The grapes of wrath

Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

One of my late father’s favorite books, one that stood the test of time was Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Thus, I read it at an early age – 7th grade – long before it was assigned in a literature class and it’s one of my favorites as well. It’s well-written, with a chapter about the times (Great Depression, Dust Bowl) between the chapters that tell the story.

For anyone not familiar with the book or the classic movie with the same title, the basic story follows the Joad family as they leave their Oklahoma home to seek a future in California. One of the major characters is Tom Joad (played masterfully by Henry Fonda in the film) and he has just been released from prison. He meets up with a preacher from the past. They find the Joad homeplace abandoned and empty – but reunite with three generations of the Joad family at his uncle’s place on the eve of their departure for California. The land they’ve sharecropped for generations now belongs to a bank and they, like thousands of other farmers from Oklahoma and Texas, are dispossessed. They set out for the promise land of California but soon learn, the road is difficult and when they arrive, it’s not the place of their dreams.

At the time Steinbeck wrote the novel, the migrants’ harsh existence was something he wanted to share with the world. He wrote the novel before he had a title, then struggled with what to call the book.  As a writer myself, I know well the importance of titles. A good title can carry a book and gain attention while a mediocre or poor one can damage a novel’s potential. Steinbeck’s wife came up with “The Grapes of Wrath” from Julia Ward Howe’s Civil War era song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The lines in the song are these: ''Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.''

Howe used the phrase to express her belief that the end of evil was at hand and that God would bring His justice and truth to the trouble nation.  Although we’re not engaged in a civil war, there seem to be some parallels. I would go as far as to say that we’re closer to one than we’ve been as a nation since the 1860’s – a very frightening thought.

The reference, though, is much older than the hymn – it dates back to the Bible and the Book of Revelation – in Chapter 14, verses 19 and 20, we read: ''So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God.''

That meaning and sentiment are about God’s justice, just as Howe interpreted it.

We are living in sad, terrible, and terrifying times.  I don’t believe this is the end times that were prophesied but our nation is at a crossroads. The grapes of wrath are as bitter as ever and it’s time for Americans to draw together, to let justice be done and for a divided nation to heal.

May the vintage of these grapes be sweeter and bring the taste of peace.

- Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is a former journalist. She is an author and freelance writer who makes her home in Neosho, Missouri.