John Steinbeck American Literature Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 5361 words.)
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