It just so happens that I started to watch Ken Burns' Dustbowl just as I finished this book, and contrasting the two approaches is illustrative. It's interesting that Steinbeck makes no mention of the man-made nature of the disaster, even he knew it was man-made. I suspect this is to help further create sympathy for the Joads, but I feel like this was a missed opportunity. But that's not really important anyway. The novel is what it is. I shouldn't worry about whether or not he told a story he wasn't trying to tell.
This is an important, landmark, influential, political novel that deserves it's place in the canon. It's ending is about as ambiguously bleak as I could imagine and my enjoyment (so to speak) of the entire book was significantly heightened by one of the Great Endings in American literature.
But there are two things about it that keep me from giving it full marks: the first is Steinbeck's fault but the second isn't - I understand I am not being fair about the latter.
First, the book is "choppy" for lack of a better word. (The Missus, who has never read this book, and I were talking about Steinbeck and I was trying to express my frustration with the format of this novel and she described Of Mice and Men as "choppy" and suddenly I knew what my problem was.) Though there are moments of power and insight in Steinbeck's descriptions of the mass migration of Americans and their problems, there are far more moments when it feels like Steinbeck is lecturing us about something. I feel that, at bottom, The Grapes of Wrath is really two separate pieces and I feel like Dos Passos' annoying habits are all over that. I think the novel remains stirring and powerful, and remains a landmark, but to me this novel would be greater without all the overview chapters. I think the Joad's story is strong enough without the attempts at context.
The other issue I have is a little different: I have only ever read one other Steinbeck novel, Winter of Our Discontent. And though I think this one is the superior effort in terms of its emotional impact, importance in the canon and so forth, I prefer the writer of Winter of Our Discontent. (I am speaking specifically of his prose, not the subject matter.) Frankly, I think Steinbeck became a better writer as he got older. I kind of wish the mature style of that novel had been the style of this one. I think I would be out and out willing to call The Grapes of Wrath one of the masterpieces of 20th century American literature had Steinbeck been a little better at his craft.
Still, I can't believe it took me so long to read this book.