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…

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