Closer Readings Commentary

Tracking John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath

The Western Flyer is the sardine boat that Ricketts and Steinbeck used in their expedition on the Sea of Cortez.
Photo caption

The Western Flyer is the sardine boat that Ricketts and Steinbeck used in their expedition on the Sea of Cortez.

Steinbeck scholar and NEH Summer Institute for School Teachers director, Susan Shillinglaw, teams with Bill Gilly, professor of Marine Biology at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, to discuss the influence of Steinbeck’s best friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, on Steinbeck and his work— in particular, The Grapes of Wrath—as well as the development of Steinbeck’s world view, which is crystalized in the writer's exploration of non-teleological thinking. Special attention is given to Steinbeck’s book Sea of Cortez, the outcome of a marine expedition Steinbeck made with Ricketts in 1940, and to the deep interconnections and ecological views that ties this work to Steinbeck’s novel about Dust Bowl migrants. Ideas for student literary and ecology projects are gathered in the concluding remarks.

Tracking John Steinbeck: The Video

Section 1: Discussant Introductions; John Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts, and a Sense of Community

A brief biography of Ricketts; the close relationship of Steinbeck and Ricketts outlined; the effect of the friendship on Steinbeck’s art broached; the importance of the sense of community pervading the writer’s life and his works. (duration: 3:25)

Section 2: The Importance of the System, Group Behavior, and Holistic Thinking in The Grapes of Wrath

The study of marine systems and the study of group behavior in The Grapes of Wrath linked through the concept of Community; the overarching power on the communal group in the System; the importance of holistic thinking in both the environment and art; the relationship of holistic thinking, non-teleological thinking, and emergence in both Grapes of Wrath and Sea of Cortez. (duration: 4:58)

Section 3: The Importance of Chapter 14 in The Grapes of Wrath and Sea of Cortez

Chapter 14 of both books examines non-teleological thinking; causality; an event as too deep to be apprehended; distinction of good and bad as not discernible; solutions found in the community, the group; emergence not a sum of the parts but unpredictable, mystical. (duration: 3:57)

Section 4: “Group Man” and Communities

Growth of character in Steinbeck’s characters are examples of emergence; Phalanx and Group Man as collective flow; the individual and the community; Casey as an emergent figure; migrants, ants and the Collective, the concept of emergence. (Duration: 4:02)

Section 5: Sea of Cortez; The Grapes of Wrath and the Importance of the Interchapters

The Grapes of Wrath and the ecology of human behavior; Sea of Cortez as a key to non-teological thinking in The Grapes of Wrath; interchapters in the novel as pace-changers; new perspectives on the narrative. (Duration: 2:14)

Section 6: Ecology in The Grapes of Wrath and Sea of Cortez

The five levels of The Grapes of Wrath and Rickett’s four levels of ecology; the “All” in The Grapes of Wrath and Sea of Cortez; all life as relational; ecological connections in The Grapes of Wrath; the character Muley in The Grapes of Wrath. (duration: 5:50)

Section 7: The Group, Extremes, and the Common Man

Adaptation in Steinbeck; the common and the extremes; Common Man and group behavior; the individual and the community. (duration: 4:05)

Section 8: Projects for the Literature or STEM Classroom

Ideas covered in the video are highlighted for projects, including: exercise on group behavior, homelessness; observation of environment; individual voices project; relevance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to The Grapes of Wrath; exercise in non-teleological thinking and variability; collective behavior experiments; exercises on connection to place. (duration: 7:06)

Further Resources from Susan Shillinglaw

Susan Shillinglaw is professor of English at San José State University and Scholar in Residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. She has also been the project director of a number of NEH Summer Institutes for School Teachers on John Steinbeck and hosts an extensive website, John Steinbeck: Voice of a Region, Voice for America, at the Steinbeck Institute.

William Gilly is professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Salinas, California. In 2004, he served as Director and Chief Scientist of the Sea of Cortez Expedition and Education Project, an eight-week journey throughout Mexico's Sea of Cortez that retraced the legendary 1940 trip made by writer John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts.