novel’s publication, the film effectively neutered Steinbeck’s radical message, imparting “no better than a cop-out analysis, which avoids blaming any individual or institution for the plight of the Okies,” and instead promoting a version centered on the “great human story” of “an authentic U.S. farming family” (Wartzman, 2008 203). Now considered an American classic, The Grapes of Wrath was one of the first twenty-five films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Having itself endured the Great Depression, the American public was all too ready to prefer the feel-good film to the reproachful novel—and so the story has been remembered.

Critics and Academics

18For all their efforts at censorship and suppression, challengers of The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath did little to diminish the novels’ popularity. Yet concerted efforts aimed at distraction and dilution proved quite effective, shifting readers’ attention away from the novels’ essentially radical messages and toward such flashpoints as food safety, obscenity, and family. This refraction was also taken up by literary critics and academics, who since the novels’ publication have effectively marginalized and maligned their literary value on grounds of propaganda, undue sentimentality, and an overall lack of craft, such that neither are commonly read or considered “great literature” by the cognoscenti.

19The Jungle was immediately assailed with such claims upon publication. A contemporary review of the novel, published in The Bookman in April 1906, found “the pretense too shallow […] his chief character a mere puppet […] too obviously manipulated [and] put through certain jerky moments” (Marsh 102). As the reviewer concluded, “the whole performance shows how much Mr. Sinclair has yet to learn” (102). Elizabeth Fanning from Outlook Magazine concurred, opining that “Mr. Sinclair’s indictment of the employing classes would have been more convincing if less hysterical” (323). Harvey Swados summarized a half-century of critical consensus in his 1962 “The Jungle Revisited,” explaining that “the more we examine a work like The Jungle, the more difficult it is to defend its specifically literary merits—and the more it becomes obligatory for the commentator to make a pious listing of Sinclair’s inadequacies and exaggerations” (8). As it turns out, many critics have denigrated the novel not because of its literary merit but simply because it takes up a radical viewpoint. Grant C. Knight explains that “critics who insist that propaganda has no place in literature berate Sinclair’s work upon that score,” claiming, for instance, that the “declamatory final chapter […] is a piece of rhetoric instead of a logical continuation of a story” (177). Sinclair realized his own deficits as a writer, and was quick to contrast his work with that of the “expert psychologists” and “realists of the French school,” who “assemble[d] their material with infinite skill” (1906 594). Yet he saw this not as a deficit but as a benefit. Protest writing in general, and proletarian sentimentality in particular, requires a certain amount of “hysteria,” “manipulation,” and “exaggeration” to achieve its purpose, whether Sinclair’s aim to strike “the public’s heart” or Steinbeck’s to “hit the reader below the belt.” That the novel was wildly successful despite its aesthetic flaws speaks to the power of its narrative, characterization, emotion, and exaggeration, all tools a capable novelist may employ in service of a greater political purpose.

20In addition to contemporary literary censure of Sinclair, modern critical editions such as the Norton (2003) continue to malign his original version as not unexpurgated but “unedited.” Editor Claire Virginia Eby offers a connoisseur’s defense of the commercial version in her “Note on the Text”:

The Doubleday, Page novel not only is the more concise work but also its prose is tighter and smoother. Installment writing can breed sloppiness as well as wordiness, as an author rushes to complete individual chapters for deadlines and pads others to make them long enough […]. It is also the version that has been discussed by the vast majority of commentators, from literary critics to policy makers to historians. (Eby xii)

We see in Eby’s defense the clear imprint of editorial preferences, the same highbrow “literary” standards that have historically comprised the bulk of criticism on The Jungle. According to her aesthetic judgment, prose worth publishing is “concise,” “tight,” and smooth” (cf. Chambers, who preferred Grapes “cleared of excrescences”). She similarly denigrates installment writing (thus obscuring the novel’s Socialist provenance) in favor of the commercially published version, ignoring that many of Sinclair’s esteemed contemporaries, from Henry James to Frank Norris to Stephen Crane, composed their novels in this manner. Beyond the quality of craft, Eby reinforces precedent—since the expurgated version became popular and has been read by “policy makers” (i.e., President Roosevelt and the sponsors of the Pure Food and Drug Act), it must be promoted as the novel of record. In all, Eby’s imprimatur endorses the expurgated commercial version while pushing readers away from the more political version originated by Sinclair.

21Further editorial bias appears in the promotional literature surrounding the novel—for instance, the back cover of the Norton edition, which offers the following description: “The Jungle’s influence has been extraordinary for a literary work. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 landmark novel is widely credited with awakening the public fury that led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), a watershed in consumer protection and government legislation.” The copy contains no mention of immigrant life, Socialism, capitalism, wage-slavery, or the exploitation of workers, ignoring perhaps ninety-five percent of the novel’s content. Following (as well as shaping) cultural memory, the Norton instead focuses on meatpacking, public fury, and the triumph of “consumer protection and government legislation,” in effect reinforcing the public’s distorted reception of a century earlier. The 2006 Penguin edition, likewise, largely elides Sinclair’s Socialist message, featuring a dead cow’s head on its cover and describing the novel as “a vivid portrait of life and death in a turn-of-the-century American meat-packing factory” and “a grim indictment that led to government regulations of the food industry.” These paratextual decisions, according to the theory of Gérard Genette, conspire to dramatically influence the reader’s perception of the text itself. As was the case with the film version of Grapes, promoting a sanitized version of the novel amounts to a whitewashing of Sinclair’s intended message, whether performed out of commercial impulse or for ideological reasons.

  • 6 Bloom has also decreed that “the John Ford movie version was the greater artistic accomplishment” ( (...)

22Demerits on quality are not limited to The Jungle, but have somehow been extended to The Grapes of Wrath as well. Though the novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and its author the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, Steinbeck has in recent years been criticized on account of a perceived lack of literary merit, ostensibly because his writing is considered, according to The New York Times’ Martin Arnold, “too sentimental for great art” (E3). Arnold adds that “Steinbeck has never been too popular among the higher academics of literature,” a claim echoed by Henry Kisor, who acknowledges that “high-minded professors” disdain Steinbeck (14). Most recently, The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley, on the occasion of Grapes’ fiftieth anniversary, wrote that its prose “tends to the leaden” and its dialogue “borders on the embarrassing.” Such judgments have led prominent critics like Harold Bloom to label Steinbeck “a ‘poorer Hemingway,’ not worthy of inclusion on the canon’s American division” (qtd. in Arnold).6 In all, according to Chris Suellentrop, Steinbeck’s detractors consider Steinbeck “overrated,” “a regional writer,” and “a minor novelist” because his books are “watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing” and “calculated sentimentality,” and are “too easy to understand.” Such judgment strikes at the very nature of protest literature, which must be “sentimental” and “easy to understand” in order to achieve its purpose of spreading a message to the masses. By this line of reasoning, no work of literature dedicated to political protest is worth serious reading.

  • 7 This is not to say, of course, that all critics share this mindset. A recent sea change has led a c (...)

23Academic critics are careful to couch their attacks not as ideological or political, but according to the ephemeral and unknowable standards of literary taste.7 However, as was true of The Jungle, attacks against Steinbeck’s novel are likely due to the political nature of his work. Jackson J. Benson, for example, attributes much of the critical opprobrium to Grapes’ “original categorization as a propaganda novel or social document” (21). And Lawrence Buell, in The Dream of the Great American Novel, submits that Steinbeck’s critical reputation has suffered a decline from which he may “never recover […] mostly due to the swerve in novelistic fashion away from politicized documentary” (418). The consequence of these efforts, according to Zoe Trodd, has shunted Steinbeck to a “marginalized place in the Western canon” (51). She cites both Jessica Winter, who claims that Steinbeck’s work makes a “surreptitious exit once budding scholars pack their bags for college,” and Mary Brown, who predicts that “the real position of The Grapes of Wrath in the American canon, indicated by how much it is read and how often it is assigned in the curriculum, may continue to decline in the 21st century” (51). A countervailing indication comes in the form of Oprah Winfrey, perhaps the nearest thing to a twenty-first-century canon-maker, who chose East of Eden and not Grapes as the inaugural selection for the second iteration of her book club, which had been refocused on timeless American classics after “serious author” Jonathan Franzen disparaged the original book club as “schmaltzy,” thereby calling its literary credentials into question. One wonders if The Grapes of Wrath loomed as too mawkish for integration into “the high art literary tradition”—as Franzen termed it—sought by Oprah’s rebooted book club. Suellentrop remarks that drawing from Steinbeck’s oeuvre at all was a curious decision, as the author is “the canonical American writer most likely to have his work dismissed by critics as sentimental (Oprah-like?) pap” (Suellentrop). Thus, Oprah’s selection of Grapes ironically confirms Winter’s and Brown’s characterization of the novel’s critically maligned and marginalized status.

24As it happens, recent commercial editions of Grapes have also been marketed as an inspiring historical account that (like the film) emphasizes a feel-good triumph of the human spirit. The back cover of the Viking edition (1997) describes the novel with a theatrical sweep: “John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression follows the western movement of one family and a nation in search of work and human dignity.” As with The Jungle, the novel’s political elements have been eschewed, as the copy makes no mention of capitalism or Communism, strikes and scabs, exploitation or agribusiness. Similarly, the Penguin edition (2006), though more comprehensive on account of its length, concludes its description by eliding the political dimension of the work: “At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s powerful landmark novel is perhaps the most American of American Classics.” Although confirming that Steinbeck succeeded in writing an “American” novel, the commercial copy testifies to the failure of his larger design—Grapes is characterized as a “road novel” and “captivity narrative,” not a political novel in the protest tradition.

25Taken in isolation, any one of these factors might be considered an accident or outlier, evidence only of a certain prejudice against the aesthetics of the texts. Taken together, however, the compendium of criticism speaks to a sustained (if scattered) campaign to marginalize, dismiss, and otherwise exclude “sentimental” protest and proletarian novels like The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath from public discourse and college classrooms—ostensibly on literary grounds, but more likely, as was the case with earlier censorship efforts, on political or ideological ones. As Northrup Frye asserted, “we begin to suspect that literary judgments are projections of social ones,” which, Robert Scholes observes, “is to say the literary canon is a social, and therefore a political, object, the result of a political process, like so much else in our world” (Scholes 147). To this day The Jungle continues to be challenged in US public schools and libraries; according to Benson, “the chances of reading Steinbeck in an English class in a major university are very low, and in the Ivy League practically zero” (11). Thus the critical censure of Grapes and The Jungle has fulfilled the prophecy of Jack London, who in 1902 composed a letter on behalf of the latter’s prospective publication. As he declared, “this book must go out in the face of the enemy. It will be laughed at—some; jeered at—some; abused—some; but most of all, worst of all, the most dangerous treatment it will receive is that of silence. For that is the way of capitalism […] the conspiracy of silence” (541).

The American Protest Tradition

26I end not on this dismal note, but instead by offering a ray of hope—as did the Socialist rally for Jurgis and the Weedpatch camp for the Joad family—for it was not long ago that another protest novel was similarly recovered, after being maligned and marginalized on account of its politics, aesthetics, and sentimentality. I speak, of course, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel, an immediate bestseller that was censored, suppressed, and otherwise contested following its publication, and summarily sent to the critical dustbin before a dramatic recovery in the last fifty years. The ties between the novels run deep. Trodd asserts that “for scholars of cultural history and American studies, The Grapes of Wrath stands alongside Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as one of the most important American novels ever published” (51). Buell similarly links the three as protest novels having “made the greatest public impact in U.S. history” (418), while Suellentrop places Steinbeck alongside Sinclair and Stowe as writers “important for [their] political or cultural impact.” The authors themselves were well aware of the connections among works, especially Sinclair, who in The Jungle set out to “write the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery” (Boylan 166) and, after reading The Grapes of Wrath, declared “I remember how Elijah put his mantle on the shoulders of Elisha. John Steinbeck can have my old mantle if he has any use for it” (1939 153).

27Like the other novels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was censured on account of its controversial political message, supposed literary failings, and sentimentality; for most of the twentieth century it had “fallen into [critical] limbo […] where it languished […] as a text belonging more to sociology than to literature, flawed by aesthetic crudity and racial caricature” (Buell 42). In recent years, however, the novel has been recovered and placed at the summit of antebellum literature, and is now a staple of first-half surveys where it is taught as an instrumental part of the abolition movement. As Michael Anesko explains, “recent criticism insists that traditional notions of what makes American literature either ‘American’ or ‘literary’ have suppressed or rendered marginal important voices and modes of expression (usually of protest)” (78). And, as Gordon Hutner asserts, “literary historians also want to ensure that writers are not quieted for having advocated unpopular, even subversive causes, or having voiced the complaints of the oppressed” (11). Such critical recovery efforts have brought to light a number of previously maligned, contested, and suppressed texts (often those written by racial or political minorities), including Daughter of Earth (Agnes Smedley, 1929), Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo, 1939), Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Dee Brown, 1970), The Politics of Dispossession (Edward Said, 1994), and Novel Without a Name (Duong Thu Huong, 1996).

28Why were these works marginalized in the first place? Nicholas Karolides asserts that “examining flaws in American society is deemed unpatriotic to critics, who become concerned when past and present policies of their government are questioned” (xv). According to Wartzman, efforts to suppress political literature such as The Jungle and Grapes “were driven primarily by one thing: fear. Fear that a wildly popular novel had shined a light on an inherently iniquitous system. Fear that society might rise up as a result. Fear by a fortunate few that the world they sat atop might soon come unglued” (2008 193). Above all, protest novels were opposed for having committed the crime of printing the truth. As one local supporter asked of Grapes: “Was the book true? Most people thought it was about as true as you expect a book to be. Some people thought it was too true; and those people did not like the truth; and they told us nobody had any business writing books like that” (Wartzman, 2008 111). Similar charges were leveled against the too-moving, too-true Jungle, composed by a purposeful proletarian writer who thought “no more of ‘art for art’s sake’ than a man on a sinking ship thinks of painting a beautiful picture in the cabin” (Sinclair, 1906 594).

  • 8 See, for instance, the work of William Maxwell, Bill Mullen, Donna Campbell, and others.

29Despite the many critics striving to reclaim socially engaged texts,8 among a certain set of literati there is no greater slander than “writing for a political purpose” and no greater praise than having created “art for art’s sake.” Novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, and The Grapes of Wrath, as “crude,” “political,” or “sentimental” as they might be, were wildly popular and serve as essential testaments to the radical protest movements that comprise much of American history. The societal issues raised by such novels—especially regarding the plight of factory and (im)migrant workers—persist to this day, and are worthy of greater attention in both the canon and college curricula. Finally, given the current climate of political resistance, it is crucial that the public learn how both works and movements of protest may be censored, diluted, suppressed, and otherwise sanitized in defense of the status quo. In recent decades we have made great strides in expanding the racial, spatial, gender, and other diversities of American literature, lending a platform to important marginalized voices that might have otherwise gone unheard. In light of the unsettling truths proclaimed by these radical texts and the sustained campaign to suppress them, it is time to re-present the ideological diversity of American literature as well.

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1 For more this relationship, see Stauffer and Soskis.

2 In content and tone the pronouncement is well in line with Steinbeck’s own thoughts on capitalism (as, for instance, expressed in a 1939 interview in which he observed “There is little question in my mind that the principle of private ownership as a means of production is not long with us” (Wartzman, 2013 4).

3 For a detailed, dissenting viewpoint, see Christopher Phelps’s takedown. Suffice it to say that while Phelps raises some pertinent questions about the timing and nature of Sinclair’s revisions, it is an overstatement to claim that the suppression of the text was “fictitious.” Given that his original manuscript was rejected by five leading publishing houses, it is likely that Sinclair felt compelled to make the novel more commercially palatable, and even the revised manuscript was subject to normal editorial processes at Doubleday, Page, as de Grave outlines in her introduction.

4 This divergence is in large part due to changes in the American political climate after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and rise of German Nazism in 1933. When Sinclair composed his novel in the first decade of the twentieth century, he advocated for what was then regarded as a radical but infeasible ideology. By the late 1930s, however, with the Soviet and German systems offering a very real alternative to capitalist democracy, the danger of Steinbeck’s rhetoric was apparent.

5 Coincidentally, in 1933 The Jungle had itself become a target of the Nazi book burnings due to Sinclair’s endorsement of an alternate Socialism. Later, “by order of the Propaganda Administration, The Grapes of Wrath was banned in Germany in 1942-43” (Karolides 196).

6 Bloom has also decreed that “the John Ford movie version was the greater artistic accomplishment” (Suellentrop).

7 This is not to say, of course, that all critics share this mindset. A recent sea change has led a critical reappraisal of “political art,” notably in the work of Paul Lauter, Paula Rabinowitz, Constance Coiner, Cary Nelson, and more.

8 See, for instance, the work of William Maxwell, Bill Mullen, Donna Campbell, and others.

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Adam Nemmers, « A Conspiracy of Silence: The Suppressed Protest of The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 07 décembre 2021, consulté le 31 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Adam Nemmers

Lamar University

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