John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was published seventy-five years ago this April. To commemorate that milestone, Roosevelt House, in collaboration with Hunter's Arts Across the Curriculum program, presents a distinguished panel exploring the enduring significance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and the continuing essential engagement of American novelists with social concerns and social consciousness, in the tradition that John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath exemplify.
The Grapes of Wrath was one of the most controversial bestsellers of its time -- considered obscene by some -- and today is widely regarded as the greatest work of the Nobel Prize winner's career. Tonight's panel on the contemporary relevance of the book and the role of the novelist in American cultural life today includes Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin, and professor of creative writing at Hunter; Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family, contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and professor of creative nonfiction at Dartmouth; and Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English and director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University, whose latest book is On Reading The Grapes Of Wrath. The moderator is Jeff Allred, assistant professor of English at Hunter and author of American Modernism and Depression Documentary.
Roosevelt House is the ideal place for this vital conversation on the interlinking of the arts and politics in 20th -- and 21st -- century America. In 1939, when debate about the quality and theme of The Grapes of Wrath was at its height, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her "My Day" column to praise and to defend it:
Now I must tell you that I have just finished a book which is an unforgettable experience in reading. "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck, both repels and attracts you. The horrors of the picture, so well-drawn, make you dread sometimes to begin the next chapter, and yet you cannot lay the book down or even skip a page. Somewhere I saw the criticism that this book was anti-religious, but somehow I cannot imagine thinking of "Ma" without, at the same time, thinking of the love "that passeth all understanding."
The book is coarse in spots, but life is coarse in spots, and story is very beautiful in spots just as life is.
Tonight's discussion will include reflections on Eleanor Roosevelt's remarks, controversial in their own right 75 years ago this spring.