Majority Report

••• The Ghost of John Steinbeck

"The journalism, the theatricalism, and the tricks"—such was Edmund Wilson's bored summation of John Steinbeck's ways and means as a novelist. Unseemly theatrics or tricksiness among his 19 works of fiction are certainly matters for debate, but the journalism—a pejorative by association, one presumes—is a given. Steinbeck (1902-68) began his professional writing career in 1925 as a cub reporter at Hearst's New York American and went on to cover World War II, the 1956 political conventions, and the American war in Vietnam for papers in New York and Louisville. His dispatches from the Dust Bowl migrant camps near Bakersfield, published in a pair of small California journals between 1936 and 1938, planted the seeds for his quintessential novel, The Grapes of Wrath. This summer, the California Council for the Humanities has invited the entire state to read his epic Okie odyssey—certainly the largest-scale tribute to Steinbeck in his centenary year, celebrated nationwide with conferences, talks, exhibitions, and screenings. (Locally, events include the Mercantile Library's weekly program of guest speakers and the CUNY Graduate Center's ongoing film series.)

You could say a full-fledged Steinbeck revival is under way, except his oeuvre has stayed alive and kicking for the more than 30 years since his death in New York at age 66. Nationwide, his titles sell about 2 million copies each year, and none are currently out of print; in 2001, The Grapes of Wrath alone racked up sales of 200,000 stateside. For the high school student, Steinbeck remains a meat-and-potatoes staple of the reading diet—alongside Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, and Mark Twain—but tends to make a surreptitious exit once budding scholars pack their bags for college. He is everywhere but the ivory tower, it seems—marginalized or absent during some of the most formative and concentrated years of a reading life.

Half a century before Jarvis Cocker, Steinbeck announced, "I am partisan to the common people"—and therefore to accessible, "populist" stories that he found and researched much as a hungry young stringer would. The best passages of his Great Depression battle cries In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath aren't written so much as reported; the instincts of a newsman drove much of his strongest output. But they also help relegate him to academia's sidelines, according to Susan Shillinglaw, director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University and co-editor, with Jackson J. Benson, of the recently published collection of his essays and reportage, America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction. "Being a journalist meant being a realist, and realism was never seen as difficult or obscure," Shillinglaw says. "Steinbeck's books are considered 'first reads': approachable, clear, lucid, all those things that will interest a high school student in reading."

With their often ribald, slang-fueled dialogue and Cinemascope-worthy backdrops, the books were always ready candidates for mass-cult magnification via Hollywood—indeed, the liner notes to Bruce Springsteen's concept album The Ghost of Tom Joad cite John Ford's film adaptation of Grapes, starring Henry Fonda, as inspiration, not the novel itself. Despite their instant appeal in bookstores and cinemas, however, the novels were literary anachronisms. "In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath are both admirable examples of realist or naturalist approaches to narrative fiction," says Bill Solomon, a specialist in 20th-century American literature at Steinbeck's alma mater, Stanford. "But when this topic is taught, we usually go to the turn of the century, to writers like Dreiser and Frank Norris. [Steinbeck's] work comes after the '20s modernist break with traditional novelistic methods; his contribution to literary history, which is customarily taught as a story of developing techniques, appears minimal."

Ron Loewinsohn, professor of English at Berkeley, puts the issue more bluntly. "Steinbeck is literature with the training wheels still on," he says. "The same factors that make him appropriate for high school readers—the obviousness of his symbols, the simplicity of his themes and characters—are the very things that turn a truly questioning reader or scholar off. He strikes me as a 19th-century sensibility addressing 20th-century issues."

The New York Times proffered much the same impression in an editorial after Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962. The statement was all the more damning for its delicate circumspection: "We think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer—perhaps a poet or critic or historian—whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age." Jackson Benson, author of the 1000-plus-page John Steinbeck, Writer, says of the attack, "I think he was so badly hurt he never wrote another word of fiction."

Though he was trendily declaring the novel dead as early as 1936 (pre-Grapes), perhaps Steinbeck just wasn't made for his times. Granted, an erratic experimental bent is discernible in his late fiction: the shifts between first- and third-person address and elliptical leaps of The Winter of Our Discontent, the metafictional interruptions and asides in East of Eden. Furthermore, "Steinbeck isn't given his due for the complexity of his narratives," Shillinglaw says. "He once said that he wanted to write from a child's perspective. That didn't mean he was writing for children—you could make a comparison to the clarity of Wordsworth's Lucy poems. But every book works on multiple levels."

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