John Steinbeck (1902–68) was born and raised in Salinas, California, and he draws upon his upbringing in various ways in The Grapes of Wrath. He lived among the farmers and itinerant workers he portrays and knew well the fertile lands of California that represent the ultimate destination for the Joad family after they flee the dust bowl of Oklahoma. The immediate impetus for the novel came from Steinbeck reworking his experience as an investigative journalist in researching and publishing The Harvest Gypsies, a seven-part San Francisco News series (1936) about the plight of agricultural migrant workers in California during the Great Depression.
The combination of the Wall Street Crash (1929), the subsequent Depression of the so-called Hungry Thirties and the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl (a period of drought and over-farming in the Midwest) created a perfect storm of crises for the USA. Steinbeck voices his anger at the ways in which banks and large businesses exploited tenant farmers and poor families in times of severe recession. He uses the extended metaphor of the bank as a relentless monster that must be ‘fed’, repaid with interest for the loans that have secured land and equipment (Ch. 5).
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