English Literature


To understand the context [context: The social, political and historical circumstances surrounding a text. ] of John Steinbeck's book, you need to know a bit about Steinbeck himself, and a little about economic conditions in 1930's America.

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. Although his family was wealthy, he was interested in the lives of the farm labourers and spent time working with them. He used his experiences as material for his writing.

He wrote a number of novels about poor people who worked on the land and dreamed of a better life, including The Grapes of Wrath, which is the heart-rending story of a family's struggle to escape the dust bowl of the West to reach California. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize [Nobel Prize: The prizes for achievements in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Peace, Literature and Economics are named after Alfred Nobel, a Swede, who left money and instructions for this in his will. ] for Literature in 1962, six years before his death in 1968.

The Depression

On October 29 1929, millions of dollars were wiped out in an event that became known as the Wall Street Crash. It led to the Depression in America which crippled the country from 1930 - 1936. People lost their life savings when firms and banks went bust, and 12 - 15 million men and women - one third of America's population - were unemployed.

Click here to find out more about the Wall Street Crash.

There was then no dole to fall back on, so food was short and the unemployed in cities couldn't pay their rent. Some ended up in settlements called 'Hoovervilles' (after the US president of the time, Herbert C Hoover), in shanties made from old packing cases and corrugated iron.

A song about an unemployed man meeting an old friend he has fought alongside in the First World War and asking him for a dime (the price of a cup of coffee) summed up the national mood.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits,Gee we looked swell,Full of Yankee Doodle-de-dum.Half a millin boots went sloggin' through Hell,I was the kid with the drum.Say, don't you remember, they called me Al,It was Al all the time.Why don't you remember I'm your pal,Brother, can you spare a dime?

Migrant farmers

Added to the man-made financial problems were natural ones. A series of droughts in southern mid-western states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas led to failed harvests and dried-up land. Farmers were forced to move off their land: they couldn't repay the bank-loans which had helped buy the farms and had to sell what they owned to pay their debts.

Many economic migrants headed west to 'Golden' California, thinking there would be land going spare, but the Californians turned many back, fearing they would be over-run. The refuges had nowhere to go back to, so they set up home in huge camps in the California valleys - living in shacks of cardboard and old metal - and sought work as casual farmhands.

Migrant farmworkers

Migrant farmworkers. © New Deal Network

Ranch hands

Against this background, ranch hands like George and Lennie were lucky to have work. Ranch hands were grateful for at least a bunk-house to live in and to have food provided, even though the pay was low.

Farmworkers' buckhouses

Farmworkers' buckhouses

Think about how the men agree to hush-up the fight between Curley and Lennie and claim that Curley got his hand caught in a machine: they know that Lennie and George would be fired if the boss came to hear of it, and then Lennie and George could be left with nothing.

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