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Depression-era Steinbeck novel is recession-year Reading Project choice


"The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's once-controversial and now-classic 1939 novel of Dust Bowl refugees who struggle to make a new life in California, is the 2009 selection for Cornell's New Student Reading Project.

"It is an extraordinarily rich account of major economic and social upheaval during a pivotal era in American history," said Michele Moody-Adams, Cornell vice provost for undergraduate education.

She added that the book has a special relevance in a year of deep economic recession. "The book makes us 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. It's a good thing for undergraduates to have to confront these questions at the current moment."

The book will be read by much of the Cornell community, including the entire incoming freshman class, new transfer students and those faculty and staff who will lead reading groups during student orientation in late August. The greater Ithaca community will also participate, with support from the Tompkins County Public Library, a Reading Project partner.

Steinbeck wrote his contemporary and very American story of the Joad family and their fellow migrants in 1938 and 1939. The most famous of the author's 17 novels, "The Grapes of Wrath" was initially widely banned, and it brought outraged cries among farm owners who employed migrant workers. The book was even publicly burned on two occasions in Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas, Calif.

It was also widely read, and was quickly adapted into a 1940 John Ford film starring Henry Fonda that expanded on the politics suggested by the novel. The story has also spawned a stage play and an opera, and its characters and themes have inspired numerous artists, most notably songwriter Woody Guthrie. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940. Steinbeck earned a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.

Moody-Adams said she hopes to see a community service project or event grow from Cornell's engagement in the novel's major and minor themes, which include poverty, migrant and immigrant labor, the power of community and the social and economic effects of ecological disaster.

This will be the ninth year of the reading project, designed to provide a common intellectual experience for the Cornell community. The 2008 selection was Garry Wills' "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America," also a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Incoming students will receive copies of the book to read over the summer. An essay contest and discussions during Orientation Week will emphasize critical thinking, and related exhibits, lectures, films and other events will occur throughout the academic year.

"The Grapes of Wrath" was one of five shortlisted titles that were read and discussed by Cornell's academic leadership before the final selection.

Other books under consideration 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.

As in previous years, the reading project will be accompanied by a Web site,, and a blog written by Cornell librarians and guest writers, providing background and further resources to explore including audio, video, photographs and other related materials.


Media Contact

Nicola Pytell