In Paperback: On Reading “The Grapes of Wrath”
by Susan Shillinglaw
John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath was a seismic event in 20th-century literature: it sparked debates, it filled bookshop windows, it won its author the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, and it sold in numbers scientists have estimated to reach the upper gazillions. The following year it was made into a movie with the best Hollywood talent of the day on both sides of the camera, Henry Fonda starring and John Ford directing. The book’s story of the Dust Bowl-displaced Joad family doggedly seeking a new life in California turned a spotlight on the plight of migrant workers. Countless newspaper and magazine lists have ranked The Grapes of Wrath as one of the best American novels ever written, and truckloads of it have been shipped to high schools and colleges to be inflicted on students as early in their mental development as possible.
As literary tidal waves go, in other words, they don’t crash to shore much stronger than this one, and any nay-sayers were little stick figures instantly swept away by the surge. Dyspeptic book critics who tried to point out the novel’s nonexistent plotting and grotesque overwriting typed in vain. Social scientists and activists who decried the book’s insulting pandering could scarcely rustle up a single well-attended book-burning. Disgruntled editors who tried to point out that the whole thing was a couple of vineyards too long were dropped from the guest list of Bennett Cerf’s Upper West Side literary soirees. That most peculiar phenomenon – the literary blockbuster – is irresistible, and dissenting votes are not tallied.
Anyone sharing that simmering resentment here at the dawn of the 21st century might sigh in dismay at the appearance from Penguin of Susan Shillinglaw’s slim volume On Reading “The Grapes of Wrath.” Not its physical appearance, mind you: this is a lovely little paperback, neatly designed by Jason Ramirez and sleek enough to fit in your pocket. No rather the import of its appearance, that the monumental domination of the book continues into a new century.
Those carping resenters will hate Shillinglaw’s book, because they’ll love it. The author is one of the world’s foremost Steinbeck scholars, and the fast-paced, compassionate, and beautifully-written appreciation she’s crafted here deserves to sit next to The Grapes of Wrath on every bookshelf in the world.
She excavates the multiple levels on which the book operates, and that will interest students and Steinbeck professors alike, but her book’s true strength comes from its enthusiasm – and for the hard-won pithiness of her observations. “To open a long book is to relinquish speed,” she writes, with this novel’s girth in mind, but her own book is as fleet-footed as anything of shorter length Steinbeck himself ever wrote, and she’s his perfect, attentive reader – even when she’s reading a different book of his, like the famous opening of Sea of Cortez:
We take a colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn’t terribly important to the tidal pool. Fifty miles away the Japanese shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species o that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling on London and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.
– a passage whose full beauty, to say nothing of its resonance for The Grapes of Wrath, Shillinglaw clarifies effortlessly:
For ethical living, that might profitably be read daily by anyone. The Grapes of Wrath amplifies that insistent holistic truth: individuals belong to families, blood families are bound to other family units, and all humans are connected in spirit. The structure of this novel also replicates that passage, moving from particular to general – rocking back and forth between the intimate Joad narrative and the expansive interchapters that give documentary and historical heft to the misery and endurance of one family.
“This is a novel of growth, death, adaptation, and emergence – a book about all life,” she writes, but it’s also about a runaway publishing success, a book that sold 430,000 copies by the of its first year of publication. Shillinglaw is the most sympathetic Steinbeck reader imaginable, but when she reaches the climax of her story, she’s as blunt about the costs of that success as she’s been about its artistic dividends:
Both John and Carol Steinbeck were overwhelmed by the money and the letters that poured in as well as the protests and the fame. The woman who had “willed” the book into being – as the dedication notes – the woman who had a social conscience initially more muscular than her husband’s, the woman who typed every manuscript, who gave titles to Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, who had helped with the organization of several books and brought him stories for some and edited every one, the woman who was his muse and mainstay, his wife and his soul mate- that woman seemed alien. John would get involved with another woman who was sexy and playful (one can’t help but think of her as an antidote to migrant problems) and separated from Carol two years after the book’s publication. The Steinbecks were leveled by Grapes.
Nobody who’s ever managed to enjoy The Grapes of Wrath should miss this powerfully memorable little study of it. Hell, even the few Steinbeck holdouts will enjoy it – and maybe it’ll do the unthinkable and send them back to the book itself. Shillinglaw the wonder-worker.