PROGRAM

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was published seventy-five years ago this April. To commemorate that milestone, Roosevelt House, in collaboration with Hunter’s Arts Across the Curriculum program, presented a distinguished panel who explored the enduring significance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and the continuing essential engagement of American novelists with social concerns and social consciousness, in the tradition that John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath exemplify.

The Grapes of Wrath was one of the most controversial bestsellers of its time — considered obscene by some — and today is widely regarded as the greatest work of the Nobel Prize winner’s career. The night’s panel on the contemporary relevance of the book and the role of the novelist in American cultural life today included Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin, and professor of creative writing at Hunter; Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family, contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and professor of creative nonfiction at Dartmouth; and Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English and director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University, whose latest book is On Reading The Grapes Of Wrath. The moderator was Jeff Allred, assistant professor of English at Hunter and author of American Modernism and Depression Documentary.

Roosevelt House was the ideal place for this vital conversation on the interlinking of the arts and politics in 20th — and 21st — century America. In 1939, when debate about the quality and theme of The Grapes of Wrath was at its height, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her “My Day” column to praise and to defend it:

Now I must tell you that I have just finished a book which is an unforgettable experience in reading. “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, both repels and attracts you. The horrors of the picture, so well-drawn, make you dread sometimes to begin the next chapter, and yet you cannot lay the book down or even skip a page. Somewhere I saw the criticism that this book was anti-religious, but somehow I cannot imagine thinking of “Ma” without, at the same time, thinking of the love “that passeth all understanding.” The book is coarse in spots, but life is coarse in spots, and story is very beautiful in spots just as life is.

The night’s discussion included reflections on Eleanor Roosevelt’s remarks, controversial in their own right 75 years ago.

This event was co-sponsored by the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College and Arts Across the Curriculum, an interdisciplinary initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation that works to infuse the arts into courses, workshops and events that engage the entire Hunter community.



EVENT SUMMARY – 75th Anniversary of the Grapes of Wrath

Participants:

  • Jeff Allred, associate professor of English, Hunter (moderator)
  • Colum McCann, professor of creative writing, Hunter, and author of Let the Great World Spin and other books
  • Jeff Sharlet
  • Susan Shillinglaw

Jeff Allred posed the question, “Why read Steinbeck today?” That sparked a spirited discussion of Steinbeck’s continuing importance, which the panelists approached from different perspectives.

Susan Shillinglaw teaches in California, and she says that there, “Steinbeck is one of the most famous California writers” and that his work, particularly The Grapes of Wrath, which she teaches regularly, reminds students and other readers of the “chasm between the haves and the have nots” that Steinbeck saw. In her view, his novels and his nonfiction works remain relevant and the relevance is “is renewed… reminding any readers to have heart and empathy and compassion. She pointed out that at least three of her students had recently lost houses, so the story of the Joads, making their way from Oklahoma to California, in search of jobs and a better life, remained “relevant” to them. “The book was real to them; it resonated with them.”

Asking Colum McCann whether he saw Steinbeck as a literary model, Professor Allred said he saw in McCann’s novels, and in Let the Great World Spin in particular, “the focus you both share, what Woody Guthrie in the 1930s called ‘the art and science of migratin.’”

Professor McCann said that Steinbeck’s example is that he focused on “the moral muscle of the writer. He tried to exercise his moral muscle… he exposed himself to the weathers of criticism, the political charges, the charges of sentimentality” that he knew he would face. “To me he is an absolute model. He did go out there, and he did take on these issues of the time that other people were choosing to avoid.” When his students wonder at what the novel, as a form, can achieve, he said, “I tell them to go have a look at The Grapes of Wrath.”

“So many of us – mea culpa – are going inside, drawing the curtains,” he added, without “allowing a rage about what is going on around us.” Quoting Kurt Vonnegut on what writers should do – that “we should continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” And, he said, “this is what Steinbeck was doing – he was jumping off the cliff.” He said that he had last read The Grapes of Wrath two years ago, that his 15-year-old child had recently read it and his 10-year old child is now reading it: “It will shape his relationship to the Great Depression but also to his own time….Steinbeck was very brave.”

Jeff Sharlet urged that the novel is relevant today: “Because The Grapes of Wrath is a wonderful time capsule of a time when there didn’t seem to be a need to divide” into categories of art and fact. “I think of him as a gloriously incompetent journalist. And I mean that as the highest praise. Or maybe he was a gloriously incompetent novelist. It’s either one or the other. He wasn’t concerned with drawing out… sharp lines” between reportage and the imagination, in the pursuit of a “social justice legacy. I don’t know that he has contemporary heirs.”

Responding to Jeff Sharlet’s point, Ms. Shillinglaw highlighted the novel’s roots in Steinbeck’s journalism about migrant workers, a series called “The Harvest Gypsies.” She remarked, “It was journalism that was meant to be hard hitting and to inform and change the public’s mind.” That work, and that goal, are “part of the structure of the novel,” which goes between the Joads’ story and the “interchapters” which are based on Steinbeck’s observations of current conditions. “He did write it as a novel and was conscious of choosing his sources.”

The line between the approach to fiction and nonfiction should not be sacrosanct for creative writers, Professor McCann said. “Authors are always trying to shape things, whether they are writing fiction and nonfiction. A journalist’s words are just as important as a poet’s words, which are just as important as a playwright’s words, which are just as important as the fiction writer’s words. What we have here is a unity of storytelling…. It’s why we have so many forms” in The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck “was saying the imagined is as powerful and as provocative as the real.”

Steinbeck, he argued, conceived the novel as a way of “confronting the great depression. This would be a history book, this would be a novel, this would be a moral lesson – this would be all of these things at once. That’s why I think it’s such an iconic book. I do think he is really pushing the button and saying, what is history and who owns it and who are the legislators of this history.”

Jeff Sharlet agreed with Professor McCann’s expansive view. The kind of  “mythic” storytelling that is Steinbeck’s achievement in The Grapes of Wrath “can be history as well…through a different lens.” In this way, Professor Shillinglaw added, Steinbeck wanted readers to be “participants” in the story, and in their time, as well. Professor Allred thought the novel is Steinbeck’s way of trying to think about “what history looks like from the bottom up.”

Professor Shillinglaw put Steinbeck’s life and career in context. The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, and he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. “I never get tired of reading Steinbeck,” even after 25 years of teaching him. “He thrust himself into the 20th century – World War II, Russia, went around America for Travels with Charley, assessing the American character in the 60s.” He went to Vietnam, as well, she noted. “He was in it to the end… He really spans the 20th century and his engagement” with contemporary life. I used to tell my children I could fit Steinbeck into any conversation. And they would grown about that, because they were used to that, but you really can.”

Colum McCann said that The Grapes of Wrath was one of the books that “stands up for me” after his youthful fascination in Ireland with American literature, as opposed to Kerouac’s On the Road and other books he’s tried to re-read and couldn’t. Steinbeck, he said had “prepared the ground” for some more radical writers “to come along afterward… He was putting himself out there… That informed a whole generation,” Professor McCann believes, “all the way through the [Norman] Mailers and the Tom Wolfes, right up to Dave Eggers” and other writers today. “He was a magnet” in many ways. “He was an optimist and a realist,” in his hopeful attempt to look straight on at human and political and social failings that could be improved or mitigated.

The success of The Grapes of Wrath led to controversy. The book was widely banned and also widely criticized. It was made very quickly into a movie by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda, released in January 1940, only nine months after the book was published. The movie, Professor McCann said, “imposes a visual landscape on what people are already reading.”

Was the criticism – and the fame – “tough on Steinbeck?” McCann asked Susan Shillinglaw. It was. “He didn’t want to be lionized… he wanted a readership of course. It nearly destroyed him as a writer.” It ruined his marriage, she said. His next book, she pointed out, was a nonfiction work, Sea of Cortez. Writing that book was a “really good way of escape,” she said. He was “writing about invertebrates.”

 





RESOURCES

  • Diane Rehm Show – Readers' Review: "The Grapes Of Wrath" By John Steinbeck

    Audio/MP3: ‘For our January Readers’ Review: “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. Published almost 75 years ago, Steinbeck’s story of the Joad family’s migration from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to California holds important lessons for today. Diane and her guests discuss Steinbeck’s classic novel.’


  • Publishers Weekly Review: "On Reading the Grapes of Wrath"

    “John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel of Depression-era migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl retains much of its power thanks to a continued relevance, which Shillinglaw eloquently details. Published in connection with the 75th-anniversary edition of The Grapes of Wrath, Shillinglaw’s book will make readers already familiar with the book want to assess it afresh. Those who have never dipped into this American classic will find the author, a Steinbeck scholar, a scintillating guide. Shillinglaw explores the novel’s layers of meaning, richly mining cultural context, history, and social thought, as well as Steinbeck’s own background, work process, and politics. The captivating result resembles an extended college lecture series, appealingly combining personal reflections and a conversational tone with accessible scholarship. Each chapter raises specific concerns, with one chapter addressing the integral role of women, while another looks at the 1936 strike in Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, Calif., and his reaction. She elucidates themes, such as the individual versus the power of the collective, that run through Steinbeck’s prose, while creating a history of the book itself. Steinbeck insisted that Julia Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” be reproduced on the end papers of the original edition, and indeed, his own truth marches on. (Apr.)”


  • Jeff Allred on "American Modernism and Depression Documentary"

    ‘When you hear the words “Great Depression,” certain images pop up: a mother hugging her child on a windswept plain, a hand clutching a tin plate, unemployed men standing in a breadline.  We remember the Depression like this in part because of the New Deal cultural projects that turned poor people (especially rural whites) into celebrities of a sort, symbols of the crisis that bourgeois consumers of magazines, exhibitions, newspapers, films, and plays could immediately comprehend, thus seeing, however imperfectly, the outlines of a crisis whose causes were often inscrutable.’ 

    via Rorotoko.com:




75th Anniversary of “The Grapes of Wrath” | Posted on March 25th, 2014 | Public Programs