The Grapes of Wrath comes alive in fifteen New Hampshire towns

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The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s masterful novel about poverty and suffering, strength and resilience, was the cornerstone of a successful collaboration spanning fifteen towns in southern New Hampshire this fall, supported in part by a New Hampshire Humanities community project grant and coordinated by the Fireseed Alliance.

Possibly the most widely-discussed novel in 20th century American literature, The Grapes of Wrath chronicles one family’s forced migration to California during the Great Depression. Through this project, in towns from Amherst to Dunbarton, Bedford to Bow, and Greenville to Mont Vernon, hundreds of Granite Staters explored this story of a pivotal period in American history and how it is relevant today. Students, teachers, farmers, musicians, artists, librarians, and others learned about and reflected on the many serious issues raised by the novel: poverty and income disparity, migration and discrimination, environmental degradation and agriculture, as well as the connections between socioeconomic forces of the 1930s and the 21st century. With music, dancing, art and food, participants celebrated, too – the novel itself, the author, their own communities, and the human spirit.

Each library offered print and audio books and hosted at least one facilitated book discussion. People also came together in a variety of settings not traditional for humanities programs – Amherst’s LaBelle Winery, Goffstown’s Apotheca Flower and Tea Shoppe, Mont Vernon’s Lamson Farm, the Milford Town Hall, to name a few. With dozens of events over a six-week period, attendees could – and many did – travel from town to town to attend different kinds of programs and think about the story, time period, and themes from other perspectives.

One hundred and fifty attended the kick-off event at LaBelle Winery featuring fiddlers Dudley and Jacqueline Laufman. Local students, dressed in period clothing, vividly and theatrically read selected lines from the book.  A total of two hundred and forty people at events in four communities enjoyed “A Visit with FDR,” a living history presentation by professional historical portrayer Richard Marold. Well over one hundred people viewed the classic 1940 film with Henry Fonda as young Tom Joad. They participated eagerly in post-film discussions led by International Steinbeck Society president Luchen Li at Concord’s Red River Theatres, and by filmmaker Samantha Davidson Greene at the Wilton Town Hall Theater. Several dozen heard Dartmouth researcher Ron Edsforth’s illustrated talk “Revisiting the Great Depression and New Deal: A 21st Century Interpretation of the Documentary Photography of the 1930s.” Finally, Steinbeck biographer and Middlebury College professor Jay Parini mesmerized his audience by sharing his personal experiences interviewing Steinbeck’s late wife, Elaine Steinbeck, and many of the author’s acquaintances and family members.

This project also received one of only 77 “Big Read” grants awarded to cultural organizations across the country for 2016-2017 by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

A stunning illustration of humanities in action, this project is a powerful example of the community projects, large and small, that New Hampshire Humanities funds throughout the year. For information about how your organization can apply for a Community Project Grant, please visit


The NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) designed to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.


Photos by Kathy Cleveland (top left) and Blanche Milligan (above right)