Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, John Steinbeck (1902–1968) was one of America’s most influential and prolific writers of the 20th century. Many of his books described Depression-era hardships of the working class in his native California.
Susan Shillinglaw is Professor of English at San Jose State University and Scholar in Residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.
Simply Charly: You’re a professor of English, director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University for 18 years, as well as a noted John Steinbeck scholar. How did your fascination with all things Steinbeck begin?
Susan Shillinglaw: In 1986 I was hired as Director of the Steinbeck Center by a wonderfully supportive female chair of the English department. A 19th Century Americanist whose specialty was James Fenimore Cooper, I didn’t seem like the most likely choice for the Steinbeck Center, but there I was. So I ran with it—with eminent Steinbeck scholars Jack Benson and Robert DeMott advising me along the way. In 1989, I organized a 50th-anniversary interdisciplinary conference on The Grapes of Wrath and then, with Hemingway scholar Susan Beegel and marine biologist Wes Tiffney, a conference on Steinbeck and the Environment (1992). I also started a newsletter, which became a journal. I interviewed many of Steinbeck’s friends who still lived in California—and eventually, those interviews became part of the biography I published: Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage (University of Nevada Press, 2013). With the Center’s board member Ted Cady, I started the John Steinbeck Award, “in the souls of the people”—the first recipient was Bruce Springsteen, the second film director John Sayles, and the third Arthur Miller. What fun it all was! Steinbeck took me (figuratively speaking) to Hawaii, Moscow, Japan, Austria, Sicily and the Soviet Republic of Georgia. I’ve met incredible Steinbeck scholars and readers—most recently through the National Endowment for the Arts “Big Reads” and the National Endowment for the Humanities Steinbeck Institutes that I co-direct with my husband, a marine biologist. Steinbeck is beloved by readers and teachers, scholars and readers—here and around the world.
SC: This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Steinbeck’s most enduring novel The Grapes of Wrath. What is it about this book that has captured the imagination of so many?
SS: I tried to articulate this fully in a book I wrote, On Reading The Grapes of Wrath, (Penguin, 2014). And so I’ll quote from that text:
On November 17, 1938, even before Steinbeck had sent the complete manuscript of The Grapes of Wrath to Viking Press, kindly Pat [Covici, Steinbeck’s editor] wrote to buoy the writer’s spirits: “I would like to be shown a more significant piece of fiction than ‘Grapes of Wrath’ written in America.” That letter is hyperbolic—Grapes may not be the most significant book in twentieth-century America. But considering what we’re up against—ever sharper divisions between haves and have-nots; ever more incendiary debates about immigration; ever more powerful and wealthy banks; an ever more imperiled physical world, global warming hardly a myth—it seems so. The Grapes of Wrath reminds us that the Joads’ story is, in many ways, our own—if we consider the American experiment as communal, if we do not isolate our story from the dispossessed of the world, if we embrace an “enlarged horizon of consciousness.”
The Grapes of Wrath is a book that opens up to readers, revealing not only a particular moment in time, the late 1930s, but also what the reality of poverty feels like, placing the Joads’ story into larger mythic contexts as well. It’s a rich, multi-voiced, layered book about place, migration, poverty, loss of home, and compromised dreams. Being down and out is timeless—the stories of the marginalized are still a part of our history. Steinbeck asks us to understand, empathize.
SC: Steinbeck regarded The Grapes of Wrath as his masterpiece writing in his journal:
My life isn’t very long and I must get one book written before it ends. The others have been make shifts, experiments, practices. For the first time I am working on a real book…
What do you think sets Grapes apart from the rest of Steinbeck’s so-called “make shifts, experiments, practices?”
SS: Well, in Working Days, the Grapes of Wrath journal (well worth reading alongside the book), Steinbeck pumps himself up for his daily writing and clears his mind of distractions before he begins working. He wrote the book in 100 “working days,” and he wanted to keep to that schedule. He knew he was writing an important book on a very important subject—migration, poverty, powerlessness, and homelessness in California. The book encapsulates the Great Depression in many ways, with its emphasis on beleaguered families. Vividly and in great detail, he shows what happens to the family when tested by grim conditions. That’s why this was a “real book” and the other ones “practice.” In a way, he knew he was writing an epic, a big, powerful, and ambitious book that, he thought, would not be popular—because it was too hard-hitting.
But Steinbeck insisted that all of his books were experiments, and in a way Grapes was another in a long line of experiments. It’s a hybrid book, blending journalism and fiction, history, and documentary expression.
SC: The Grapes chronicles the story of an Okie family, the Joads, moving West to escape the harsh conditions caused by drought, the Dust Bowl, and economic depression, only to find that life as migrants in California is no easier than the one they just left. So moving was this story, that it touched a raw nerve in the hearts of Americans who demanded immediate reforms. How successful was the book in effecting social changes to improve inhumane conditions that migrant workers were suffering at the hands of insensitive landowners?
SS: After this book was published, criticism was immediate and often harsh—particularly on the part of California growers and Oklahoma politicians. Steinbeck was accused of lying since they didn’t like the way their states had been portrayed. That said, many critics and readers thought it was a powerful and beautifully written novel. It was discussed in nearly every newspaper in America, and John Steinbeck became “a household name.”
All of this publicity brought the LaFollette Committee—a Congressional commission investigating labor unions and management disputes—to California to conduct further investigations into migrants’ living conditions there—how growers were housing their workers and what was happening in roadside camps (all of this had been documented by Dorothea Lange’s photographs, as well as Carey McWilliams’ bestseller, Factories in the Fields). The committee concluded that there was “a conspiracy to suppress constitutional rights that, in a comparison frequently made in the report, made California seem more a fascist European dictatorship than part of the United States,” as noted by Kevin Starr in his book, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California.
In the aftermath of this scandal, conditions in migrant camps had improved gradually over the next decades.
SC: What is the significance of the book’s title? And what major themes and motifs does Steinbeck use to drive his message across?
SS: Carol Steinbeck, John’s wife, as well as his muse and editor, came up with the title when Steinbeck was midway through the book. He thought it was a great title, taken from Julia Ward Howe’s Civil War anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Steinbeck and Carol insisted that both the words and music of the entire “Hymn” be included on the endpapers of the book. As Carol wrote to John’s editor, the march “disarms in advance any accusation of radicalism and will weld the American reader to the subject matter more completely,” And the anthem’s rhythm thrums in readers’ minds—important to Steinbeck, who wrote to music, valued the sound of prose, and noted in the novel itself that music brought the Okie people together. “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a march and “this book is a kind of march,” Steinbeck claimed. Its stirring, patriotic call for freedom in “our own revolutionary tradition” segues into a book with the same moral fervor. The lines suggest evangelical and activist zeal, and the triumph of righteous wrath:
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;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
The title also links the book with slavery and with Christian morality.
SC: While Grapes was lauded upon its release in 1939 as a great American novel and subsequently achieved widespread commercial success, it wasn’t without its critics. It was, as already mentioned above, attacked vehemently by its detractors who felt it was an unfair portrayal of California’s landowners. Indeed, the book was banned and burned because of its indecent and inflammatory language. Can you tell us more about these attempts to quash this modern classic?
SS: There’s so much to say on this topic. Grapes—as well as Of Mice and Men—is still banned because of bawdy language and the ending, where Rose of Sharon gives her breast to a dying man. In 1939, the Kern County Board of Supervisors in Bakersfield—where the Joads come into the Central Valley—banned the book on charges that Steinbeck lied about conditions in California. Let me again quote from On Reading The Grapes of Wrath:
Probably no book published in the twentieth century created the firestorm that The Grapes of Wrath set off. “‘Grapes of Wrath’? Obscenity and Inaccuracy” read an Oklahoma City Times headline on May 4, 1939. That set out the two lines of attack. In Buffalo, New York, “vulgar words” stopped the librarian from purchasing copies, it was reported. Kansas City, Missouri, librarians objected to the indecent portrayal of women and for “portray[ing] life in such a bestial way.” The head librarian at the San Jose public library, about ten miles from Steinbeck’s home, banned the book as “unfit for its patrons. Applicants are told it can be had at the circulating book stores.” The library did not carry a single volume of Steinbeck’s work in 1939: “a line must be drawn somewhere” sniffed the librarian. Of course, like all book banning, that just made the novel more scintillating.
Another attacking flank zeroed in on the book’s political stance and “inaccuracies.” In California, Pro-America, a women’s group with ties to the Associated Farmers, accused Steinbeck of fomenting class hatred. The Associated Farmers “have tried to make me retract things by very sly methods. Unfortunately for them, the things are thoroughly documented and the materials turned over to the La Follette Committee,” Steinbeck wrote to his college roommate. The Associated Farmers were out to get him; Hearst papers went for him.
. . .
Several Californians got busy with more creative responses. Plums of Plenty, a three-reel film written and directed by the secretary of the Kern County Chamber of Commerce, was shown at the San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. (Emory G. Hoffman defended his film, which depicted the generosity toward migrants in Kern County: “The torch of civilization burns a little brighter, a little higher, in Kern County than in the rest of the world.”) Grapes of Gladness was a novel written by a Los Angeles real estate developer who chided migrants for turning north rather than south toward Los Angeles, where they could have bought a small lot and become self-sufficient gardeners in a Thoreauvean mold — Walden was quoted on the cover. And Steinbeck’s Los Gatos neighbor Ruth Comfort Mitchell wrote Of Human Kindness, a romance about small farmers (to prove that California had them): an Okie wanders onto tidy acres, is cleaned up, taught to speak properly, and marries the farmer’s daughter.
SC: Novelist John Gardner criticized Grapes as a one-sided, melodramatic novel, asserting in his book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers:
Witness John Steinbeck’s failure in The Grapes of Wrath. It should have been one of America’s great books. But while Steinbeck knew all there was to know about Okies and the countless sorrows of their move to California to find work, he knew nothing about the California ranchers who employed and exploited them; he had no clue to, or interest in, their reasons for behaving as they did; and the result is that Steinbeck wrote not a great and firm novel but a disappointing melodrama in which complex good is pitted against unmitigated, unbelievable evil.
Do you find any merit in his assessment?
SS: I think that many powerful books take a side, as Steinbeck did in The Grapes of Wrath. Harriet Beecher Stowe took a side in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as did Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. Sometimes such books turn into propaganda, but I think that Steinbeck avoids that in Grapes. And it’s really not true that he knew nothing about growers and shippers; he went to school with their children, in a valley where growers and shippers were powerful, and he grew up resenting their excessive influence. It’s true that Grapes doesn’t examine the growers’ viewpoint. But in 1938 Steinbeck didn’t want to endorse the point of view of the powerful, who resisted so forcefully equity, better housing, and decent working conditions for their workers. Consider the Progressive movement of the first decades of the 20th century, and its attacks on monopolies. Only when one is a partisan do abuses get exposed.
SC: Having sold millions of copies, been translated into nearly every language, and won every major literary award and honor, today Grapes is required reading in schools around the world. Why do you think this novel continues to have such wide, popular appeal? Is its message still relevant today?
SS: Yes, I believe its message of compassion and understanding is essential. There are many points of contact between the Great Depression and today: banks taking over homes and farms, leaving people feeling powerless; a great divide between the wealthy and the “people,” as Steinbeck termed his migrants. Steinbeck also considered how men and women coped in times of stress—and that is a relevant topic of today as well.
SC: Many of Steinbeck’s novels have been adapted into films including Cannery Row (1982 and 1992) East of Eden (1955), The Moon Is Down (1943), Tortilla Flat (1942), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and Of Mice and Men (1939). More recently, Hollywood, with its undue penchant for remaking classic films, has snapped up the rights again to Grapes with Steven Spielberg serving as producer. Why do you suppose Steinbeck’s novels have been so attractive to filmmakers?
SS: Steinbeck is a visual writer; his scenes translate well into film. And the movie version of Grapes closely adheres to the dialogue in the novel. Steinbeck had a fine ear, and he recorded the voices of the ordinary people in his books.
SC: Which of Steinbeck’s books would you recommend to a reader unfamiliar with this writer’s body of work?
SS: I think a good beginning is Of Mice and Men or Cannery Row, one of the shorter books. I also love Tortilla Flat. My students always love East of Eden better than any other novel. And Steinbeck himself said that his own favorite book was Sea of Cortez. That’s a tough book to read at one sitting; it’s meant to be savored in small parts. Its model is conversational—the conversations between Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts.