By Susan Shillinglaw.
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:
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