By WALLACE BAINE
How do you know you’re an cultural colossus? A figure of such immense influence and lasting power that you leave behind mere celebrity like the dead skin of a snake?
Well, here’s a hint: If your name is affixed to the word “Country” to describe your home region, congratulations, you’re a colossus.
Of course, you can quibble about the precise boundaries of what we call “Steinbeck Country.” The Salinas Valley is at its heart, certainly. But the Monterey Peninsula has a legitimate claim as well.
For the next month, Santa Cruz County will make a strong case that Steinbeck Country creeps a lot more to the north of Monterey County. The non-profit program Santa Cruz Reads will next week launch an ambitious series of local events to celebrate one of the greatest American novels, “The Grapes of Wrath,” perhaps the masterwork of the great John Steinbeck.
The project kicks off on Feb. 27 with an event at the Museum of Art & History that features actors, musicians, scholars and other speakers reflecting on the monumental story of Tom Joad and his family’s migration to California during the Dust Bowl era. That day also happens to be Steinbeck’s 111th birthday – though the great author hasn’t been getting out to too many events since 1968, the year he died.
Throughout March, the “Grapes of Wrath” celebration will continue with artistic and scholarly events of all kinds, including:
A pair of ambitious musical concerts featuring music from the Steinbeck era to take place at both the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, and at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas.
A screening of the documentary “Harvest of Shame,” featuring a conversation with long-time local public officials Mike Rotkin and Bill Monning.
A one-person show from actor Michael Oakes performing as John Steinbeck.
A photography exhibition featuring Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and other photographers from the Depression era.
Theater troupes interpreting Steinbeck’s work, a lecture by historian Sandy Lydon and film screenings of the Steinbeck adaptations “Of Mice and Men,” “East of Eden,” and, of course, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The point of all this literary-inspired activity is to turn people back to the novel itself, first published in 1939, just as the country was recovering from the Great Depression.
Susan Shillinglaw is a professor at English at San Jose State University and the Scholar in Residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. She will speak on the influence of “The Grapes of Wrath” at the opening event at the MAH.
Shillinglaw said that “Grapes” is such a famous book that Americans today may feel they know it, and the times it portrayed, without having read it.
“We have so images of the Great Depression in our minds,” she said, “with the images of Dorothea Lange and so on. We’ve revisited the Depression in our own time because of our recent economic downturn. And the book has become such an iconic piece of writing. I would suggest to (fresh readers) to clear your mind of all that and appreciate it for what it is. I tell my students all the time, with this book, you have to slow down. The book asks you to take it on in a leisurely manner. Think yoga.”
“Grapes” won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for its moving story of the Joad family, tenant farmers from Oklahoma escaping the Dust Bowl devastation of their native Oklahoma to set out for California and a new life.
The book was immensely popular in its time, following on the heels of Steinbeck’s equally popular work “Of Mice and Men” and the acclaimed film version of “Mice.” “Grapes” itself would be turned into a movie the year after its publication. John Ford’s film starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad is the touchstone to Steinbeck for millions of contemporary Americans.
Even though the novel sold well and was read by millions, it was highly controversial in its time. Many cities and counties banned the book because of language and sexual material, including Santa Clara County. But much of the firestorm that greeted the story came from Steinbeck’s inherent critique of an American capitalist system that could allow such agony and trial to befall working Americans.
What’s more, said Shillinglaw, the book addressed head on the myth of Western expansion that had dominated the American mindset since the days of the Gold Rush.
“Two thirds of the book is about the journey,” she said. “But the image of California hangs over the whole book. The characters talk about what it will be like and the images they evoke are almost as romanticized as those fruit label images that were plastered on crates and sent around the world.”
“Grapes of Wrath” was, in fact, released the same year as Nathanael West’s “Day of the Locust,” an unrelenting take-down of the Hollywood film industry of the day. Taken together, the two novels represented a full-throated critique of the “Golden State” California dream.
“Growers, shippers, businesspeople, just about anyone connected with California agriculture objected to the book,” said Shillinglaw. “It was highly controversial because a lot of people were accusing Steinbeck of advocating socialism. But, at that time, you had to be just a hunk of protoplasm not to understand the appeal of socialism and communism. It looked like capitalism had failed.”
The story of the novel is also a story of an America long gone in the rush to embrace new technology. “Grapes of Wrath” flourished in a country that still had a mass culture and in a culture that still held up the novel as a vital artform. Steinbeck’s lasting power as a cultural force demonstrates fiction’s ability to shape the national narrative at that time.
“Grapes of Wrath” had, said Shillinglaw, real journalistic roots. It was part of the realist tradition of fiction and Steinbeck emerged as something more than a storyteller. He was an advocate for the dispossessed, a champion of the downtrodden.
“It’s hard to overstate the impact this book had on the country,” she said. “It’s always a challenge to name any other single book that has had a greater impact since. ‘Silent Spring,’ maybe? I don’t know. But this book remains so strong in people’s minds because it was about poverty, power and freedom. It was about the national psyche.”