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American Novel Video

Steinbeck scholar Robert DeMott discusses how a flood in Visalia, California influenced John Steinbeck.

NARRATOR: It would take yet another trip to Central Valley before John Steinbeck would find his novelŐs voice.

ROBERT DEMOTT: After he had been working on THE OKLAHOMANS for probably a year or more, he had an experience, I think, which was, really, the profound trigger that got us the novel that we now know as THE GRAPES OF WRATH. And that is in the winter of 1938 Steinbeck went to Visalia, California, where he had a devastating experience.

NARRATOR: For two months it had done nothing but rain in the area around Visalia. Families that before had fought for work and food, now had to contend with flood. "I must go over to the interior valleys," Steinbeck wrote his publisher. "There are about five thousand families starving to death over there, not just hungry but actually starving."

ROBERT DEMOTT: I think that, more than any of his other experiences dealing with the migrants, this one really caught him in the heart, and it became the kind of experience that was a wound for him, and he realized at that point that it was impossible to treat the experience with any kind of coolness, any kind of dispassion, any kind of removal.

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The American Novel