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Scholars meet for ‘Grapes of Wrath’ conference

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“The Grapes of Wrath” is less concerned with the fate of the earth than the fate of the human being. Ultimately, the novel is more invested in what people owe each other than in what they owe the land.

Lawrence Buell, emeritus professor of American literature at Harvard University, was the keynote speaker Friday at the “The Grapes of Wrath Conference” in Winants Hall on the College Avenue campus.

Undergraduate Academic Affairs at Rutgers presented the conference, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Buell, recipient of the Jay Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies, won multiple awards for his books and served as the Harvard College dean of Undergraduate Education after serving as a professor at Oberlin College.

“The Grapes of Wrath,” which Buell described as a “landmark of ecological fiction,” is limited mainly by its portrayals of ethnocentrism and lack of diagnostic innovation, but where the novel can claim originality is how author Steinbeck conceptualizes species and species adaptations.

The novel is not without its mistakes and misrepresentations, and eco-critics have been “leery” about the book, but Buell said Steinbeck nailed the industrialization of agriculture — the shift from small farms to factory farms.

Steinbeck emphasized the fact that humans like to identify in groups as a survival strategy, Buell said.

“Why do we dread to think of our species as a species? Can it be that we are afraid of what we may find?” he asked.

Homo sapiens have been evolving since the industrial revolution toward a greater degree of collectivity of defining themselves less as individuals and more in terms of their groups, Buell explained.

“When humans constitute themselves as groups, the upshot is a new microorganism with pains, desires, hunger and striving,” he said.

“The Grapes of Wrath” speaks, at least thematically, to the current time, said Brad Evans, associate professor in the English Department and a moderator for the conference. The question is how it does so.

T.J. Jackson Lears, the Board of Governors distinguished professor of history, gave a presentation titled, “The People, Maybe: Steinbeck and the Popular Culture of Depression America.”

His presentation focused on the popular front culture during the Great Depression. 

The popular front culture of the late 1930s was a phase of communist party strategy creating a common cause with liberals, radicals and populists of all kinds, versus the rising menace of fascism. 

“There was a compulsive communalism to the popular front culture and the wider American culture, only understandable given the emotional insecurity that accompanied economic insecurity,” Lears said.

Times have changed since the book was published, Lears said, and times have changed since the 1970s, when he first encountered the book. 

“’The Grapes of Wrath’ emerges for all its faults at least fitfully, a shrewd critique of labor relations under capitalism and an affirmation of human solidarity versus money worship,” he said.

Priscilla Wald, a professor of English and women’s studies from Duke University, was the second speaker and presented her work, ‘“Insane Awakenings’: Vegetal Violence in the Anthropocene.” 

“Anthropocene” refers to the time period when humans began to a have major impact on the Earth’s climate. She said the term has become a familiar key word across fields and disciplines in the humanities.

“The emergency of climate change, and the unimaginable threat of a world without us, calls of a rethinking of the postcolonial critique of the universal enlightenment subject within the discipline of history,” Wald said.

She said in her study of “The Grapes of Wrath,” the power of the literary arts — namely, story, poetry and myth — converts the violence of capitalism against nature in its other meaning: embryonic counter-violence.

Andrew Menna, a first-year student in the School of Arts and Sciences, said he had a lot of reasons to attend.

“I have a Byrne seminar that requires it, I have an honors colloquium that recommends it, and I’m also interested in literature,” he said.

Menna said he is majoring in genetics, but coming to this event was an opportunity to learn more about literature without having to take English courses.

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