Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay
Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

The Wrath Wrought by that Other Grapes of Wrath

‘The Grapes of Wrath’ author Boyd Cable has stirred up a lot of discontent amongst Amazon users. Will this be the accomplished author’s final legacy?

The Grapes of Wrath
Boyd Cable

This is not about the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic 1939 work of Americana by Nobel laureate John Steinbeck. His book is The Grapes of Wrath. This is about Boyd Cable’s The Grapes of Wrath and, as many Amazon reviewers can attest, confusing the two is an easy mistake to make.

Born in 1878, Ernest Andrew Ewart, aka Boyd Cable, was an Australian soldier and author. He penned eight books during his 65 years of life, each set during the First World War. He died in London in 1943, four years after Steinbeck published his award-winning classic.

Cable exists largely as an accidental footnote to Steinbeck, literally. The 2006 Penguin Classics paperback edition of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath contains dozens of useful references by scholar Robert DeMott. The second of these is on the title itself. As DeMott explains, according to Steinbeck’s personal diary the title of his novel comes from abolitionist Julia Ward Howe’s 1862 “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which reads:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored

And so while Steinbeck’s title is not his original creation, he was also not original in taking inspiration from Howe’s song.

Howe drew heavily from the Biblical books of Isaiah and Revelations in composing her battle hymn for the Union. She conceived the American Civil War in terms not so much political as spiritual, a battle between good and evil not unlike the judgement of God upon the wicked. It was a theme that resonated with Ewart/Cable. He not only borrowed “grapes of wrath” for his title as Steinbeck did, but preceded his novel with a complete text of the song.

Cable’s novel is an account of the almost unbelievably deadly 1916 Battle of the Somme with resulted in more than one million casualties. His book takes the reader into the trench life of an infantryman as he charges across the open or takes cover from enemy shells. It is easy to understand why Cable would have identified with Howe’s lyrics. The framing of what he calls the “impossible horrors as the work-a-day business and routine of battle” in a religious context offers a psychological reprieve.

But it seems that Amazon purchasers looking for Steinbeck’s novel really don’t care.

Despite being clearly labeled as “By Boyd Cable” on the retailer’s website, complete with a front cover prominently featuring the author’s name, reviewers were outraged that their $5.99 paperback was not Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl tale of the Joad family. What’s more, many felt this was a profit-making conspiracy rather than their own shopping carelessness. Browsing the one-star reviews reveals a flood of angry victims of an unscrupulous author’s scam to steal their money, or at least that’s how they see themselves.

One tantrum review by user Cornelis reads: “Naming books after classics should be illegal. The [sic] is NOT “The Grapes of Wrath” but a cheap knockoff trying to trick people into buying it.”

Brenda […] was positively incredulous: “I can’t believe the author was able to publish it!!”

Another Brenda felt much the same way: “The seller knew what he was doing when they put this for sale…Save your dollar, the seller is a crook.

Wakeman agrees, writing: “Very irritated that an author would try to garner sales by using a title almost identical to the classic by Steinbeck… a cheap move on the author’s part.”

The entire Z Family is also on board: “This author should know better, he probably gets most of his money from people who accidentally bought this book”

Jordan R. was very succinct in his review, simply writing: “Fraud.”

Not everyone is mad though. Emerald Sawyer is just confused: “…wasn’t aware you could just reuse a book title.”

A scam. The recycling of a classic title to fool unsuspecting readers. A cheap sales trick. The work of a hack author trying to boost sales. People come up with the wildest explanations for things that are not as they think they should be.

Any internet search will reveal that the supposed swindling author has not only been dead for nearly 80 years, but that he also published his The Grapes of Wrath in 1917, a full 22 years before Steinbeck published his story. Indeed, when Boyd’s book first hit shelves Steinbeck was only 15-years-old and wouldn’t publish his first novel, Cup of Gold, for another 12 years. But alas, one can hardly expect people unable to figure out that “By Boyd Cable” does not in fact mean “By John Steinbeck” to be critically engaged enough to search Google.

Has Cable’s legacy been reduced to angry, confused reviews from Amazon users who believe he’s alive somewhere gleefully counting out their stolen $5.99? On the one hand, it is disheartening that the author of eight books about a pivotal moment in history, one all too often overshadowed by its successor World War Two, should be known only as ‘the guy whose book I accidentally bought for my daughter’s English class.’ But on the other hand, Boyd, at least, is known.

Is it better to be forgotten or misremembered? Is there a difference?