“Once I traveled about in an old bakery wagon, double-doored rattler with a mattress on the floor, I stopped where people stopped or gathered, I listened and looked and felt, and in the process had a picture of my country the accuracy of which was impaired only by my own shortcomings.”

The above is a quote from John Steinbeck about the research he conducted before writing his classic 1939 Dust Bowl novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

The novel was discussed Wednesday at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library as part of the Random Review program put together by the Friends of the Library.

Oregon State University Prof. Emeritus Bill Robbins was the guest reviewer, and Robbins’ stature and the popularity of the novel led to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people.

It was an interesting show. Robbins used photos, maps and other archival material in a slide presentation to tell pieces of the story and tackled the novel more from the perspective of a historian than a literary critic.

I learned a lot. I learned that “In Dubious Battle,” the novel Steinbeck wrote directly before “Grapes of Wrath,” also had a farm labor theme. I learned that Steinbeck had written a series of articles on California labor camps that were published in a San Francisco newspaper in the fall of 1936.

And because I am who I am I went out and bought “In Dubious Battle” and “Harvest of Gypsies,” the small volume that includes the seven newspaper articles, at Browser’s on my way back to the office. No worries … they still have more copies of both volumes.

Robbins also talked about Tom Collins, a real-life manager of migrant camps who was fictionalized in “Grapes of Wrath.” Kind of reminded me of the influence marine biologist Ed Ricketts had on Steinbeck when he was writing about the Monterey Peninsula in “Cannery Row” and other books.

Jackson Benson, who published a massive biography of Steinbeck in 1984, called Collins “the spirit at the heart of the novel.”

This was the fourth appearance by Robbins at Random Reviews, and library staff celebrated the milestone by parading through the room blaring noisemakers, firing out confetti and leading the audience in “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow!”

Very pleasant way to spend the lunch hour before heading off to a committee meeting on fossil fuels investment.

Up next: Next month's Random Review program, on May 13, will look at "The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” by David Laskin. Jonathan Katz, OSU Professor of History, will be the reviewer. The Gazette-Times will publish a preview of the show in editions of Sunday, May 10.

Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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