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The Rescue of John Steinbeck

The extraordinary thing about John Steinbeck is how good he can be when so much of the time he’s so bad. There are talented writers who grow into their full maturity and then decline, slowly or precipitously. But that isn’t Steinbeck. You can divide his work up into coherent periods, but there’s no coherent trajectory of quality.

The publication of the fourth (and, blessedly, final) volume of his fiction by the Library of America makes it easy to track the entire writing career, apart from some journalism and the two weakest of his novels: his first—a puerile potboiler, Cup of Gold (pirates!)—and the late The Short Reign of Pippin IV, a limp, petulant social satire. In fact, just about everything he wrote is in print, not only in these four volumes* but in handsome Penguin paperbacks, which sell well over a million copies a year, with Of Mice and Men accounting for more than half of them. (It’s short, it’s easy to follow, and it’s full of feeling—a perfect assignment for junior high school readers.) Two other short books are assigned to younger kids: the affecting Red Pony stories (why are so many horse books so sad?) and a faux-primitive parable, The Pearl, that makes The Old Man and the Sea read like Flaubert. The Grapes of Wrath also sells well, of course, and so does East of Eden, which a few years ago had a tsunami moment when Oprah “picked” it. (No doubt the Elia Kazan movie featuring James Dean attracts readers—little do they suspect that it tackles only the final segment of the novel.)

So if all of Steinbeck is in print forty years after his death (in 1968), and despite the force-feeding of hundreds of thousands of school kids with his work—and official canonization by the Library of America—why is he so decisively off the literary map? Other than Brad Leithauser, who in 1989 published a perceptive fiftieth-anniversary homage to The Grapes of Wrath, who in America considers him seriously today, apart from a handful of Steinbeck academics and some local enthusiasts in Monterey?

Nor is dismissal of his work by the literary establishment anything new. When to everyone’s surprise, including his own, he won the 1962 Nobel Prize, the reaction was startlingly hostile. “Without detracting in the least from Mr. Steinbeck’s accomplishments,” ran a New York Times editorial, “we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer …whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age.” And on the eve of the award ceremony in Stockholm, Arthur Mizener, again in the Times, questioned why the Nobel committee would reward a writer whose “limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing.” It’s a question difficult to answer. (Steinbeck himself had doubts. When asked by a reporter whether he believed he deserved the prize, he responded, “Frankly, no.”)

This philosophizing—his compulsion to hector us with heavy-handed opinions and ideas—remains one of the chief obstacles to reading Steinbeck with pleasure today. Like so many other writers of his time, he’s disgusted with capitalism, yet he’s not really a revolutionary—he comes across more as a disaffected adolescent, dishing out a kind of callow cynicism. Although he’s constantly laying down the moral law and grappling with the larger issues, he’s not an abstract thinker or theorist. Instead, he’s got a chip on his soul—a suspicion of formal education, a resentment of authority and institutions. (It’s that resentment which undoubtedly kept him from joining the Party, even at the peak of his radicalism in the Thirties.) In other words, he has the ardor and sincerity—and the confused notions—typical of so many intelligent autodidacts.

His rebelliousness doesn’t seem to have been triggered by reaction to a constricting upbringing. The Steinbecks were genteel middle-class, although John’s low-key father suffered the failure of his modest business in Salinas. Mrs. Steinbeck was a cultured schoolteacher who came from a large Irish clan, the Hamiltons, whom John would later dramatize—and romanticize—in East of Eden. When his parents grew old and ill, he looked after them devotedly, but his family situation doesn’t appear to have imposed greatly on his psychic life. In fact, although he had many male friends to whom he was unswervingly loyal, a wide assortment of girls, and a handful of encouraging and influential teachers, individuals don’t seem to have meant as much to him as The People—or as animals. You could say, in fact, that he tended to regard human beings primarily as a species of animal: there to be studied.

The young John actually was an autodidact of sorts. He sporadically attended Stanford, dropping in on it for a term or two of courses, retreating, returning, never graduating. He wasn’t denied an education, he chose to educate himself. In his early twenties he spent two fierce winters in almost total isolation, alone with his dogs, his books, and his typewriter, caretaking a summer house on Lake Tahoe. Big, burly, and awkward, he was an imposing physical presence, and he did long stretches of physical labor to support himself. He came close to starving during a miserable sojourn in New York when he was twenty-four, working as a laborer on the construction of Madison Square Garden and failing as a reporter for a New York paper. Through all of this he never doubted his vocation as a writer. And he wasn’t shy about what he wrote. When friends, girls, former teachers weren’t being bombarded with his early stories and sketches, they were held prisoner as he read aloud to them for hours at a time.

Early in 1930, just short of twenty-eight, he married bright, capable Carol Henning. They more or less lived on love—his parents were able to give him a bare-bones place to live and an allowance of $50 a month. Food was basic, possessions spare. But their happy-go-lucky penury didn’t last long. Steinbeck’s fumbling apprenticeship and erratic early publishing career were over by the early 1930s, when he began attracting critical appreciation and a readership.

The earliest books are hard to take, straining for meaning and literary effect. His third published work, To a God Unknown (1933), reveals many of his worst qualities. Its protagonist, Joseph Wayne, leads his family of farmers from desiccated New England to lush California, where his empathic relationship with the land eventually explodes into what we, if not Steinbeck, recognize as a feverish psychopathology:

He stamped his feet into the soft earth. Then the exultance grew to be a sharp pain of desire that ran through his body in a hot river…. His fingers gripped the wet grass and tore it out, and gripped again. His thighs beat heavily on the earth…. For a moment the land had been his wife.

(He arrived at this febrile style mainly on his own—Jack London, among others, had more influence on him than D.H. Lawrence, the more obvious source.)

There’s a vast disparity in tone and content between this overwrought literary exercise and his next novel (and first best-seller), Tortilla Flat (1935), that rompy account of salt-of-the-earth down-and-outers in Monterey. They drink, they brawl, they fornicate, they steal—oh, those happy simple paisanos! And what about their dialogue? Danny: “I looked for thee, dearest of little angelic friends, for see, I have here two steaks from God’s own pig, and a sack of sweet white bread. Share my bounty, Pilon, little dumpling.”

But through all this “undiluted cuteness,” as Alfred Kazin called it in On Native Grounds (1942), Steinbeck’s lifelong themes begin to emerge, first among them the idea of community. Danny’s house, we’re told in a preface, “was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it.” They’re innocents, and they’re all for one and one for all. Most important, they’re “clean of commercialism, free of the complicated systems of American business.” Far better to be a bum with a heart of gold than a solid citizen.

By the mid-1930s the crucial events of Steinbeck’s youth were behind him. He was married. His parents had died. He was a name to be reckoned with. And he’d met the man who would prove to be the most important friend of his life—Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist in Monterey, who for eighteen years, even after John moved east and until Ed’s untimely death in 1948, would be his philosophical and moral touchstone. Ricketts appears and reappears in Steinbeck’s work in various inspirational guises, an idealized figure, a counterbalance to all the demonized figures—the greedy, the small-minded, the hypocritical—at whom Steinbeck endlessly rails. He also is the central figure in The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951), a chronicle of a Ricketts-led marine biology expedition to Mexico that Steinbeck introduced with a moving and perceptive tribute to his late mentor. The Log shows Steinbeck at his best—he’s active, he’s outdoors, he’s focused on the natural world, and of course he’s with Ricketts. The prose is uncluttered and unfancy, the observation acute. Tellingly, although Carol was along for the ride, her presence is unacknowledged in Steinbeck’s account: it’s all guys on his Sea of Cortez.

In 1934 Steinbeck befriended several labor organizers and was immediately engrossed by their stories of the cotton workers’ strike of the previous year. Within months he began work on In Dubious Battle (1936). The California of To a God Unknown and Tortilla Flat was a convenience—a place he knew and could plunder for material. The plight of the dispossessed and the exploitation of the poor during the Depression years was a calling, a crusade, that led to his finest work.

In Dubious Battle centers on Jim, an alienated and angry young loner who joins the Party in San Francisco. The strike begins: vigilantes, scabs, gunfire. Jim is wounded, and grows more and more fanatical. “I’m stronger than anything in the world, because I’m going in a straight line.” The straight line leads to his being killed.

The style of In Dubious Battle is radically new. Description, action, dialogue are straightforward and gritty. Still, Steinbeck can’t resist injecting an idealized guru figure into this realistic world—a kind of fellow-traveling doctor who lends the strikers a hand. “Doc”: “Man has met and defeated every obstacle, every enemy except one. He cannot win over himself. How mankind hates itself.” Jim: “We don’t hate ourselves, we hate the invested capital that keeps us down.” One suspects that this is what the endless bull sessions between Steinbeck and Ricketts must have sounded like. Even so, In Dubious Battle is an impressive step forward.

The second of Steinbeck’s populist novels, Of Mice and Men (1937), is written in the same direct and effective manner. It begins, as so many Steinbeck novels do, with a loving evocation of its natural setting:

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    The first three volumes are The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings, 1936–1941; Novels and Stories, 1932– 1937; and Novels, 1942–1952.

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