19 October 2021

John Steinbeck's "slut" explained

As reported in The Guardian

The word “slut” scrawled at the end of the manuscript for John Steinbeck’s seminal novel The Grapes of Wrath may have been explained, thanks to a handful of Swedish academics.

The Grapes of Wrath was written by Steinbeck in a frenzy of creativity in under 100 days, between May and October 1938. Independent press SP Books released the first ever facsimile of the handwritten manuscript last week, showing Steinbeck’s increasingly tiny handwriting, his swear words, which were excised from the final novel – and a faint “slut”, written in red, at its conclusion.

Welcoming the manuscript’s release last week, Steinbeck expert Susan Shillinglaw described the word “slut” as “an archival mystery”, pondering whether Steinbeck’s wife Carol might have “playfully” written it in red and then erased it, or if someone in the University of Virginia archives had defaced the manuscript. “I suspect the latter, but we’ll never know for sure,” she told the Guardian last week.

But after the Guardian article about the facsimile was published, a handful of Swedish scholars got in touch with Shillinglaw, pointing out the meaning of “slut” in Swedish.

It is the Swedish expression for ‘the end’, used on the last page of all kinds of books, especially children’s books,” wrote Jonathan Shaheen, an academic at Stockholm University, to Shillinglaw. “A well placed ‘slut’ always makes me laugh.

“When the matter was brought to my attention by the University of Virginia archivist, I had no idea when the word was added to the manuscript. I thought perhaps someone was objecting to the final scene, and that the word referred to Rose of Sharon’s actions, offering her breast to a dying man,” she said. “I consulted with Steinbeck scholar Bob DeMott. He had no idea about what the light ‘slut’ at the end meant or who might have written it – a visitor to special collections, perhaps? But when I wrote Bob this week, he said, ‘Mystery solved.’ I felt the same way.” 

Slut.

15 comments:

  1. Yeah, I found out about the Swedish word when I came across a stack of Swedish "Phantom" comic books. Every story concluded with a giant "SLUT" in the final panel. It was rather disconcerting. A Swedish friend explained it to me (while laughing his head off).

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  2. Less than 5 minutes after I read this post, the following showed up in my Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/mikey_nicholson/status/1450685450067189760?s=21

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  3. So, who wrote it in the manuscript, and why? That will remain a mystery, I suppose.

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    Replies
    1. Your questions are addressed at the source article.

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  4. Also, is that a ledger book? Was this common for Mr. Steinbeck?

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  5. Henning is a common surname in Denmark and Sweden. I haven't been able to find a biography of Carol, but it seems likely that she would have some familiarity with either language, both of which use SLUT. Carol is said to have come up with the title of The Grapes of Wrath, so it seem only reasonable that she would put her mark at the end.

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  6. As a kid I had obtained a swedish hard cover collection of Calvin and Hobbes and I always got a giggle when I got to the last page.

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  7. That's how I'm signing off all my notes and letters from now on.

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  8. did steinbeck know swedish?

    I-)

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    1. I don't copypaste the entire contents of articles because proper blogging etiquette drives traffic TO the source, rather than taking it FROM the source.

      So please read the links before posting questions.

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  9. Ah, I see. "Related to Proto-West Germanic *sleutan ('to bolt, lock')." So it must be a cognate to the English word "shut".

    So the writing is closed or shut. Seems reasonable.

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    Replies
    1. Shut has a different etymology. The English cognate is slot "bolt, bar, slat".

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    2. German schliessen, to close, geschlossen, closed.

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  10. Double meaning is possible given who had access to the manuscript.

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