Prologue Magazine Reveals the Story Behind The Grapes of Wrath
Press Release · Wednesday, Mar 5, 2014
Issue also features Presidential transitions and Camp David
Washington, DC…The steep economic downturn and the tragic loss of so many jobs reminds many of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl conditions, ruined crops, and repossessed homes, sent many destitute families to California—a chapter in American history immortalized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
But Steinbeck’s Tom Joad and the other characters in this well-known novel were based on real people, as Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration, points out in its Winter 2008 issue, “Archival Vintages for The Grapes of Wrath,” written by Dan Nealand, director of the National Archives Regional Archives in San Bruno, CA.
Nealand mined the archived holdings to find the reports of Tom Collins, a government official who was in charge of some of the migrant labor camps of refugees from places like Oklahoma and Texas.
“Steinbeck and Collins saw, documented, and toiled to alleviate mind-numbing, spirit-killing poverty, squalor, epidemic disease, malnutrition, and outright starvation among a vast valley assemblage of least 100,000 (historical estimates vary)—often lacking even subsistence in the most abundant ‘food-basket’ of the nation,” Nealand writes.
Nealand writes that “there are indications that Steinbeck believed that basing many of his fictional California migrant scenes and contexts on historical documents like the Collins reports might help when the firestorm of criticism rained down following publication of his novel.” Criticism did indeed follow the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, but it remains one of the most revered pieces of American literature; it won the Pulitzer Prize for novel in 1940 and was a major factor in Steinbeck’s selection for the Nobel Prize for Literature decades later.
The Winter 2008 Prologue also explains the role of the National Archives in the transition from one President to another, an activity the agency has been involved in for nearly 70 years, as Nancy Smith, director of the National Archives Presidential Materials Staff, explains in her article, “Escorting a Presidency into History.”
“The National Archives moves the wealth of materials documenting the inner workings of the government at its highest policy level,” Smith writes. “Preserved by the National Archives in the Presidential libraries will be the records of the tragedies, the problems, the successes, and the evolution of policies that affect the nation and the world during the Presidential administration.”
The Winter issue also includes a photo feature showing how our modern Presidents and their families relaxed when they go to Camp David, about 50 miles north of Washington in the Maryland mountains.
Each issue features historical articles—drawn from National Archives’ holdings and written by noted historians, archivists, and experts—as well as articles explaining and describing many of the National Archives’ activities and programs as the nation’s recordkeeping agency. The Washington Post has said, “Prologue . . . can be regarded quite literally as an invitation for further study. It is also consistently absorbing reading.”
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This page was last reviewed on August 15, 2016.
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