In the archives of...
Life, Horace Bristol
Grapes of wrath
A lot of the things that I did have become historical documents, particularly The Grapes of Wrath. I had been out with Dorothea Lange as she shot some pictures of migratory labor. I admired what Dorothea was doing, and I realized that migratory labor was an important story. I wanted to do a book on it in 1937. It would be essentially a photographic book, and I cast about for who I could get to write the text and the captions. As I was living in San Francisco, I thought that John Steinbeck was the logical man. He wasn't as famous at that time as he became, so I called and asked him, “Would you be interested in working on a book like this?” He said, “Sure. Come on down, and we'll have lunch, and we'll talk it over.”
He had a small, charming house near Stanford University and we talked about the idea. Steinbeck was, I hesitate to use the word enthusiastic, but he was pleased with the idea of doing it. He said, “The only thing is that I'm engaged in editing (I think it was Of Mice and Men), so during the week I won't be able to do it. But I could do it on weekends.”
“That's fine with me,” I said. I would load up my station wagon with cheap food—meats and whatnot—and we'd go down to the Central Valley. We worked for seven weekends. Everyone I photographed was from Oklahoma. They were displaced persons from the dust bowl. Very sincere farmers. Not terribly well educated, but God-fearing.
After two months of doing this, I called John and said, “I have enough pictures for the book now. Shall we get going on it?”
“I'm sorry to tell you this,” he said. “It's too great a story for a photographic book. I'm going to write it as a novel.” And that was that. I was very disappointed, of course, but when I’d asked him to do it, I knew he was a novelist. I should have realized that he was going to write his own book. I just went on, without looking back. After The Grapes of Wrath became a best seller, Life magazine ran two pages of my pictures, showing the actual people. And 20th Century Fox used the pictures to cast a movie.
Did you like the movie?
Oh, it was wonderful. Maybe I was over critical of the book, in the sense of disappointment and jealousy and all that, but as time went on I saw the effect it had on the young people, who had no idea this world existed. The effect of the book and movie was just magnificent.
But years later I read a very thoroughly researched biography of Steinbeck, which made me realize that Steinbeck never mentioned my name at any time, under any circumstances . . . well, I suppose because of ego: this was his book. He also resented the fact that his wife suggested the title, The Grapes of Wrath. But that was too good for him to pass up.
(Interviewed on August 13, 1993. Excerpted from LIFE Photographers: What They Saw, Bullfinch Press, 1998)