Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

100th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s birth

[gary daily col. 15 May 5, 2002]

“The story ends only in fiction and I have made sure that it never ends in my fiction.”
–John Steinbeck to Dorthea Lange (1965)

In 1939 a book was published which the author had been researching and working on since the start of the Great Depression. This author’s reputation was slight, but growing. When he eventually sat down to write this book, he finished it in less than six months. In chapter 3 of this 30 chapter, almost five-hundred page book, The Grapes of Wrath describes the journey of a land turtle up an embankment and across a concrete highway. While crossing this road a speeding car swerves dangerously to avoid hitting the turtle; a light truck follows and it intentionally angles toward the slow moving shell and grazes it, sending it The tumbling into the wild oat grass off the 100th annivehighway. The turtle strenuously works to right itself, does, sheds some oat seed that had clung to its shell, and, as the chapter ends: “The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust.”

Grapes of Wrath was John Steinbeck’s masterpiece. It continues to be read around the world; it has been translated into thirty languages. The sales of this book in the United States touch 300,000 each year. It is often the one book people remember reading in high school. As one critic put it, and many readers would agree, it is a book that “continues to educate the heart.”

This year, 2002, is the 100th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s birth. He was born on February 27, 1902, in the farming community of Salinas, California. His family was middle-class. His mother was from a rich ranch family and was a teacher; his father was the county treasurer. Today people in his old hometown comment on his being a kind of hippie for his times. Salinas is now the home to the National Steinbeck Center and is engaged in a yearlong celebration of the arts in honor of their Nobel Prize winning favorite hippie son.

The “hippie” label seems to mean that Steinbeck spent a good deal of time outside and traveling about and that he read all the time. He entered Stanford at seventeen and left five years later without a degree. The scholar, Robert DeMott, wraps up Steinbeck’s school years by noting, “Like Melville, he swam in libraries; like Faulkner, college did not prevent him from pursuing his vocation.”

The reader John Steinbeck once referred to the “Oxford English Dictionary” as “the greatest book in the world.” In an interview, Steinbeck recounted a long list of books he had read and noted: “Certain books were realer than experience . . . I read all of these things when I was very young and I remember them not at all as books but as things that happened to me.”

When you love a book the way I love John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” you have to see it as something that “happened” to you.

There’s a busy intersection in my memory bank that connects the book with much more than my first reading, the discovery of the book. My reading experience, intense and memorable as it was, melds with the history I learned from family stories and the history of the 1930s I found in books.


Seeping into and around this oral and written history comes the emotions attached to visual cues: John Ford’s classic Hollywood film of the novel; countless documentaries about the Great Depression which always include Dorthea Lange’s Farm Security Administration photographs, film clips of dust bowl conditions and “Okies” and “Arkies”on the highway west; and, from an entirely different time period, Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 “Harvest of Shame,” an investigative television report I distinctly remember experiencing with feelings of indignation that were more echo and reprise than revelation.

Busy traffic on this memory intersection must also include a post-adolescent lifetime of listening to and being moved by the songs of Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Ronnie Gilbert, Jack Elliot, Oscar Brown, Jr., Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, and on and on to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

I can’t remember when I first read The Grapes of Wrath, first heaved up that embankment and across that dusty and dangerous road with that “old humorous eyed” turtle. I tell myself that I must have read this classic at a very tender and fecund moment. How else explain the long and never ending influence it has on me? How else explain why the question that most interests me in my reading of history and literature is not so much: Who am I? as Who are we?

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