by Nicole Cohen)
John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was first published on April 14, 1939. And now — 75 years later to the day — we've finished reading it!
Over the course of our Grapes of Wrath book club, we've debated Depression-era agricultural practices, designed a book club t-shirt and learned lots of new words.
Now that we're done — and in honor of the book's 75th birthday — it's time to gather one last time to share our thoughts. But this time, we're bringing an expert into the conversation: National Steinbeck Center scholar-in-residence, and author of On Reading the Grapes of Wrath, Susan Shillinglaw. Susan will join us in the comments section of this post today, starting at 3 p.m. ET.
To get the ball rolling, here are the moments/scenes from the book that stood out to each of us the most. Special guest Susan Shillinglaw gets us started:
Susan: I wrestled with the assignment to select a favorite passage — only one? Chapter 25? (Love it all). First paragraph of the turtle chapter? (Love "anlage" — the seed) But in the end, Ma triumphed. Maybe because I advise students at San Jose State University, maybe because I am a mother, maybe because Ma is keystone, heartbeat, crucible, backbone in this novel — maybe all of that. Ma's conversations ensnare me on each reading, particularly her advice to a suffering daughter. Ma's is tough love.
At the government camp (Chapter 22) Ma tells Rosasharn to "stop pickin' at yourself... Our folks ain't never did that. They took what come to em' dry-eyed."
What a wonderful, proud line.
"But, Ma—-" Rose protests.
Ma has had her fill of a grumpy daughter: "Jes' shut up an' git to work. You ain't big enough or mean enough to worry God much... Git a-workin' now, so's I can be proud."
Again and again throughout this novel, Ma's heritage sustains her as men crumple around her. Although she lost Oklahoma, Ma clings to "Okie" integrity — loyalty, a work ethic, honorable behavior, generosity, honesty. And adaptability.
Rosasharn must learn all of that, and Ma is a great teacher.
Beth: The moment that really stuck with me (other than The Obvious One which I'm sure we'll discuss at length!) is the moment when, rather than bury Rose of Sharon's stillborn baby as he's been instructed, Uncle John kneels by the bank and lets the child's body float away in the flooded stream. A lot of this book has felt downright biblical and here the Moses imagery was pretty hit-you-over-the-head — especially when John says: "Go down an' tell 'em. ... That's the way you can talk. ... Maybe they'll know then." Steinbeck filled his book with biblical allusions, while also taking plenty of swings at religion: He martyrs a disillusioned preacher; he caricatures the fundamentalists in the camps; he serves up lines like "There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do." I'd be interested to hear more from Susan about Steinbeck's religious background — I read that he was an agnostic, but am curious to learn more.
Petra: It's funny, Beth and I battened on the same passage but we had very different responses to it. What hit me like a two-by-four to the head was the utter, abject hopelessness of Uncle John setting that baby afloat instead of burying it. And then to add insult to unimaginable injury, the box tips over and dumps the body into the stream. Yes, Uncle John is the most doom-ridden Joad, but you get the sense he's not far wrong here, so lost and voiceless that he feels the aimlessly drifting body of a stillborn baby can speak louder than he can. And of course you know what will happen: Even if someone finds that poor little body, no one will hear its message. They'll tighten their lips and mutter about filthy Okies, and the cycle of poverty and misery will keep right on going until World War II arrives to break it up.
Nicole: The end of this book is full of memorable scenes — OK, yes, mostly The Obvious One — but I've been thinking a lot about a scene from the middle of the book, when the Joads pull over after crossing one last mountain range and set their eyes on that verdant California valley. They see vineyards, orchards, peach trees, walnut groves — everything they'd dreamed of. But of course by that point we already know it's only a dream. It feels like they just reached the highest point of a roller coaster ride and they're completely unaware of the drop they're in for (starting, almost immediately, with the news of Granma's death). It's the last moment of hope, when California could still be a land of plenty, before reality comes crashing down.
Colin: One of the most agonizing aspects of the situation facing the Joads is the simple fact that there's so rarely a place to direct their anger. There are the corporations and the banks, sure, but these have somehow been rendered insubstantial, as omnipotent and bodiless as gods. That's why I found fascinating any scene in which any offshoot, any individual doing the corporations' work, is caught out on his own. Among these, Ma's confrontation with the man at the company store stands out. Pitiful and contemptible, face caught forever in surprise, this man is rotten for being a swindler but pathetic for earning so little of the swindling he does. What we see, as with the deputies and the nativist townsfolk, is the collectivization Casy hopes to see from the farmers, except rendered menacing through the looking glass. Together, they're powerful, impossible to touch; but as individuals, they're men like the company storekeep — or Pa — weighing always the implacable demands of their stomach against their beleaguered sense of honor and what's right. Strangely, it's because Steinbeck shows pity to the storekeep that I believe ideals like Casy's are possible.
Update, 4:08 p.m.: That's it for the #NPRGrapes book club! We're signing off, but don't let that stop you from joining the conversation.