When the staff at the National Steinbeck Center gathered to decide what to do for their annual festival, which would mark the 75th year since the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, they were struck by the parallels they saw between modern events and the setting of John Steinbeck’s legendary tale.
There was a drought in California, terrible storms across the country, and national discourse about immigration and health care, Executive Director of the National Steinbeck Center Colleen Bailey said during an HNU panel on March 5.
“What we decided to do is to embark on a journey … into the United States to ask people what was happening for them and to connect that up with John Steinbeck’s work—to look at what has changed in these 75 years and, most importantly, what are our struggles and what are our sources of resilience during these difficult times,” Bailey said.
The HNU event detailed the October 2013 journey made by center staff, a film crew, and three artists, following the path of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, from Sallisaw, Oklahoma, to Bakersfield, California. The 10-day trip collected more than 70 oral histories from people around the country and included 17 workshops and programs.
“I think there’s an eloquent way, there’s a powerful way, there’s an effective way to make your voice heard and to inspire,” said Patricia Wakida, the block-print artist on the trip. “I think that’s what this book does incredibly well, and I hope that by actually going around and collecting people’s stories and encouraging them to tell from themselves that they go through that similar process.”
The artists commissioned for this project—a block-print artist, a filmmaker, and a playwright and director—were asked to take what they learned from the trip and create new works of art. The full works commissioned by the artists will be unveiled at the 2014 Steinbeck Festival in May. The festival will also include presentations by Susan Shillinglaw, a specialist in Steinbeck’s work, and Rick Wartzman, who will discuss the banning and burning of The Grapes of Wrath in Kern County in August 1939.
“The book, although it’s set in the 1930s, it’s really not about the 1930s. It’s still so true in 2014. And it’s not just an American book—it’s about people and about America in the 1930s—but people who are dispossessed … (are) all over the planet,” filmmaker P.J. Palmer said. “It’s happening now. So I found the book timeless in a way.”
The HNU event also featured music by Arwen Lawrence and Jorge Liceaga of Cascada de Flores.