Susan Shillinglaw's new book On Reading "The Grapes of Wrath" provides readers with a new appreciation for the American classic and John Steinbeck's craft, and it's just in time for the book's 75th anniversary. Shillinglaw, former director of the SJSU Steinbeck Center and author of Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage, shares with us her favorite Steinbeck books.
Where I live, Monterey County California, Steinbeck also lived, so interest runs high. After twenty eight years traveling long and well with this rumpled, engaging writer, I know first hand that Steinbeck’s appeal extends far beyond his home turf--that his voice roars beyond boundaries of place, time and class. Why this might be so is a question to ask in this 75th anniversary year of The Grapes of Wrath.
Reasons for his popularity abound. His prose is supple--muscular and melodic. Early on, he fixed his gaze on the marginalized and dispossessed, conveying a palpable empathy for ordinary folk who speak a robust and earthy American idiom. Throughout his nearly forty-year writing career, he remained an astute observer of American life—he was "basically, intrinsically and irresistibly a Democrat,” as he said of himself. (He wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson, drafted some for Lyndon Johnson and was asked by Jackie Kennedy to write a biography of her husband.) Friendship was his great, equalizing subject. He noted the ethnic diversity of California: Chinese Lee in East of Eden, for example, at the helm of the Trask family’s listing vessel. He was an environmentalist, knowing from a young age that humans must share landscapes with other species, not blindly dominate them. And his books are both winsome and wise; he was a writer unafraid to experiment with slight and weighty volumes, as well as work in a variety of genres--filmscripts and journalism and dramas and short stories, travel narratives and novels.
I’ve arranged my favorites into sets with Steinbeck as the common ancestor. Any number of people I’ve met read one Steinbeck novel and then gobble them all. A reader seated at the feast might switch metaphors and consider the branching and “comfortable” Steinbeck oak, the sets as limbs:
SET I: The Land
To a God Unknown (1933). This early novel is raw, uneven and compelling, stamped by Steinbeck’s brief friendship with Joseph Campbell in 1932. The novel bursts with ideas, a youthful text that contains everything the writer had considered to that point (many ideas amplified in later works). Joseph Wayne is a magnificent seeker, an empire builder, an Ahab lusting for unearthly knowledge, yearning to become one with the land.
The Long Valley (1938). When Steinbeck experienced a novelist’s drought in 1933 and ‘34 he turned to short stories about oddly lonesome, unkindly-coupled characters. Most of these stories were collected in this 1938 volume, which also includes lovely The Red Pony. Through the eyes of “little boy Jody,” Steinbeck brings a delicate understanding to a boy confronting the vagaries of life and death.
SET II: Social Critic
Of Mice and Men (1937). Only a year after the March 1937 publication of the book and opening of the Broadway play (November), Steinbeck’s George and Lennie had entered America’s popular lexicon, This odd couple still worms its way into readers’ hearts—“a little study in humility” Steinbeck called his novella. Lennie’s worshipful love of George and George’s equally sharp need for Lennie’s adoration is archetypal. Everybody is lonely in this book—where a visionary cooperative farm is a temporary and ever-poignant stay against confusion. “Tell me about the rabbits, George.” Who wouldn’t sign on?
In Dubious Battle (1936). There is a raw, detached power in what is perhaps the best strike novel ever written (watch John Sayles’s Matewan after reading IDB). Jim, the novice organizer, is tutored in strike tactics by the steely Mac—taught how to empower workers and manipulate them and coax them into action. Jim becomes ever more ruthless, and the book examines the quicksands of power. From mid-1930 on, Steinbeck was deeply engaged with group behavior, the phalanx in his terminology—“group man” has the potential to destroy (angry mobs) or give succor (hungry “Okies” traversing Route 66, banding together in need).
The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Clamors for top billing in this group, but it’s to be savored as the grand finale of Steinbeck’s labor trilogy. The novel earned plaudits immediately upon publication: a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award; brief mention in Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day” column (she defended the novel’s factual accuracy); and political recognition—the novel helped bring the La Follette committee to California to investigate migrant housing conditions. One of the three or four books in America that had a direct impact on social policy (consider also Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, and Silent Spring—the one book that Steinbeck said he wished he had written). This novel endures because, with hand extended, Steinbeck invites readers to see the migrants as he saw them—people who had dignity and grace, who stepped forward with gritty will. Steinbeck writes with a grace and flexibility that masks the layers of suggestion he packs into it (five layers, he said).
SET III: Environmental Ethics
Sea of Cortez (1941) or The Log from “Sea of Cortez” (1951). John’s third wife, Elaine, once told me that Sea of Cortez was John’s favorite of all his books. It’s his wisest, to be sure. It replicates the conversational voice—Steinbeck’s intimate exchanges with marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts, his best friend (both went to on the voyage to the Gulf of California on which the book is based). To appreciate Steinbeck’s ideas, first read the afterword to Log, “About Ed Ricketts.” Turning to the book, note that the meandering chapters are conversational—the prose dips and weaves and floats into abstract thinking—then grounds itself again in daily collecting trips in the intertidal and shipboard life. Don’t read in one sitting—or two or three. Savor chapters.
Cannery Row (1945). Friendship is Steinbeck’s signature bond, male friendship that bleeds into love. Steinbeck writes about Monterey’s Cannery Row in much the same way that Ed Ricketts (Doc in the novel) catalogued his “little beasties” in the intertidal, noting connections. (Ricketts’s passion was invertebrate communities, intersecting habitats.) Steinbeck nudges readers into seeing with some of Doc’s flexible and all-encompassing vision, which scrutinizes the real and soars to the visionary. Mack and the boys are bums as well as graces and beauties – neither good nor bad, a constant theme both here and in Sea of Cortez.
SET IV: Fathers and Sons and Friends
East of Eden (1952). My students’ favorite novel, hands down. This is Steinbeck’s anguished epic about his mother’s own family, the Hamiltons (stories true), and his fictional family, the Trasks, who are recast in the mythic Cain and Abel saga. He began writing this book (as well as the ur-text, Journal of a Novel which charts his writing) in 1951, divorced from one wife and newly married to another; anguish about his sons’ future and sorrow about his own past is woven into each section in this, his most personal book.
Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (1975). Compiled (and selectively edited) by his third wife, Elaine, this lively volume is aptly titled, since Steinbeck the man—warm hearted and funny, driven and haunted by inadequacy, intellectually curious and sturdy of mind—is revealed in long letters to a phalanx of friends, a trio of wives, as well as agents, editors, and family.
SET V: Cold War
A Russian Journal (1948). Written just as Russia turned from World War II ally to Cold War enemy. It is hardly Steinbeck’s best book, but it is one of his most urgent today, as Crimea tips toward Russia. Traveling with photographer Robert Capa, Steinbeck kept his gaze steadily on the Russian peoples’ restricted lives. His text is intriguing in its silences.
The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). In the last decade of his life, Steinbeck wrote three books that take the measure of his country. He sensed a growing greed, selfishness and immorality in America, and creates a character who falls to the temptations of the times.
Travels with Charley (1962). As he pulled his truck out of Sag Harbor, New York, Steinbeck was “In Search of America,” the subtitle of this admittedly highly personal, idiosyncratic, funny and playful narrative. His America. Not a “true” account, simply his own.
America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction (1966/2002). A jeremiad. Essays that dissect the nation’s virtues and weaknesses with broad strokes, as the title suggests. Also in this volume are the best of Steinbeck’s nonfiction pieces.
Susan Shillinglaw is professor of English at San Jose State, former director of the SJSU Steinbeck Center, Scholar in Residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, and author of the recently published On Reading “The Grapes of Wrath” (Penguin 2014) and Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage (Nevada, 2013).