I have bad news and good news about Susan Shillinglaw’s “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath,” a behind-the-scenes look on the writing and marketing of John Steinbeck’s classic and controversial novel that marks its 75th anniversary this year.
The bad news is Shillinglaw’s book (paperback, 206 pages, Penguin) delves very little into the Joad family’s journey on Route 66 (“the road of flight”) or any of Steinbeck’s research about the Mother Road — despite a sizable chunk of the novel taking place there.
The good news is Shillinglaw — a San Jose State University professor and scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center — dug up enough interesting material about Steinbeck’s seminal work that even those casually acquainted with the novel probably will want to read “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath.”
A few may find it curious for someone to write a book about a book. But “The Grapes of Wrath” not only is one of the most acclaimed American novels (it pretty much hand-delivered the Nobel Prize to Steinbeck) but remains one of the most successful (it was an immediate best-seller and has sold well over 100,000 copies a year since the 1980s). The film version, directed by John Ford, remains one of the praised movies of all time.
And “The Grapes of Wrath,” along with the “Route 66” television drama of the 1960s and Bobby Troup’s endlessly covered song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” cemented the highway into popular culture.
Roadies may find it interesting to learn why Steinbeck made the curious decision to shift the Joads’ home base from Shawnee (just east of Oklahoma City) to the far east Oklahoma town of Sallisaw, where the Dust Bowl didn’t occur. Apparently Steinbeck liked the similar etymology of Sallisaw and his hometown of Salinas, California (both starting with “Sal,” meaning salt). And Sallisaw was associated with Pretty Boy Floyd, a modern-day Robin Hood who robbed banks and gave money to impoverished residents — no doubt appealing to Steinbeck’s sensibilities.
One wonders why Shillinglaw didn’t embark on her own Route 66 trip and follow in the Joads’ path. But she lets it slip she had only two months to write the book, so she probably didn’t have time for a cross-country journey, even if she wanted one.
Despite the abbreviated time to compose the book, Shillinglaw compiled these fascinating tidbits about “The Grapes of Wrath”:
— Although Steinbeck didn’t grow up poor, he worked a series of blue-collar jobs — dredging, sugar plant worker, ranching and highway builder — before he became a full-time writer. This background undoubtedly helped give him empathy for the Joads and other Okies made desperate by the Great Depression.
— Steinbeck’s agent tried to make him tone down the book’s salty language by the Okies and California workers. “I’m writing the speech as I know it with my ear,” he explained. Steinbeck mostly complied, but drew the line when publishers wanted him to excise the word “shitheels.”
— Steinbeck, in a fit of anger, wrote a short and biting satirical piece about Salinas, “L’Affair Lettuceburg.” But his wife hated it, and unfortunately the manuscript was destroyed. But the writing exercise cooled much of Steinbeck’s white-hot fury and turned “The Grapes of Wrath” into a better book.
— At one point during the late 1930s, Steinbeck planned a collaboration with Great Depression photographer Dorothea Lange, most famous for her “Migrant Mother” image. That seemed like an artistic match made in heaven, but it never materialized.
— Shillinglaw briefly details the book-burnings and other outrage from some quarters after “The Grapes of Wrath’s” publication, including Oklahoma congressman Lyle Boren calling the work “a lie, a black infernal creation of a twisted, dishonest mind.” (His son, future U.S. senator David Boren, quietly but firmly disagreed.) Also, the book inspired two now-forgotten rebuttals — the novel “Grapes of Gladness” and the film “Plums of Plenty.”
— The book includes folk musician Woody Guthrie’s typically memorable take on “The Grapes of Wrath” film. It needs to be read in full to be appreciated, but it’s clear he was a fan.
— A special two-volume edition of “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940 included dozens of illustrations by famed artist Thomas Hart Benton. (If you find it at a garage sale, pick it up — it’s probably worth at least $1,000.) That was one of several fancy special editions of the book, many shepherded by Pat Covici. And for the 75th anniversary, Penguin continues the tradition by offering a $250 special edition of “The Grapes of Wrath.”
— Steinbeck fought with editors who wanted him to change the book’s ending. Shillinglaw’s book includes correspondence from one dismayed member of Viking’s editorial team. This was one battle with the marketers where Steinbeck did not back down.
Readers might find parts of Shillinglaw’s book — such as Steinbeck’s influential friendship with marine biologist Edward Rickets and a dissection of the novel’s “five layers” — a tough slog. But the chapters are short, and Shillinglaw moves quickly to more interesting subjects, such as how the title of Steinbeck’s book was chosen (it originally was “The Oklahomans”).
Penguin Books should feel fortunate it found an author who possessed so much knowledge and access to Steinbeck’s work, or else “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath” might have been more slipshod. But with the missed opportunity of the Route 66 angle and Shillinglaw’s lack of time to work on this volume, one has to wonder what she would have accomplished if she received the assignment a couple of years in advance of “The Grapes of Wrath” anniversary.