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Steinbeck Studies 15.2 (2004) 39-74

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The "True" Story:

LIFE Magazine, Horace Bristol, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

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John Steinbeck, mid 1930s
[End Page 39]

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Figure 1
"'The Grapes of Wrath': John Steinbeck writes a major novel about Western migrants." LIFE 6, no. 23 (5 June 1939). LIFE © 1939 Time Inc. Used with Permission.
[End Page 40]

Over several weekends in the winter of 1937 Horace Bristol (1908-1997), staff photographer for LIFE magazine, traveled to California's Central Valley to photograph migrant labor camps. His traveling companion was the author John Steinbeck, and, according to Bristol, the pair planned to collaborate on a book project, with Steinbeck contributing text to accompany Bristol's photographs. Bristol also asserted that soon after the trip, in May 1938, Steinbeck decided not to be part of the proposed project, and instead completed the final draft of his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath which, unknown to Bristol, Steinbeck had been working on prior to their visits to the camps.

When Steinbeck's novel debuted on 14 April 1939, Bristol's photographs remained unpublished. When the book became a bestseller—it sold over 200,000 copies in its first two months of release—LIFE published a few of Bristol's photographs, although not in the social documentary manner he had envisioned. In a 5 June 1939 photo-essay entitled "'The Grapes of Wrath': John Steinbeck writes a major novel about western migrants," nine Bristol photos illustrated "truths" described in the book, with excerpts from The Grapes of Wrath underneath each photograph as well as a few newly penned captions written specifically for the article (Fig. 1). Soon thereafter, Darryl Zanuck purchased the film rights for The Grapes of Wrath for $75,000. The movie version premiered in 1940, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford. With the release of the film, LIFEprinted Bristol's photographs on another occasion. [End Page 41] In a 19 February 1940 pictorial essay, "Speaking of Pictures...These by Life Prove Facts in 'Grapes of Wrath,'" six Bristol pictures are juxtaposed with film stills (Fig. 2). Here LIFE used a few of Bristol's approximately one-thousand images to illustrate the similarities between the film and the photographs—and, in actuality, Twentieth Century-Fox had borrowed photographs from Bristol to assist them in casting the film. Both LIFE articles emphasize that the photographs prove the facts of the book and the movie—notice how explicitly LIFE points this out in the article's title: "These by Life Prove Facts." The anonymous author reiterates this point: "Never before had the facts behind a great work of fiction been so carefully researched by the newscamera" (11). The wording of both comments implies that photography is the most objective and truthful of media, providing the necessary proof that Steinbeck's book was an accurate account of migrant life. A comparable stance was taken when LIFE presented the film in late January 1940 as the "Movie of the Week" under the headline: "The Grapes of Wrath: Zanuck's sharecroppers are true to life" (Fig. 3).

Taking the reception of Bristol's Dust Bowl photographs by LIFE before and after the publication of Steinbeck's book and the release of the film as my starting point, this essay examines the way LIFE implemented its picture magazine philosophy around principles specifically constructed to appeal to 1930s America. At the same time, by looking at how Depression-era Americans reacted to the notion of truth in conjunction with the photographs themselves, I offer a closer version of the truth of Bristol's affiliation with Steinbeck—an affiliation that produced, Bristol recalled years later, photographs that Steinbeck "didn't really want"(Bristol CD).

When the book was first published, one of the central debates about The Grapes of Wrath focused on the accuracy or falsity of the text. An historical novel about dispossessed Oklahoma farmers struggling for justice and dignity during the Great Depression, the book addresses...


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pp. 39-74
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