“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.”
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.