In the ninth year of Cornell's New Student Reading Project, this year's incoming undergraduate class and much of the Cornell community will read John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. The greater Ithaca community will also participate, with support from the Tompkins County Public Library, a reading project partner.
The Grapes of Wrath was first published in 1939, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 before being adapted for a 1940 John Ford film starring Henry Fonda. It eventually became the most widely celebrated of the 17 novels that Steinbeck produced over the course of his career, and it formed an important part of the basis on which Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962. Yet the novel’s early reception was mixed. His then-contemporary and very American story of the Joad family and their fellow migrants in 1938 and 1939 was banned early on in response to the claims of some California farm owners that Steinbeck had misrepresented their treatment of migrant workers. At one point it was even publicly burned in Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas, California.
Despite that, Steinbeck’s novel has, of course, become an American classic. It is an extraordinarily rich account of a major transition, upheaval, and transformation in a way of life for large groups of people in America. What caused the transformation was partly human activity and the growth of technology, but it’s an extraordinary documenting of the ways in which people’s social and cultural lives were totally torn apart by this kind of upheaval.
The story of the Joad family has special relevance in a time of economic recession. The novel should encourage us to reflect on the causes and effects of widespread homelessness and unemployment, the nature of economic and social justice, and the consequences of taking the vibrancy of the natural world for granted. Confronting these difficult questions will certainly be a positive thing for both our undergraduates and, indeed, the entire Cornell community.
The Grapes of Wrath was chosen by Cornell’s academic leadership from a long list compiled from a multitude of suggestions submitted by alumni, current students, faculty and others. Other books under consideration this year were Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert; A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold; The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitin; and Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman.
On August 23 during freshman orientation, a panel of Cornell faculty members including Jeremy Braddock, Assistant Professor of English; Jeff Cowie, Associate Professor in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Maureen O’Hara, Professor of Management in the Johnson School; and Natalie Mahowald from the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences will discuss the book when the thousands of new students and hundreds of faculty and staff gather for a large intellectual seminar in Barton Hall. Late Monday afternoon, approximately 250 groups of about 15 first year students discuss the text in classrooms around campus.
During the academic year, lectures, exhibitions, films and other events will relate to the reading project to encourage discussion of the issues raised in The Grapes of Wrath. It will be a wonderful opportunity for the entire community to examine an extraordinary period of American history and to confront the issues raised at that time which remain pertinent today.