Majority Report

••• The Ghost of John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men, for example, dovetails with contemporary commentary on eugenics; Cannery Row's darkest passages are possible metaphors for the Holocaust. Not simply a "document of protest" (in Times parlance), the Joad family's flight from the hell they know to the hell they don't can be read as historical fiction, Darwinian allegory, transcendentalist tract, Biblical update (Exodus rewritten as catastrophic coda to American manifest destiny), even an essay on the upsetting of gender roles. "The first chapter ends with men figuring, which doesn't get anyone anywhere in the book," Shillinglaw says. "The patriarchal order collapses, and it ends with a woman smiling."

But doesn't the plaster-cast pietà of Grapes' last scene crystallize Steinbeck's excesses? Rose of Sharon—abandoned by her husband, mourning her stillborn infant, flooded out of a wretched refugee hutch with the rest of her family—takes a starving old man to feed at her breast, and what additional task does Steinbeck assign her? She "smiled mysteriously." The final flourish abruptly raptures ornery, self-centered, resolutely ordinary Rosasharn into the ranks of the Madonna—her author abstracts her when he most wants to humanize her. "Steinbeck's language itself reminds me of Frank Norris at his worst—purple and orotund when he was 'making a point.' And he seemed to always be making a point," says Loewinsohn.

"Steinbeck was consistently writing allegory," Benson explains. "He wasn't a realist, exactly—he was a fabulist." If that's so, then the opening of Cannery Row is toweringly fabulous:

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 peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men," and he would have meant the same thing.

And the rest of Everybody puts down the book before it has begun.

The author's aforementioned bête noire, Edmund Wilson, once mused that Steinbeck's novels "seem to mark precisely the borderline between work that is definitely superior and work that is definitely bad." Grapes itself straddles this line. Its weepy Iron John machismo and block-that-metaphor ornamentation is tempered by Steinbeck's ferociously concentrated activist rage and firm footing on his native soil. The opening chapter, which meticulously tracks each climatic step by which America's fertile heartland crumbled into dust, is a marvelous textual meld of landscape painting and time-lapse photography. While Steinbeckian teleology conceived humankind as the eternal subject of natural phenomena, he could only articulate this view convincingly when it was literally the case.

Like Grapes, the recently published America and Americans exhibits the best and worst of Steinbeck. Provincial blowharding on the home of the brave ("Americans and the Land," "Americans and the World," "Americans and the Future," ad nauseam) and breathtakingly reactionary Vietnam reporting finds Steinbeck far from Terkel or Tocqueville territory and cozying up to the Reader's Digest set. (At one point he compares Bob Hope to Jesus.) But the book also includes the scalding migrant-camp dispatches: terse, unadorned, exhaustive descriptions of what and why the Dust Bowl refugees suffered, recorded with the unblinking candor of a Dorothea Lange portrait. As Benson points out, young Steinbeck was fired from the New York American because he couldn't tailor his reportage to their purposes: "John would end up writing human-interest stories when they wanted hard reporting." And he never quit, for better and worse.

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