Although Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold, is not much like his later work in theme, setting, or style, it supplies hints of themes that were to pervade his later work. The book is much influenced stylistically by the medieval legends with which Steinbeck had become familiar during his boyhood. The protagonist of the book, Henry Morgan, is a brigand, a rugged individualist who is as much a nonconformist as Danny is in Tortilla Flat. Those two protagonists, from two drastically different backgrounds, would have understood each other and sympathized with the other’s outlook.
In his second and third books, The Pastures of Heaven and To a God Unknown, Steinbeck discovered the direction that most of his future novels would take. He wrote about the central California agricultural areas in which he had grown up, and, in the latter book, he also experimented with symbolism stimulated by his early reading of medieval literature. The characters in these books are memorable as individuals, but they clearly represent universal types as well.
As promising as The Pastures of Heaven was, it was not a commercial success. The beginning of Steinbeck’s widespread national acceptance came with Tortilla Flat, which might not have been published at all had Covici not read Steinbeck’s two preceding books and been favorably impressed by them. In Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck transplants the medieval legend of King Arthur and his knights to the Monterey Peninsula, where Danny and his jolly band of paisanos lead lives of immediate gratification and satisfaction.
The eastern establishment that essentially dominated literary criticism at that time did not always know how to handle Steinbeck’s setting—California was the last frontier to the New York critics of the day—and many of them were appalled at the frivolousness and irresponsibility of Steinbeck’s characters in the book. What shocked them most, however, was that Steinbeck made no value judgments about his characters. Rather, he presented them and let his readers make of them what they might.
The public accepted Danny and his boys because they represented to an economically depressed society an escape from the constraints that society had placed on many of its citizens. Danny and company lived outside those constraints. In Tortilla Flat, one finds the quintessential Steinbeck, the Steinbeck flexing his muscles before writing his great classic, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s greatest strength was his understanding and respectful depiction of people on the fringes of society.
It is important to remember that Steinbeck is not one with the people about whom he writes. He embraces them appreciatively, not with the sense that he wants to be one of them, but with a genuine respect for them as they are. In his best work, it is this disinterested, objective, yet warm presentation that entices readers. If one thinks in terms of dichotomies, American novelist Henry James would be at one extreme in depicting human beings, Steinbeck at the other.
This explains, in part, Steinbeck’s frequent rejection by the critics. The professionals who wrote about his work had essentially been brought up in the Jamesian tradition; they had lived their lives either in the eastern establishment or outside it trying to break in. Steinbeck disoriented and threatened some of them. As a result, his writing has not received the serious and objective critical evaluation it deserves.
If Danny and his boys are a sort of lost generation transplanted to the central California coast—and they do at times put one in mind of the characters in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) in that they are searching for the same universal answers that Hemingway’s characters are. They are also prototypes for characters such as George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Kino in The Pearl, and others who live on the fringes of society.
Steinbeck’s visit to a migrant workers’ camp in 1937 helped to focus his energies and to give him a cause about which to write. The Grapes of Wrath, probably the most significant socioliterary document of the Depression era, was Steinbeck’s masterpiece. Using the simple and direct language and the casual syntax that characterizes his best writing, he captured a crucial era in American history by showing the way the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the midwestern United States affected one family, pawns in a game so huge that they did not always realize there was a game.
Steinbeck became the darling of the Marxist critics when he published The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 but mostly for political reasons rather than for artistic ones. When his subsequent books failed to evince the social indignation of The Grapes of Wrath, critics virtually abandoned Steinbeck and often made unfeeling, superficial judgments about his work because it had failed to meet their preconceived political expectations.
Steinbeck was accused of being an intellectual lightweight and of having sold out—turning his back on his principles once he had secured his future. Actually, he had simply moved his cast of characters into new situations and shaped them to those situations, although not with consistent success. Even in the much—and justifiably—maligned The Wayward Bus, Steinbeck was experimenting with a milieu created by imitating and modernizing the kind of microcosm with which Sebastian Brant had worked in his long medieval poem, Das Narrenschiff (1494; The Ship of Fools, 1507).
Steinbeck’s work is almost wholly antiestablishment, but gently so. Every good story must have opposing forces, friends and enemies to keep the conflict moving. Steinbeck knew who his friends were: simple people such as George and Lenny, Danny and his friends, the Joad family, Kino, Jody in The Red Pony, and Mack and the boys in Cannery Row.
He had a little more trouble in deciding who the enemies were. He solved the problem, as many writers before him had, by keeping the enemy large, rich, and generalized. Upton Sinclair had taken on the impersonal giant of a meat industry in The Jungle in 1906. Frank Norris made the banks and the railroads the main enemies of society in The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903). Jack London had used greedy gold-rush speculators the same way in The Call of the Wild (1903). Steinbeck found his enemies in faceless bureaucracies, unfeeling governments, and grasping banks, in whose clutches the good people were held helplessly. The best they could do was to squirm a little and perhaps deal with the situation with the wry humor that characterizes Danny and his jolly cohorts.
Work remains to be done in assessing the artistry of John Steinbeck. His style reflects a mixture of influences as diverse as the Bible; the novels of Fyodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy, Guy du Maupassant, Thomas Hardy, and other English and Continental writers; and the medieval texts that Steinbeck found so appealing during his childhood. Steinbeck was an uneven writer, but at his best, he was superb.
Of Mice and Men
First published: 1937
Type of work: Novel
The story of two men, George and Lennie, whose symbiotic relationship ends when George must kill the retarded Lennie.
The original manuscript of Of Mice and Men suffered a fate that gives writers nightmares: When Steinbeck and his wife were out one night, their dog, Toby, tore the first half of the finished manuscript to shreds. It was Steinbeck’s only copy, so he had to rewrite half of the book. Steinbeck gave the dog meager punishment and said that he had a certain respect for the beast’s literary judgment.
The book is one of Steinbeck’s warmest. Lennie, a migrant ranch hand, is mentally retarded. George, also a migrant ranch hand, travels with him and looks after him. The story opens and ends on a riverbank off the main road, separated from the world of machines and impersonal technology. It is to this place that George tells Lennie to return in case of trouble. As in many of Steinbeck’s novels, this riverbank, and the cave in which Lennie suggests that he and George might live away from the world, is a back-to-the-womb motif.
Lennie is large and strong. He likes soft, furry things. He likes them so much that he sometimes crushes the life out of them accidentally in showing his affection. He keeps mice in his pocket, but they do not survive his attention. Lennie lives on dreams. He longs for the day that he and George will own a little land and a house, a place where they can hide from a world that Lennie does not understand and that George does not trust. George and Lennie are different from the other ranch hands because they have each other. They conceive of a future and harbor dreams because they think that they will always be together. Their symbiotic relationship humanizes some of the other ranch hands with whom they work.
The ranch owner’s son, Curley, however, is not among those humanized by George and Lennie’s presence. Curley has his own problems. He is a lightweight fighter, a combative sort who resents being small but resents even more people who are larger than he. Lennie is a perfect target for his aggressions. He provokes Lennie into a fight in which he bloodies Lennie’s nose, but Lennie crushes Curley’s hand.
Curley’s other major problem is his wife, who remains unnamed in the story. Her fidelity to Curley is questionable, and she is called a “tart” by the ranch hands. While the men are elsewhere, Curley’s wife finds Lennie in the barn and coaxes him to pet her hair. Lennie’s fondness for soft, furry things makes him vulnerable. He strokes her hair to the point that she becomes alarmed and panics. When she does, Lennie breaks her neck.
Doing as he has been told, Lennie returns to the safety of the riverbank. He asks George to recite for him the details of how they will stay together, buy a small spread, and live out their lives happily. George, realizing that Curley will capture Lennie and make him die painfully for what he has done, puts a bullet through Lennie’s head as Lennie looks out into the distance, where he envisions the future George is reciting to him.
The novel was unique in that it consisted largely of dialogue and was written so that it could also, with almost no adjustments, be acted on stage. Its popularity, particularly its acceptance as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, surprised Steinbeck, who did not look upon the book as very significant. The original title, Something That Happened, reflects Steinbeck’s objectivity in presenting his story; he makes no moral judgments about George and Lennie nor about the other ranch hands.
The Red Pony
First published: 1937 (enlarged, 1945)
Type of work: Novella
The story of how Jody Tiflin moves from boyhood to adulthood.
Steinbeck, in Baja California in 1937, let it be known that he was writing a children’s book, referring to what was to grow into The Red Pony. The first three of the four interconnected stories that make up The Red Pony were published in The Long Valley (1938). In 1945, Steinbeck added the final story, “The Leader of the People,” to make the collection long enough to be published as a separate entity. The novella is not a children’s book in the conventional sense; it is more accurately described as a Bildungsroman, a book that chronicles the education of a boy growing to manhood.
Jody Tiflin is about eleven years old. Although living on his parents’ farm in the warm Salinas Valley provides him with an idyllic childhood, he learns some harsh lessons in life. Jody’s first disillusionment comes in “The Gift,” when the horse he has been given—the fulfillment of any boy’s dream—is drenched in a rainstorm that Billy Buck, the family’s farmhand, has assured the boy will not come. The horse, Gabilan, catches cold and, despite all efforts to save it, dies. Billy Buck, who had been Jody’s hero, is now diminished in his eyes, first because he promised fair weather when Jody took the horse out and then because Billy could not save the stricken animal.
Jody comes face-to-face with a second harsh reality relating to death in “The Great Mountains,” the second story in the cycle. Gitano, an ailing old Chicano who was born on the Tiflin ranch before they owned it, walks onto the property and asks to be permitted to stay there until he dies. Carl Tiflin, ever practical and not a sympathetic character, will not permit this. The next morning Gitano rides off dejectedly—but not before he has stolen an old rapier that has been in the Tiflin family for generations.
In the third story, “The Promise,” Jody is given his second horse, a newborn colt that needs care because its mother died in delivering it. Billy Buck had no choice but to kill her in order to save the colt, so, although Jody is pleased that this new life belongs to him, he grieves at the trade-off that accompanied the gift.
The last story, “The Leader of the People,” is about the visit that Jody’s maternal grandfather pays to the ranch. Jody adores the old man and dotes on his stories about the days when he was leader of a wagon train. Carl Tiflin hates those stories as much as Jody loves them, and he deplores the old man’s visits because he knows they will be filled with reminiscences about an age in which he has little interest. The old man had a “westering” spirit, but that spirit, which helped Americans to conquer its last geographical frontier, is no longer necessary. The frontier has been conquered. Carl Tiflin must get on with his work, and he turns his back on the past that helped him to reach the point at which he finds himself.
This story ends with Jody listening to his grandfather, who confides in him that he fears the new generation no longer has the spirit of which he speaks. Jody, quite tellingly, listens and then asks his grandfather if he would like some lemonade, indicating that, for the first time, the boy is showing a sensitivity to someone else’s feelings. Jody is moving toward manhood.
The Red Pony builds on Steinbeck’s notion that nature is unrelenting and mysterious. Mere humans cannot thwart it any more than they can control it. When Jody’s Gabilan becomes food for the vultures, Steinbeck does not suggest that commiseration is the proper emotion. It is part of the natural cycle. Living things feed on living things as inevitably as humans die.
The Grapes of Wrath
First published: 1939
Type of work: Novel
The Joad family leaves the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression to find a new life in California.
In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck vents his anger against a capitalistic society that was capable of plunging the world into an economic depression, but he does not exonerate the farmers who have been driven from the Dust Bowl of the midwestern and southwestern United States. He deplores their neglect of the land that resulted in the Dust Bowl and which helped to exacerbate the Great Depression.
The book is interestingly structured. Interspersed among its chapters are frequent interchapters, vignettes that have little direct bearing on the novel’s main narrative. These interchapters contain the philosophical material of the book, the allegories such as that of the turtle crossing the road. As the animal makes its tedious way across the dusty thoroughfare, drivers swerve to avoid hitting it. One vicious driver, however, aims directly for it, clearly intending to squash it. Because this driver’s aim is not accurate, he succeeds only in nicking the corner of the turtle’s carapace, catapulting it to the side of the road it was trying to reach. Once the dust settles and the shock wears off, the turtle emerges and continues on its way, dropping as it does a grain of wheat from the folds of its skin. When the rains come, this grain will germinate; this is Steinbeck’s intimation of hope.
As the narrative opens, Tom Joad has been released from a prison term he served for having killed someone in self-defense. On his way home, he falls in with Jim Casy, a former preacher down on his luck. Jim’s initials can be interpreted religiously, as can much of the book. When Jim and Tom get to the farm where the Joads were tenant farmers, they find the place deserted, as are the farms around it, now dusty remnants of what they had been. Tom learns that his family has sold what little it owned, probably for five cents on the dollar, and headed to the promised land: California. En route, the family has paused to rest at a relative’s place and to work on the antique truck they had bought secondhand for the trip. Tom and Jim catch up with them there, and they all leave—an even dozen of them—for the land in which they have placed their future hope.
The chronicle of the slow trip west, reminiscent of the turtle’s arduous creep across the parched road, is recorded in such realistic detail that the reader is transported into a world peopled by hobos, stumblebums, the dispossessed, the disenchanted, and the dislocated—all of them pushing ahead to the jobs they believe exist for agricultural workers in California. Death haunts the motley band, threatening the elderly and those who are weak. The grandfather dies of a stroke the first night out; his wife dies as the family crosses the Mojave Desert. Noah, the retarded son, wanders off and is not heard from again. Ahead, however, lies hope, so the Joads bury their dead and keep going.
The land of their hearts desire, however, proves to be no Garden of Eden. The dream of a future that will offer hope and security quickly develops into a nightmare. Tom’s sister, Rose of Sharon, lacks the funds for a funeral when her baby dies. She prays over it and sets it adrift in the rushes beside a river. Tom gets into trouble with the police, but Jim surrenders in his place and is taken away. By the time Tom and Jim meet again, Jim is a labor agitator. In an encounter with the police, Jim is killed and Tom is injured. The Joads hide Tom in their shack, then sneak him into a farm. There he takes up Jim’s work as a labor organizer.
As the rains come, the Joads, who are encamped beside a river, endure floods that ruin their old truck. Having no place to live, they go into a decrepit barn, where a boy and his starving father have sought shelter. Rose of Sharon, having lost her baby, nourishes the starving man with the milk from her breasts, thereby saving his life. One is reminded again of the turtle and of the grain of wheat it deposits in the desiccated soil.
The Grapes of Wrath is a bitter tale of humans against nature and against a brutally exploitive society, but it is also a tale of nobility, of self-sacrifice, and ultimately of hope. It often offends the sensibilities, but life frequently offends one’s sensibilities. The novel is a polemic, but one more detached and objective than first thought by many a critic.
First published: 1945
Type of work: Novel
Residents of Monterey’s Cannery Row plan and give a birthday party for one of their friends.
Around the sardine factories of Cannery Row in Monterey, California, lived those who worked only when they had to, preferring to talk, fight, drink, and be lazy. These are the characters of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, who have been compared to the rogues depicted in English artist William Hogarth’s engravings and in the picaresque novels of the eighteenth century.
Monterey is only a whisper away from Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck and his first wife lived in the early 1930’s. The two worlds, however, are continents apart ideologically. Pacific Grove developed as a Methodist campground. One could not buy liquor there, and the sidewalks were deserted not long after sunset. Three miles away, Monterey’s bars stayed open almost until dawn. The population of each town was distinct, although the communities were virtually adjacent.
Mack presides over a band of derelicts who live from one drink to the next, one fight to the next, and one day to the next. If earlier picaros lived their irresponsible lives in ways that advanced them socially and economically, Mack’s boys do not. Their progress is strictly horizontal. They live by bartering, borrowing, stealing, and conning Lee Chong, the Chinese merchant. They are the street people of an earlier age, although some of them have shacks to retreat into when they must. One of them, Malloy, lives sometimes in a huge boiler that his wife has decorated with chintz curtains.
The novel has only a loosely defined forward momentum. Mostly its characters drift laterally rather than move forward. This assortment of undistinguished humanity, however, is working together toward an outcome: getting a present to give Doc—a marine biologist, modeled on Ed Ricketts, who runs a small business supplying biological specimens to commercial distributors—at a surprise birthday party they are planning for him. One of them has taken a temporary job as a bartender, enabling him to save the dregs of people’s drinks in large containers; this accumulation of leftovers constitutes their liquor supply for the party.
The boys scour the community, gathering Doc’s birthday present, which is to consist of all kinds of specimens he can sell: cats, rats, frogs, dogs, anything biological enough to qualify. They invite everyone from the row to the party, including Dora, the local madam, and her girls. The climax of the novel comes in the hilarious fight that breaks out as the crowds gather and their spirits intensify. At the end of the novel, nothing has changed. The characters will go on living exactly as they have, ever good-natured, drifters who drift within the limited precincts of Cannery Row.
As he did in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck uses interchapters to comment on the main thrust of the novel and to set it into a philosophical context. In these interchapters, one finds the strong influences of Ed Ricketts’s nonteleological philosophy, which was fully explained in Sea of Cortez.
First published: 1945, serial; 1947, book
Type of work: Novella
A poor Mexican Indian finds a rare, enormous pearl, but the find brings him suffering and heartache.
The Pearl, which its author calls a parable, was first published as “The Pearl of the World” in Woman’s Home Companion in 1945. It was published as a novel and released as a film under the title The Pearl in 1947. In parables, characters exist outside and beyond their individual identities and are shaped to represent universal types.
Steinbeck’s story came from a folk story he had heard and which he related in The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). The story, purported to be true, was of a simple Mexican peasant boy who had found a pearl near La Paz at the tip of Baja California. The pearl was so large that the boy was convinced he would never have to work again, that he could stay drunk forever, and that he could have his pick of women and then buy his eternal salvation after all his sinning by purchasing Masses. His dream turned sour when opportunists and thieves beset him, some of whom threatened his life. So frightened and disenchanted was this Indian boy that he eventually threw his great pearl back into the sea whence it came.
Steinbeck creates as his Indian peasant Kino, an unwed father whose chief concerns are to marry Juana, the mother of his child, Coyotito, in a church wedding and to provide for his family and for Coyotito’s education. In short, Kino aspires to middle-class values to which the first readers of the story in Woman’s Home Companion could easily relate.
Kino and Juana revel in the excitement that surrounds Kino’s finding the pearl, but their elation soon turns into distrust. The brokers, through whom Kino must sell the jewel if he is to profit from it, conspire to cheat him, saying that the pearl is so big that it has no commercial potential. Kino has to hide the jewel, but while he sleeps, thieves try to rob him of it. The doctor who would not treat Kino and his family when they had no money now comes unctuously to them, proffering the best of services, to be paid for when the pearl is sold.
As the drama of Kino’s situation unfolds, Kino, essentially peace-loving, is forced to kill three men and, worst of all, his adored Coyotito is killed by pursuers who shoot recklessly and strike the boy. The pearl comes to represent all that is bad in life, all that is—in the eyes of this superstitious peasant—unlucky. Finally, at Juana’s urging, Kino, like the Indian boy in the original legend, heaves the jewel into the sea. He has made nothing from his find, and he has lost a great deal that is precious to him.
On an allegorical level, Kino’s pearl is much like Santiago’s marlin in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). It is a symbol of all the strivings of humankind. Dreams keep people going, offering them hope for the future even if the present is bleak. Steinbeck, however, like Hemingway after him, implies that human nobility comes from striving rather than from attaining.
East of Eden
First published: 1952
Type of work: Novel
This ambitious and convoluted saga follows the Trask family, residents of the Salinas Valley, and depicts human stupidity.
East of Eden is the most uncharacteristic novel in the Steinbeck canon. It is a complicated—at times convoluted—book that tries to accomplish more than it finally can. In his attempt to juggle three themes, Steinbeck at times fumbles, leaving his readers confused.
On one hand, Steinbeck is attempting to write a documentary about the Salinas Valley, which comes to represent the United States as a whole. He seeks to accomplish this by directing his attention to two complicated families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks. Upon this situation, he superimposes, quite heavy-handedly, a modern redaction of the biblical story of Cain and Abel—Caleb and Aron—in the novel.
Adam Trask and his half brother, Charles, live together in Connecticut as the story opens. They are compatible, but some rivalries exist. Adam detests his father, although he gets along with his stepmother, Charles’s mother. The father has a strong militaristic bent and dreams of having a son in the Army. He handpicks Adam for this honor, leaving Charles, who adores his father, feeling rejected. In frustration, Charles beats Adam badly. After spending five miserable years in the service, Adam reenlists for another tour of duty. When it ends, he returns home to find that his father is dead. He and Charles inherit enough to make them rich. They live together in a harmony that is sometimes disturbed by violent fights.
Meanwhile, Cathy Ames is coming of age in Massachusetts. She is a confusing woman, beautiful and lovable on the surface but inherently evil in ways that few people can see. She sets fire to her parents’ house, and both of them are killed in the blaze, leaving Cathy free to escape from a home she has found oppressive. She plants clues to suggest that she, too, died in the fire and runs away, becoming mistress to a man who operates a brothel.
When their relationship sours, he takes Cathy into the wilderness and beats her, leaving her there to die. She manages to get to the nearest house, which is where the Trask brothers live. They take her in and nurse her back to health. Charles divines the evil that lurks beneath Cathy’s prepossessing exterior. Adam is innocent of such feelings, and he marries Cathy. She drugs him on their wedding night and steals into Charles’s room, where she seduces him.
The brothers’ relationship is strained by Cathy’s presence, although Adam is not aware of his wife’s duplicity. He decides, over his wife’s protests, to go to the Salinas Valley to farm. He buys one of the best ranches in the area, and Cathy soon delivers twin sons. Unknown to Adam, they are Charles’s offspring. Before names have been picked for them, Cathy shoots and wounds Adam, then flees to a bawdy house in Salinas, where she works under the name of Kate. The owner of the brothel, Faye, grows fond of Kate and decides to leave her everything she has in her will. After the will has been drafted, Kate arranges for Faye’s murder and comes immediately into her money.
Meanwhile, Adam is so disconsolate at his wife’s defection that he has not named the twins. Finally, goaded by his neighbor, Sam Hamilton, and several friends, he names the boys Caleb and Aron. Steinbeck interjects at this point a conversation about Cain and Abel so that there is no question about his artistic intention. Sam, who knows more about Kate than do the other principals in the novel, is aging and knows he cannot live forever. He is fully cognizant of Kate’s past and knows that she has turned Faye’s brothel into one in which sadism is the chief lure. He tells Adam what he knows, and Adam visits Kate. She tries to seduce him but not before informing him that the twins are Charles’s sons, not his.
Meanwhile, the two boys grow up to be quite different. Aron is blond and lovable, although quite staunch and adamant in his beliefs. Caleb, dark-haired and intelligent, is solitary but has the makings of a leader. Neither knows that Kate is alive until Aron falls in love with Abra Hamilton, Sam’s daughter. Abra eventually reveals this information to Aron, who now realizes that his father has not been forthright with him. Aron does not seek to meet his mother. The story is further complicated because, at this time, Adam devises a plan for shipping lettuce to New York, iced so that it would survive the journey. When the venture collapses, Adam loses a large amount of money, causing his son Aron considerable embarrassment; he does not take well to failure in people, especially in his father.
Finally, Aron manipulates things so that Caleb finishes high school early and goes to college. Caleb has learned from Abra of Kate’s existence, and he follows his mother about until she notices him and they talk. She feels threatened by him. When he finishes college, Caleb goes into the bean business with Sam Hamilton, and the two become rich because they can meet some of the food shortages brought about by World War I.
Caleb, always unsure of his father’s love, tries to buy it by giving Adam money to help him recover from the loss he had on the lettuce venture. Adam, too proud to accept the money, virtually throws it back at him. To assuage his hurt, Caleb now takes Aron to meet Kate, who is intimidated by Caleb. She writes a will in which she leaves everything to Aron and shortly afterward commits suicide.
Aron, unable to cope with all that has happened, joins the Army. Sent to France to fight in World War I, he is killed. News of his death brings on a stroke that will kill Adam. Caleb blames himself for Aron’s death, but as Adam nears death, at the urging of Lee, his Chinese servant, he gives Caleb his blessing and dies. Steinbeck attempted more than he could handle in this book; he was trying to produce something of epic proportions, but his greatest skill lay in working within more narrowly defined parameters.