Magazine article Humanities

Impertinent Questions WITH SUSAN SHILLINGLAW

Magazine article Humanities

Impertinent Questions WITH SUSAN SHILLINGLAW

Article excerpt

For this edition of IQ we're traveling west on Route 66 with Susan Shillinglaw as she takes us into John Steinbeck's world. Shillinglaw is professor of English at San Jose State University and scholar-in-residence at the National Steinbeck Center. Her books include On Reading the Grapes of Wrath and Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage. She has also conducted three N EH-supported summer institutes for schoolteachers on Steinbeck's work.

When did you first encounter Steinbeck?

I read Steinbeck in junior high, The Red Pony. I didn't like stories where the horse or dog or deer died, so I wasn't a big Steinbeck fan at first. He caught up with me after graduate school!

What did you think of The Grapes of Wrath on your first read?

I read the novel in high school, as do many students. But I think it's a book to rereadand to reread when you've experienced a bit of life, when you know what it feels like to lose a home, for example, or be denied a job again and again or experienced prejudice or had to work hard with your hands.

What do you get out of it now?

I appreciate Ma Joad more and more. She's so empathetic and patient with Pa and Rose of Sharon and the others who don't really want to change. Ma is adaptable and generous. I love it when she says, in effect, if you want someone to help you, ask someone who is poor. And she doesn't whine or criticize the recalcitrant Uncle John, She accepts her Joads.

You note that "heart" is the word most associated with The Grapes of Wrath. What gives the book heart?

Consider that this is a book that opens with a guy coming out of jail, heading home. Tom has to learn how to be part of a family again-his own and then with other migrants. He's a little angry, a little resistant, a little quick tempered. But Tom learns from Casy and Ma and his experience on the road that he could be part of something larger than himself. So the book is about the education of Tom's heart-as well as Rose of Sharon's. Characters adapt.

And I think that the heart in this book is also Steinbeck's own. When he composed the journalistic pieces that were his inspiration for The Harvest Gypsies, he was witness to others' struggles. He was not a migrant, not poor at that point in his life. But his distance from his subject and his shock at what he saw in the roadside camps, where people were starving, allowed him to see the migrants clearly, to see with fresh and startled eyes.

Carol, Steinbeck's wife, encouraged him to "stay with the detail" as he wrote. What details resonate for you? …

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