J. Steinbeck, sitting on a chair. Stackpole, Peter, (1930-1960) From New York Public Library
Long before the world was shocked by the intensity and the truthfulness of The Grapes of Wrath, little did everyone know, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) did not initially set out to write this novel. The process of writing this novel was long; it was unglamorous, demanding, arduous, and so far from the public notion of writing a novel. Steinbeck did not sit in a café in a gloomy day while sipping a cup of warm cappuccino and waiting for inspiration to strike. The Grapes of Wrath was a final product of his wholehearted and tireless immersion in the deplorable migrant conditions in California from 1936 to 1939. It was three years of moral and emotional battle for him.
He was commissioned by The San Francisco News, a bay area daily paper, to write a seven-part series of newspaper articles from October 5 to 12, 1936, titled The Harvest Gypsies. His articles were full of alarming facts about migrants’ lives (illness, incapacitation, death). A year later in late 1937, he attempted to write as he called a “rather long novel” called The Oklahomans, to capture the characters of the migrants that he believed would change the shape of California. However, in late January 1938, not even six months since he started writing it, he stopped working on the novel. The reason behind it was somewhat vague, but the misery of migrants’ condition in Visalia and Nipomo pushed Steinbeck to ditch his writing and be involved in helping them. As he wrote in a letter to his agent, Elizabeth Otis, “I’ve tied into the thing from the first and I must get down there and see it (…)” He continued to write about his vivid investigation of migrants’ lives from February to May 1938 that later became “L’Affaire Lettuceberg. After he finished the first draft of the book, which was a little over seventy thousand words, he destroyed it. The book, as he said in a letter to his main literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, could have sold probably 30,000 copies but the nature of the book was not feeding his artistic integrity—making people understand each other. This book was, as he said, “a vicious book and a mean book”, and he aimed to start hatred through this book. He wrote to Otis, “My father would have called it a smart-aleck book. It was full of tricks to make people ridiculous. If I can’t do better I have slipped badly (…) It is sloppily written because I never cared about it. I had got smart and cocky you see (…) A book must be a life that lives all of itself and this one doesn’t do that.”
The final part of his writing development eventually produced The Grapes of Wrath. From late May 1938 through winter of 1939, Steinbeck embarked on one of the most rigorous writing activities that he’d ever done. As he was tirelessly working on his novel every day, he kept a daily journal (Public Library) as he said, “to map the actual working days hours” of his novel. His journal had been helpful for him to keep him grounded and remind him of his purpose to create this novel. Right before he started writing, which was usually around 11:00 am every day, he would always write in his journal about his agonizing self-doubt, fear, hopes, dreams, the progress of his craft, and his complexities as both a novelist and human being. The journal itself, though he never intended to publish and only wrote it for himself and a future use for his two sons (Thomas Steinbeck and John Steinbeck IV), is in fact a work of art. It’s a glimpse at how a person was stubbornly bringing forth into the world what he believed were “truth, meaning, and beauty”.
Lettuce workers. California 1937. Lange, Dorothea. From The New York Public Library
Habit, for Steinbeck, was an indispensable ingredient for writing, more than either willpower or inspiration. He did not wait for any inspiration to strike and managed to do the best he could despite all the distractions. Not only The Grapes of Wrath, but all the books under his belt and the way he oriented himself in the world as one of America’s greatest writers was because of the discipline that he had crafted every single day, tirelessly. In the process of finishing The Grapes of Wrath, in June 13th, 1938, he wrote:
“Now a new week starts and unpropitiously for me. Last night up to Rays’ and drank a great deal of champagne. I pulled my punches pretty well but I am not in the dead sober state I could wish. However, I will try to go to work (…) All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book but I must not be weak. This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than just the loss of time and wordage. The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language. And sadly enough, if any of the discipline is gone, all of it suffers (…)”
In August 4th, 1938, he persisted to finish what’s in front of him even though he was missing the drive to work:
“But I’ve got to go on and think of nothing but this book. I’m behind now and I want not to lose any more time, and I simply must go on. It’s good to work even if the absolute drive isn’t in you. Here goes.”
Migratory field worker’s home on the edge of a pea field. The family lived here through the winter. Imperial Valley, California. Lange, Dorothea. 1937. From The New York Public Library.
He was worried if he ever managed to finish his novel. Written in August 16, 1938 at 10:45 a.m.:
“My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.”
Though he was very focused on finishing the draft of The Grapes by cutting both internal (self-doubt) and external (uninvited guests) distractions, what I thought was interesting about him was he was still paying attention to what was happening in the world, especially about the escalation of Nazism. Writing in September 12, 1938:
“Things get no more peaceful. Today Hitler is to make his war or peace speech. That may toss the world into a mess. Apparently the whole world is jittery about it. All armies mobilized. It might be a shambles by tomorrow. And it might be recede for a while. Can’t tell (…)”
A year later, on April 14th,1939, The Grapes of Wrath eventually was published. As his masterful “The Grapes of Wrath” catapulted him under an immense spotlight along with bringing fame and financial success to his life, the demands to give public lectures from clubs all over the country increased significantly. However, Steinbeck flatly refused any invitations and chose to be close with the source of his happiness—writing. In July 1939, he said to an Associated Press interviewer:
“Why do they think a writer, just because he can write, will make a good after-dinner speaker, or club committeeman, or even a public speaker? I’m no public speaker and I don’t want to be. I’m not even a finished writer yet, I haven’t learned my craft.”
Steinbeck still kept the journal after the wild success of his novel, but at this time the tone of his entries was radically different. There was no obsessive urgency to finish the novel. In other words, his pace was less frantic and calmer than the entries when he still composed The Grapes of Wrath. The entries varied in length, frequency, and details but he still pondered with the things that he pondered when he composed the Grapes: self-doubt, the reflection of being a human being and being a novelist, and his wife.
Entry 101, dated October 16, 1939, almost a year after he finished the first draft of the Grapes and six months after the Grapes was published, he reflected in his journal about the immense pleasure of success that he received from the book. He wrote:
“In the first place the Grapes got really out of hand, became a public hysteria and I became a public domain. I’ve fought that consistently but I don’t know how successfully. Second, we are rich as riches go. We have money enough to keep us for many years. We have this pleasant ranch which is everything one could desire. It lacks only the ocean to be perfect. We have comfort and beauty around us and these things I never expected. Couldn’t possibly have expected (…)”
On the same entry after he reminded himself about the victory of the book sales, he expressed his fear of losing a creative force—a vital force that had made Steinbeck persist through bad days of writing and propel into public consciousness. This is also a force that a lot of creative people try to preserve and maintain.
“Now I am battered with uncertainties. The part of my life that made the Grapes is over. I have one little job to do for the government, and then I can be born again. Must be. I have to go to new sources and find new roots. I have written simply for simple stories, but now the conception and the execution become difficult and not simple. And I don’t know what the conception is (…) I do not know whether there is anything left of me. I know that some of my forces are gone.”
A year later, in one particular entry dated July 29th, 1940, he once again found himself contemplating the notion of habit as a more transformative recipe than willpower or inspiration to finish a manuscript. The notion of habit, showing up day in and day out regardless of any other obstacles is something I believe, the thing that sets apart the master and the ordinary. His habit was slowly built upon his deep sincere purpose of the work and his exceeding stubbornness to bring forth his novel within his body. He wrote:
“The trouble with being too casual about a manuscript is that you don’t do it. In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently, there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not. And I am a little afraid that they are not much good. However, down they go. The forced work is sometimes better than the easy, but there is no rule about it. Sometimes they come out better than at other times that is all one can say (…)”
Migrants’ camp, California. 1935. Lange, Dorothea. From The New York Public Library
In 1940, he earned the Pulitzer Prize for his The Grapes of Wrath, and later in 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for, as the Swedish Academy said, “his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception.” The Grapes of Wrath has been translated into nearly every language on earth and has sold more than 14 million copies in the past half century.