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ON READING <i>THE GRAPES OF WRATH</i> by Susan Shillinglaw


by Susan Shillinglaw

Pub Date: Feb. 19th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-14-312550-1
Publisher: Penguin

A compact primer from a Steinbeck scholar on what she believes is one of the greatest works in the history of literature.

Readers who agree that Steinbeck’s Depression-era saga is the Great American Novel will be able to go deeper into its various layers with this guide, but there is no balanced argument here on a work that had a mixed critical reception upon publication and continues to polarize opinion. “The Joads are like the Israelites seeking the Promised Land in Exodus,” writes Shillinglaw (English/San Jose State Univ.; Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage, 2013, etc.) in one of many biblical comparisons. The scope and scale of Steinbeck’s achievement elsewhere conjure comparisons with Shakespeare (Hamlet and King Lear in particular), Moby-Dick, Wordsworth and Blake, and the Arthurian Round Table. The book barely acknowledges lesser appraisals, brushing away criticisms like flies, acknowledging a mixed response but attributing much of the negativity to parochial concerns over its politics and the propriety of its language. Of the dialogue, the author admits, “some find it hokey. I don’t. It seems to me pitch-perfect, concrete and exact, capturing the migrants’ metaphoric speech patterns.” Of the dismissal of the novel as “middlebrow,” Shillinglaw counters, “That term might have pleased Steinbeck, since that’s precisely what he was after….He wrote this book for mass culture.” Perhaps the most revelatory thread in the study concerns Steinbeck’s friendship with marine biologist Ed Ricketts, “a friendship almost unearthly in its intensity.” “The intellectual and emotional bond between writer and scientist—a platonic love—was so unusual, so forward-looking, and so fiercely linked to an understanding of humans and the environment,” she writes, “that to see one is to see both and to understand both is to reconsider our own footprint in the world.”

An uneven celebration mainly for Steinbeck scholars and fans.