John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck; drawing by David Levine

John Steinbeck went to Stanford University in the fall of 1919 saying he wanted to be a writer. At seventeen, he had written little, none of it promising, but he knew the power that the writing of others held over him, and he longed for some of that power himself. “I’ve thought a lot,” Steinbeck later told Thomas Kiernan, “about why I set out to write. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I think I can say now that one of the big reasons was this: I instinctively recognized in writing an opportunity to transcend some of my personal failings—things about myself I didn’t particularly like and wanted to change but didn’t know how.” A strange, burden-some, and likely statement of a need that can lie as deep as any other, and can exist prior to any sense of language or subject. It is a need that cannot be satisfied by mere literary achievement.

It cannot have helped that the books Steinbeck was most possessed by were remote from him, Malory and the Bible especially, and led to dreams that couldn’t be fulfilled. As opposed to the Round Table, he had to make do with middle-class Salinas and Stanford, and, later, jobs in factories and on farms, with only fierce stubbornness to keep him going. For a decade after he left college Steinbeck was a writer of novels and stories that yielded neither fame nor fortune nor satisfaction. He supported himself with odd jobs, helped by a $25 a month stipend from his father.

Most people just don’t stick at it. They see they haven’t got the talent, or they watch the dream fade as adolescence fades, to be replaced by something more hopeful or diminishing. Perhaps what was most remarkable about Steinbeck is that he persisted. Since what most drove him to write was a failing, a sense of something missing, he never could be wholly satisfied by even his most successful work. Though there is a place now called Steinbeck country, though there are “ideas” we can now call Steinbeck’s themes, he seems a writer without a source of strength. For years he thought he had a subject, a big book about the Salinas valley that only he could write. But all that came of this was East of Eden, a bloated, pretentious, and uncertain book. If the obvious comparison is with Faulkner, who also wanted to be a writer long before he knew what he wanted to write about, who also created a fictional place based on a real place, the more telling one is with O’Neill, stubborn, lumbering, called “powerful” by admirers. But O’Neill could, late in his career, write memorably about his family. Some critics admire A Long Day’s Journey into Night far more than I do, but everyone would prefer it to East of Eden.

There is a story to be told here, which would stress how hollow Steinbeck’s dreams were, and how much he did with the little gift he had. Thomas Kiernan hasn’t set out to write this book at all, and indeed it isn’t very clear why he wrote the book he did. He admires Steinbeck’s work, he says, but little of that comes through nor does he try to see what the work implies about the life. Kiernan disliked Steinbeck when he met him in 1959, and thought Steinbeck disliked himself. Nothing he uncovered changed his mind on either score.

Kiernan is a competent compiler, and though he thinks Malory wrote in Old English and that a cohort is a crony, he generally writes inoffensively. But he never brings his book to life. If he hasn’t the academic’s stodginess, he hasn’t his compendiousness either. Discovering that Steinbeck’s widow had agreed to cooperate with someone else on a full-scale biography, Kiernan tried to find out what he could, and wrote his own book anyway.

The Intricate Music is an absurd title, since Kiernan tries to locate no such thing in Steinbeck’s work, and finds none in his life, although he might have tried. For instance, beginning in the mid-Thirties, Steinbeck drew further away from his native territory. Hollywood and New York fascinated him when he could go there as someone important. He loved the attention of George Kaufman, with whom he wrote the play Of Mice and Men; Elia Kazan, who directed Viva Zapata from a Steinbeck screenplay; and Rodgers and Hammerstein, who produced Burning Bright and made a musical from Sweet Thursday. He delighted in becoming the friend and adviser of Adlai Stevenson. He seems to have been able to relax among these people as he seldom could with people from Salinas, Tortilla Flat, or Cannery Row. But it was as a California writer that he had become known, and it was increasingly faded memories of California that he relied on for his material after he took up permanent residence in New York. Still determined to write, he could not settle for being famous and a friend of the famous. There is, thus, a sad dynamic to his life and career, and though Kiernan has gathered the material, he has not really tried to tell the story.


Kiernan simply assumes that some large part of Steinbeck’s work has merit. A book on Steinbeck by Howard Levant carries a preface by Warren French called “The State of Steinbeck Studies,” so we know the academics are grinding their mills slowly. A professor named Richard Astro put his finger on something when he wrote a book about Steinbeck’s relation with his friend and guru, the Monterey marine biologist Edward Ricketts, but he settled for showing Ricketts’s ideas at work in Steinbeck’s books. In all this there is something both unblinking and unthinking. If Steinbeck is to be anything other than a safe choice for the public schools, an American writer of “Powerful Themes,” the faded darling of public libraries and sections of the MLA, something subtler and grittier must be said.

Kiernan does this much. He gives very short shrift to the work of the last twenty-five years. Penguin has been reprinting Steinbeck’s work for a number of years and has just got up to The Wayward Bus (1947) and East of Eden (1952). The former was published from a first draft at the insistence of Steinbeck’s editor, Pat Covici; Steinbeck himself wanted to shelve it, and it is indeed a wretched and meretricious book. East of Eden was written when Steinbeck was altogether removed from Salinas. He started out with a saga he had always meant to write about his mother’s family but that went dead for him halfway through, so he shifted his attention from the Hamiltons to the Trasks, and hoped. He wrote to a friend: “If it is not good, I have fooled myself all the time.” He had, and Kiernan knows it, though one could have wished for a more patient tracing of this self-deception and for some brief evocation of the pathos of a writer, bored and boring, who must go on writing.

A kind of sentimental gruffness was Steinbeck’s constant temptation, especially after he became famous. Here is the opening of Cannery Row (1945):

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream…. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another people, he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and would have meant the same thing.

If this seems dreary, so do Steinbeck’s very early efforts in such books as Cup of Gold. That leaves the work of five or six years, 1933-1939, to show what Steinbeck could do: The Red Pony, Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Sea of Cortez, his account of a voyage to collect specimens in the waters off lower California, written with Ed Ricketts.

Steinbeck met Ricketts in 1930, and for the next six years they were constant companions. Ricketts ran his own scientific and commercial laboratory on the Monterey waterfront; the “Doc” of In Dubious Battle, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday is based on him, and he wrote the descriptions of marine life that take up the second half of Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck would have been a writer of some kind no matter what, but he was the writer he became because of Ricketts, who seems to have been a genuinely independent man, a barroom talker, perhaps, but very intelligent, cultured, thoughtful. It was at least as much the attraction of Ricketts’s personality as the depth or density of his ideas that captured Steinbeck. Ricketts seemed to be his own man and to move with ease while Steinbeck could feel he was his own man only shyly, uncertainly, gruffly. Ricketts observed people as biological phenomena and therefore lived among those quite different from himself without fuss. Steinbeck observed people as a way of getting out of himself. He therefore felt mixtures of envy, scorn, and admiration for people different from himself and he had great difficulty living among them. Ricketts also liked Steinbeck, something that was difficult for Steinbeck.

Any reader of Steinbeck’s best fiction, is easily struck by the narrow emotional range of his characters. Jody wants a pony, George and Lennie a piece of land, Ma Joad a small white house; they can hope or despair, face the likelihood of getting what they want or turn from it. The men on Tortilla Flat want gallon jugs of wine and to feel they are acting loyally as they devise ways to get a buck or act disloyally. If we think of the range of possible feelings and motives, these people seem capable of only one or two. Normally it would take a writer of religious myth to work within such limits, and all Steinbeck’s myths were secular and most were Ricketts’s. He had three versions of an idea that one finds everywhere in Steinbeck: animals when they become a group act as a single unit; human beings adapt poorly to their surroundings because of their unique ability to aspire and question; people observe life poorly because they concern themselves with causes and morality rather than with what simply is.


Sometimes Steinbeck simply inserted Ricketts’s ideas into his novels, barely diluting them. The land turtle in The Grapes of Wrath moves west more successfully than the Joads because it just walks away when the truck rolls over it. But the virtue of the Joads is that they so much resemble the turtle. Thus Tom lectures his mother: “You can’t go thinkin’ when you’re gonna be out. You’d go nuts. You got to think about that day, an’ then the nex’ day, about the ball game Sat’dy. That’s what you got to do. Ol’ timers does that.” Then Ma makes the fatal human error, according to Ricketts: “Yes, that’s a good way. But I like to think how nice it’s gonna be,’ maybe, in California.” Grandfather in “The Red Pony” offers Ricketts’s phalanx theory: “It wasn’t Indians that were important, nor adventures, not even getting out here. It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head. It was westering and westering.”

Whatever the merits of Ricketts’s ideas on their own, their effect was to shackle Steinbeck because he could usually make use of them only with great awkwardness and see them at work only among emotionally limited and intellectually dim people. Stubbornness was his most important quality of character, and Ricketts gave him a way of admiring and mythologizing it in the endurance of groups, like George and Lennie, Danny and the other paisanos, the Joads and the Okies, the folks in the government camps and their adversaries among the farmers. But he could seldom write about stubbornness and persistence without sentimentalizing them as a version of the Round Table, a community to which he could never belong. Ricketts himself took exception to The Grapes of Wrath precisely because of this tendency toward sentimentality, which he called a tendency toward morality and teleological thinking.

George in Of Mice and Men is interesting in this respect because he breaks Ricketts’s law as he tries in another way to fulfill it. He would be better off leaving the retarded Lennie, as he loudly insists at the beginning of the story. Steinbeck’s way of insisting along with him is to insert other characters: Candy, who would be better off without his aged dog, and Crooks, who would be better off not letting Lennie invade his private domain. All this doubling and echoing is handled rather mechanically, but Steinbeck doesn’t lecture us about it. George has responded to the emptiness of being a drifter by adopting Lennie and by dreaming of a plot of land. This may give him only two or three feelings rather than one, but Lennie’s death is rightly thought of as a moving moment because George knows his dream is dying as Lennie dies:

“And I get to tend the rabbits.”

“An’ you get to tend the rabbits.”

Lennie giggled with happiness.

“An’ live on the fatta the lan’.”


Lennie turned his head.

“No, Lennie. Look down there acrost the river, like you can almost see the place.”

Lennie obeyed him. George looked down at the gun.

Such restraint was given to Steinbeck just this once.

What he could do more often with some success was to try to make his emotionally and intellectually limited characters seem important by describing a process: Billy Buck in “The Red Pony” trying to save Gabilan by opening up his windpipe, Tom and Al Joad replacing the con-rod on their spavined truck, many of the descriptions of collecting in Sea of Cortez. Perhaps the best single moment in his work is the description of the Joads slaughtering their pigs before they leave for California, nervous and anxious until they decide to load the truck that night and leave at dawn. There a community is created not just by expertise but by un-selfconsciously shared feeling, and Steinbeck doesn’t need to sing a song about it.

But for me at least there is little more to be said. Steinbeck’s own sense of stubbornness when joined with Ricketts’s ideas could inspire some powerful writing. But this awkward inspiration could only be sustained for a few years, as he himself seems to have glimpsed. Kiernan says about The Grapes of Wrath: “It would be, as he said once he started writing it, his climactic novel. Once finished with it, he would have to go on to some other form of writing.” Though its cumulative energy is mechanical and the first half contains almost everything good in it, The Grapes of Wrath is the Steinbeck novel that is likely to be read years from now with pleasure. So will Of Mice and Men and some of the Long Valley stories. Sea of Cortez is riddled with Ricketts, but contains some excellent descriptions of sea life. The rest, unfortunately, is not silence, but one can be silent about it.

As for Kiernan, his failure in this book does not mean that a good biography cannot be written about a minor writer. Millicent Bell in her recent Marquand has written close to a model for such a book, long, ambitious, yet modest in its claims for its subject’s work. Even if Steinbeck were no better or more enduring than I suspect he was, he deserves such a biography.

This Issue

March 20, 1980