STARRED REVIEW
February 17, 2014

A classic at 75

By Susan Shillinglaw

When The Grapes of Wrath was published 75 years ago, on April 14, 1939, it was an immediate critical and commercial success, topping bestseller lists and winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In our own less print-oriented age, it is hard to imagine a book having the explosive cultural and political impact that Steinbeck’s masterpiece had across the nation—immediate and divisive—although its never-waning popularity still speaks to the novel’s power and relevance.

Share this Article:

When The Grapes of Wrath was published 75 years ago, on April 14, 1939, it was an immediate critical and commercial success, topping bestseller lists and winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In our own less print-oriented age, it is hard to imagine a book having the explosive cultural and political impact that Steinbeck’s masterpiece had across the nation—immediate and divisive—although its never-waning popularity still speaks to the novel’s power and relevance. Steinbeck specialist Susan Shillinglaw, for 18 years director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University and currently scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, celebrates that relevance in On Reading The Grapes of Wrath, a concise yet penetrating study of the genesis of the book and its interlocking themes.

Steinbeck wrote that, “There are five layers in this book; a reader will find as many as he can and he won’t find more than he has in himself.” Borrowing this notion of layers—which Steinbeck himself borrowed from his friend, the pioneering marine biologist Ed Ricketts—Shillinglaw finds her own five, delving into the text for surface clarity, associations, histories, universal symbols and, finally, what she calls emergence, or breaking through to something finer or purer than the sum of its parts. This somewhat academic conceit might be lost on the casual reader, but it does give shape to the book and provides Shillinglaw with a welcome platform for sharing a plethora of “back story” details about the writing of The Grapes of Wrath.

An astute critic, Shillinglaw looks at such archetypal characters as Tom and Ma Joad with fresh eyes, placing them in the context of their own story and in the greater contexts of history and literature. She explores Steinbeck’s progressive political affiliations and commitment as an advocate for social justice (first fueled by his wife, Carol, to whom the novel is dedicated) and how they inspired his fictional portrayal of the exploitation of migrant workers. Underlying themes of women, religion, ecology, class and, of course, the land, inform Shillinglaw’s incisive appreciation of the novel.

The enduring power of The Grapes of Wrath rests in its urgency, Shillinglaw says. “It is not a novel of social reform, not a book that poses solutions to the economic, ecological, and sociological challenges of the 1930s. It is not a novel advocating higher wages or better housing or kinder owners, although surely Steinbeck would have endorsed all of that. Instead his message is a message to the human heart, capable of ‘thinking, feeling, intuition, sensation.’” The Grapes of Wrath is, in short, what any great and lasting book must be: timeless, compelling, universal.

Trending Reviews

Get the Book

On Reading The Grapes of Wrath

On Reading The Grapes of Wrath

By Susan Shillinglaw
Penguin
ISBN 9780143125501

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!