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August-Sept 2009

Reconsidering John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic. Susan Shillinglaw and Susan Adler share their experience of teaching John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday at the July 2009 National Endowment for Humanities Institute.

Sweet Thursday has never been John Steinbeck's most popular work. But C. Hugh Holman, reviewing it in June 1954, praised the novel's "Dickensian extravagance" and that is as apt a comment as any on the novel's coy confusion. It's a book that abandons the layered seriousness of Cannery Row an experimental novel about ecology, living in place, the role of the artist, and spiritual agonies. Sweet Thursday is Steinbeck unleashed, a comic parable, a masquerade. After all, how many twentieth-century novels were written for the musical theater?

As part of a July 2009 National Endowment for Humanities Institute, "John Steinbeck, Voice of a Region, Voice for America," twenty five high school teachers were sent copies of Sweet Thursday, a surprise addition to the reading list. The participants came to Monterey, California, to spend two weeks considering Steinbeck and place. Sweet Thursday came in the second week, which focused on the sea, and Anthony Newfield, actor, presented a workshop tracing the novel's theatrical roots. As he told the group, the novel started out as a stage treatment not about Ed Ricketts, but about a Professor Oregon who took over Ed's lab after World War II a thinly disguised Ricketts, in fact. Gradually, the libretto grew into a book about Ricketts and an antic Cannery Row, and music was written for Pipe Dream, one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's only flops. The story of an author and a musical team hitting sour notes is a fascinating tale that the teachers found engrossing. This book invites and rewards this kind of contextualization. The novel itself draws together a skein of brightly colored cultural and literary threads: musical theater, ethnicity and gender, Steinbeck's love of comic books, his deep friendship with marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who died in 1948 (Sweet Thursday is, in one sense, a whipped cream eulogy), and Steinbeck's fascination with the notion of gallantry, an antique pose he found missing in mid-century America. After NEH participants considered this background, the group interpreted scenes through performance, looking closely at language and why "extravagance" makes this book one of Steinbeck's frothiest and most teachable. Music from Pipe Dream inspired theatricality.

As one participant confessed, "I wasn't paying close attention to the Grapes of Wrath workshop because I was reading Sweet Thursday. I couldn't put it down." Several teachers predicted that their students would have the same reaction.

Susan Shillinglaw, Professor of English, San Jose State University
Mary Adler, Associate Professor of English, California State University, Channel Islands
Course: "John Steinbeck: Voice of a Region, Voice for America"
July 2009, National Endowment for Humanities Institute