On Reading The Grapes of Wrath

Susan Shillinglaw, Author
Susan Shillinglaw. Penguin, $14 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-14-312550-1
Reviewed on: 01/13/2014
Release date: 03/25/2014
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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.)
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