Archives For John Steinbeck

The English I Honors teacher in my department recently suffered a serious concussion; no reading or writing for several weeks. Her classes must go on, however, and the new unit on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is next in the curriculum.  A long term substitute is scheduled for next week, and the students could easily read the novel before her arrival.

Moreover, there is a packet of information and worksheets in the file cabinet with background information on the 1930s and the author, John Steinbeck. The practice of providing such a lengthy introduction, however, is associated with “over-teaching”, a practice now discouraged in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. In statewide tests students will have to meet the standards of the Common Core, and they will encounter texts from many different sources. The recommendation is that students should practice “close reading” where they can independently mine the language of the text for meaning:

“Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally” (ELA Common Core)

The 9th graders could be staggering indeed; they have just completed a unit on Greek tragedy using Oedipus the King. Some students might suffer whiplash in the jump from 5th Century BCE Ancient Greece to 20th Century California in the Salinas Valley. There needed to be a powerful “bridge” to prepare students for this leap in time and ensuing debate between free will and fate.  What could be accomplished without the teacher directed lecture, especially if the teacher is not available? What format could saturate students in an environment of the 1930s?

A few minutes of research on YouTube provided an answer; I could have a substitute show students several versions of the Bing Crosby’s song recording of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s anthem for the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

The historical accuracy of some of the photos in this first rendition may be questionable, but the message of an average man’s struggle to find employment in the early 1930s is made very clear. The second version below is a sing-a-long-version that is particularly good as a karaoke opportunity. After watching the first version, all students sang along, some with more gusto than others, following Crosby’s cadence in the second version:

After singing, the students reviewed the lyrics:

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”

lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

These lyrics provided students an opportunity to “close read” the context of the Great Depression, particularly in the lyrics “Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell” and “Half a million boots went slogging through Hell.” While they understood that after the stock market crash there were unemployed men who had helped in the building of railroads and towers, more than one student made the connection that there are currently soldiers who have returned from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan who have not found employment either. Their brief discussion was enough to set up Steinbeck’s tale of Lennie and George, who share a dream of finding employment to be independent farmers raising rabbits.

Once the background was established, students could then read the novel independently, the way the Common Core recommends in the reading standards. Additionally, the long-term substitute can now complete the leap from classical to contemporary tragedy without having to dwell on historical context. The only downside might be getting rid of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”… a song-worm now in their brains!

The cold in “Ethan Frome” might be what we need in the long hot summer!

It’s 103 degrees here today in Connecticut during one of the numerous heat waves we have had so far this season. Tomorrow’s forecast bodes no better news. The garden has been drying up; even the most stalwart perennials are buckling under the sun’s intensity. Leaving an air-conditioned home or car means hitting a wall of humidity; my glasses fog over and I am temporarily blinded. A headline on the Reuters website reads, “Heat Wave and Drought Besiege Already Deteriorated US Crops” (July 18, 2012). Suddenly, I have a new appreciation for the heat of Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl in The Grapes of Wrath:

  • People in flight along 66. And the concrete road shone like a mirror under the sun, and in the distance the heat made it seem that there were pools of water in the road. (Ch 12)
  • They were tired and dusty and hot. Granma had convulsions from the heat, and she was weak when they stopped. (Ch 16)
  • The sun sank low in the afternoon, but the heat did not seem to decrease. Tom awakened under his willow, and his mouth was parched and his body was wet with sweat, and his head was dissatisfied with his rest. (Ch 18)
  • While the sun was up, it was a beating, flailing heat, but now the heat came from below, from the earth itself, and the heat was thick and muffling. (Ch 18)

I believe that where a reader has lived or visited contributes to an understanding of a novel’s setting. This does not mean that a reader cannot appreciate the descriptions of Mars in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or Panem’s District 12 in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or on the battlefields on the plains of Troy in Homer’s Iliad or the Congo River in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Indeed, the only way for the reader to “visit” and remember these locations is through the vivid descriptions the author writes. However, there is an advantage for a reader in being familiar with the setting of a particular story, especially where setting is a dominant character. Say, for example, the town of Starkfield in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.

In the introduction, the narrator of the story explains how his employment has brought him to the aptly named Starkfield-“the least habitable spot”, where he “chafed at first, and then, under the hypnotising effect of routine, gradually began to find a grim satisfaction in the life”. Grim satisfaction indeed, as the winter weather in Western Massachusetts, where Wharton sets her ficticious Starkfield, can be mind-numbingly bleak.

“When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of [December] crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the. devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter.”

My most memorable image of the town was Wharton’s description of the graveyard that Ethan and Mattie pass on the night of the dance:

“They turned in at the gate and passed under the shaded knoll where, enclosed in a low fence, the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy angles through the snow. Ethan looked at them curiously. For years that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom. ‘We never got away- how should you?’ seemed to be written on every headstone…”(Ch 2)

This closing sentiment to this passage addresses the way I feel every winter when the dismal drizzle of freezing rain turns every trip in the car into heart-pounding sliding near-misses or when crusted mounds of filthy snow makes walking outdoors a life-threatening experience. My mantra becomes, “I’ve got to get out of this place.”

So how does a reader from Southern California really understand Starkfield? Yes, Wharton is genius at explanation, but that visceral understanding of January in New England is limited if the reader is reading her novel poolside on a sunny day, 78 degrees with a light wind blowing. Wharton can only stimulate the reader’s imagination to understand the kind of wet grey cold that chills to the bone until June. The memory of physically freezing in Western Massachusetts is an entirely different experience.

Conversely, a case can be made for other authors. How can the Wharton’s New England reader really understand the physical and cultural landscape for the characters of Faulkner’s  Yoknapatawpha County ? How does a student from the plains and mesas of Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop comprehend the mansions on Fitzgerald’s East Egg Long Island?  There are so many elements in creating the setting: the temperature and the angle of sunlight during the day, the architecture of the houses or buildings, the landscape and the vegetation, the dialect of the locals, the smell of the foods, and the sounds of the evenings. Each locale has identifying qualities that a great author captures in order to make a setting understandable to a reader. The author’s descriptions will resonate even more with a reader who has a first-hand experience in that setting.

Of course, reading Wharton’s novel in the in the middle of summer anywhere in the United States might be a form of mental air-conditioning. The mind can be a powerful tool into tricking the readers to feel cooler. Imagine the book display: “Feeling hot? Read Ethan Frome!”

This summer, 11th and 12th grade Advanced Placement students at Wamogo High School are reading The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck developed the novel from a series of articles commissioned in October of 1936 by the San Francisco News under the title “The Harvest Gypsies”. The novel was published in 1939, won the Pulitzer Prize for Steinbeck in 1940, and is largely credited for winning Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

The novel is centered around the story of the Joads, a family forced by economic hardship and drought to abandon their homestead to seek jobs and a future in California. The book chapters alternates between their story and the stories of others, including the point of view of a turtle watching the diaspora of the “Okies”, sharecropper families who fled the Dust Bowl and travelled across the mid-west in search of migrant farm work. Steinbeck’s depiction of the treatment of these migrant workers and the migrant camps was controversial, and he was attacked by political and social organizations from the right and the left. Undeterred, Steinbeck wrote, “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].”

Advanced Placement Students in grades 11 & 12 will read this American classic and create a digital museum

In order to understand the social and political turmoil that marked the 1930s, we are having the students organize an online museum of digital artifacts from that decade on a wiki, a website that allows for the collaborative creation and editing of any number of interlinked web pages via a web browser. Students have been organized in teams of three or more and assigned a particular topic from the time period. Topics include:

  1. Okies
  2. Entertainment of the 1930s-Movies-Radio Shows
  3. Herbert Hoover-The Crash of 1929
  4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  5. Journalism in the 30s-William Randolph Hearst-Dorthea Lange
  6. John Steinbeck-the author
  7. Migrant Workers-Farming in California 1930s
  8. Hoovervilles-Weedpatch-Community Associations within the Camps
  9. 1930 Fashion
  10. Dustbowl
  11. Works Project Administration in the 1930s
  12. Woolworth-General Store
  13. Sears Catalog and other Catalogs
  14. Music of the 1930s–1940s
  15. Route 66-Jalopies- Truckstops and Cafes

Click here to see a sample of one of the online museum pages from past years.

In doing this project, students are able to become an “expert” on one of the topics explored in the novel. They scan the Internet looking for primary documents, videos, audio recordings, photos, and art from the 1930s. For example, the Library of Congress website and the Internet Archives website  are excellent sources for digital museum artifacts. Members of the team embed these digital items onto a wiki page and make the page attractive for the reader. Each page must have the bibliographic information; links to other web pages are also permitted. Once the topic pages are completed, every team will have a chance to reflect and review their own web page and the other web pages created by other teams. Using wiki software, students are able to build a body of knowledge that helps them better understand the context that created Steinbeck’s novel.

We have several copies of The Grapes of Wrath on our library shelves; some editions are newer than others. There was a special 50th anniversary publication published in 1989, and the book received an Oprah “bump” when another Steinbeck classic, East of Eden, was picked for her book club in 2003. I will pick up copies at used book stores that are in very good to excellent condition only. The full text of the book was scanned by Google as part of their efforts to make the world’s great books available online, so I can place the link to the text on the same wiki webpages as the online museum. Students can choose to read a hard copy or a digital copy of the text.

This book should only be assigned for summer reading to students who expect to encounter a more challenging text.  The alternating narrative points of view and the length of the text can be stumbling blocks to an inexperienced reader. However, there is the opportunity to have students draw connections from the 1930s to today’s current economic difficulties and political problems. For example, in Chapter 25, food crops are destroyed in order to keep the prices high. This chapter contains the title phrase, “…and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” Steinbeck’s biblical allusion to social justice and workers is powerful and current in the light of statistically high unemployment today. He also incorporates environmental complications, issues in immigration and migration, and the role of government  in ways that reverberate in the politics of America today.

The novel will be 75 years old in 2014 and celebrate its centennial in 2039. Political issues facing America in the future will differ from today, however, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath can inform every generation about the clash between the promises of democracy and stark economic realities. Steinbeck himself noted the power of this novel when he said,  “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”