Monday is the 75th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck's Dust Bowl classic, "The Grapes of Wrath." Susan Shillinglaw, who teaches English at San Jose State University and is the former director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies there, spent roughly three decades immersed in Steinbeck's life; that deep immersion informs her two new books, "Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage" (University of Nevada Press, $34.95) and "On Reading 'The Grapes of Wrath'" (Penguin, $14 paper).
Shillinglaw has a very particular lens through which she sees Steinbeck's work and life. It is formed by the author's life and letters, by the memories and the work of his friends and family, by the context in which he wrote, the places he lived, and the culture in which he worked. In both books, Steinbeck is a character in his own life -- not front and center, but part of the ecosystem Shillinglaw reconstructs. This, in turn, helps us to place Steinbeck in context and to better understand how he chose his subjects and why they meant so much to him.
Shillinglaw also places tremendous emphasis on Steinbeck's friendship with marine ecologist Ed Ricketts, whom Steinbeck first met in 1930, when he and his wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck, moved to Pacific Grove, Calif. Ricketts ran a marine laboratory two blocks from their cottage on Monterey Bay that sold specimens to colleges and high schools. He was, by all accounts, a compelling and influential intellect, for Steinbeck and for many other scientists, artists and writers (including Joseph Campbell) who were drawn into his orbit in the 1930s.
Their deep friendship, Shillinglaw writes, inspired Steinbeck to think of his work in much the same way Ricketts thought of his "four approaches" to ecology: layer by layer. In a letter to his editor at Viking, Pascal Covici, three months before "The Grapes of Wrath" was published, Steinbeck wrote: "There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won't find more than he has in himself." The layers are: 1) "the physicality of things, the world closely observed"; 2) what Steinbeck called the "wall of background," how the "I" interacts with the "we"; 3) the characters' relation to history; 4) the universal ideas "common to the whole species, past and present"; and 5) the "emergence," "the step forward taken by humans."
While "On Reading" takes us through "The Grapes of Wrath" using the ecosystem lens inspired by his friendship with Ricketts, Shillinglaw's "Portrait of a Marriage" describes the creation and destruction of the forces that brought "The Grapes of Wrath" into being -- the marriage to Carol, the friendship with Ricketts, Steinbeck's championing of migrant workers, the culture of the New Deal and the home that Carol and John struggled to create and preserve. Shillinglaw alludes to the possibility that struggle -- financial and emotional -- was critical to Steinbeck's creative process.
In Shillinglaw's telling, Carol is witty, lively, practical, grounding and "vital to John's work." But her life revolves around Steinbeck's. While she longs to be publicly known in her own right, she does not have the talent or the drive to create great art. Shillinglaw does credit Carol, not only with tirelessly typing and editing the book, but with really pushing John to write "The Grapes of Wrath," after a series of articles for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1936 led him to the migrant camp Arvin in Brawley, Calif., led by Tom Collins. The book is dedicated to Carol, "who willed it," and Tom, "who lived it." Shillinglaw makes the case that the work, completion, and success of "The Grapes of Wrath" led to the crumbling of the marriage.
In Shillinglaw, Steinbeck, who died in 1968, has an ardent reader, dedicated to the urgency and everlasting timeliness of the author's work. More than the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and countless other decorations, this would have mattered to him.
Susan Shillinglaw discusses Steinbeck
WHEN | WHERE 5 p.m. April 26 at Canio's Books, 290 Main St., Sag Harbor
INFO Free, 631-725-4926, caniosbooks.com