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American culture from Steinbeck's lens

By Emily Lewson
On April 21, 2014

Professor Cyrus Ernesto Ziarkzadeh of the Department of Comparative Politics discussed the controversy surrounding John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" in relation to his latest book "A Political Companion to John Steinbeck," which includes four sections spanning from social criticism to patriotism.
Steinbeck is one of America's most celebrated and most banned authors. His novels "The Grapes of Wrath," "East of Eden" and "Of Mice and Men" all received Pulitzer Prizes. In 1962, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combing as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception," according to the organization. His novels test ideas that some Mississippi schools objected to and banned "Of Mice and Men" as recently as 2002. In a similar vein, he made the 2009 American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged authors.
Ziarkzadeh began to explore Steinbeck's "love/hate relationship with America." By examining the most contentious political aspects, Ziarkzadeh claims that Steinbeck refocused America's way of thinking.
"Suddenly, 'What does it mean to be American?' is a relevant question," Ziarkzadeh said. "Steinbeck gave a critique of our society, that although sometimes flawed, had power to it."
After this introduction, Ziarkzadeh moved into a short exploration of Steinbeck's perception towards minorities.
"Steinbeck clearly admires small-farm Midwest farmers. They personify all the great aspects of what it means to be an American," Ziarkzadeh said."But Steinbeck never mentions the non-whites, including migrant farmers, who were in the middle of a huge controversy about their work. Likewise, women were only ever celebrated for their traditional roles."
While many readers connected with Steinbeck's ability to capture America's past, Ziarkzadeh's discussion demanded a reinvestigation of critical relationships amongst characters. It became clear as the night continued that Steinbeck, although a hailed author, perceived the world through a different lens.
"We would equate Steinbeck to a 'non-theological' thinker," Ziarkzadeh said. "He didn't believe one thing was good for all people."
This mindset was not to separate groups, but rather to demonstrate how we all adapt to challenges differently. We build up habits that can eventually be passed along, Ziarkzadeh said. To understand this, Ziarkzadeh gave the example of a bubbly co-worker; she always came in and said the same good-morning phrases, a habit she will likely pass down to her kids because it is so consistent.
Steinbeck's perception of people's different habits leads into Ziarkzadeh's differentiation of "The Grapes of Wrath" as a novel, the John Ford movie and the Bruce Springsteen song, "Ghost of Tom Joad." Each takes Steinbeck's original story and transforms it to fit the times. For example, Ford's movie was released in 1940, a time of war, and attempted to build morale and belief in the government. Springsteen's song was released in 2010, considered to be a time of great recession, which demonstrates a modern level of angst and frustration. As a whole, Ziarkzadeh said"The Grapes of Wrath's" adaptations are additional works to be considered when reviewing the original text.
Ziarkzadeh's talk took Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" from the 1930s and brought it into the modern day. By demonstrating the differences between the novel, movie and song versions, Ziarkzadeh furthered the audiences understanding of Steinbeck's frustration with capitalism and government.

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