John Steinbeck 1902-1968
(Full name John Ernst Steinbeck) American novelist, short-story writer, nonfiction writer, playwright, journalist, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents criticism of Steinbeck's short fiction works from 1992 through 2000. See also, "The Chrysanthemums" Criticism.
Steinbeck is recognized as one of America's best short-story writers. Although best known for his novels, he first began to develop a distinct literary voice and to experiment with characterization, concision, and thematic unity in his short stories. Addressing the repercussions of social exploitation, Puritanism, and materialistic values in his fiction, Steinbeck is noted for his sharp, forceful idiom, wry humor, and profound compassion for the poor, the inarticulate, and the politically oppressed.
Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902. After graduating from Salinas High School in 1919, he worked a variety of odd jobs, including store clerk, surveyor, and ranch hand, to pay for his college education. Steinbeck later incorporated these experiences and, by extension, his concerns about the working class into his writings. While intermittently taking biology and literature classes at Stanford University during the early 1920s, Steinbeck developed a “biological” view of humanity, a perspective that highly influenced his fiction. He believed that such evolutionary concepts as adaptation and natural selection apply to human society, and that more profound observations could be gleaned from examining social groups rather than individuals. After a brief stint as a journalist in New York City, Steinbeck returned to California and completed his first novel Cup of Gold (1929). Despite the publication of this work, Steinbeck found it necessary to sell stories to magazines in order to support himself financially. These stories were later collected in the volumes The Red Pony (1937) and The Long Valley (1938). Steinbeck continued to write short fiction throughout the 1930s, but after the success of his novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Of Mice and Men (1937), he focused almost exclusively on writing novels until his death in 1968.
Major Works of Short Fiction
The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and The Red Pony, two volumes of thematically linked stories, are not generally considered short-story collections in the traditional sense, but most critics deem them integral to Steinbeck's development as a short-story writer. The Pastures of Heaven is a loosely related collection set in California's Corral de Tierra Valley. These stories concern a group of people who fail in their attempt to establish an idyllic farming community free from restrictive urban pressures. Most critics agree that the characters in this volume—ordinary people whose illusions and self-deceptions prevent them from confronting life's realities—illustrate the frustration, despair, and isolation associated with contemporary American life. The Red Pony originally comprised three stories—“The Gift,” “The Great Mountains,” and “The Promise”—and the volume was expanded in 1945 to include “The Leader of the People.” This collection details a boy's maturation and his acceptance of death when he loses his colt to pneumonia. Exploring such themes as the loss of innocence and faith, these stories evince Steinbeck's belief that suffering and grief are inevitable and must be experienced to live life fully.
The Long Valley, Steinbeck's most popular short-story collection, contains all of his extant stories, including The Red Pony, the previously published Saint Katy the Virgin (1936), and those stories set in the Long Valley. The volume also includes such widely anthologized stories as “The Chrysanthemums,” “The Harness,” and “The White Quail.” While critics agree that the work suffers organizational problems because of its all-inclusive nature, they concede that Steinbeck's insightful treatment of such psychological concerns as repression, fear, violence, and suicide overshadows the volume's structural flaws. Throughout the collection, the majority of the characters are tormented people who are unable or unwilling to confront what Steinbeck has termed the “tragic miracle of consciousness.” “The Chrysanthemums,” for example, involves a woman who seeks love but is manipulated by a crafty vagrant, while “The Harness” focuses on a man who remains emotionally dependent on his domineering wife despite her recent death. Steinbeck further explores self-deception in “The White Quail,” a story about a woman whose obsessive identification with a white quail reflects her inability to accept herself or others.
Early critical reaction to Steinbeck's short fiction was generally favorable, but following World War II his literary reputation began to decline. During the 1950s and 1960s commentators began to fault Steinbeck's stories for being sentimental, philosophically simplistic, and overly theatrical. Contemporary critics recognize, however, that Steinbeck's short fiction reflects the social and psychological concerns evident in his novels and that his stories often served as preparatory sketches for his longer, more celebrated works. Despite critical trends, Steinbeck's realistic yet sensitive portrayal of ordinary working-class people has consistently garnered praise, and when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962, the awards committee lauded his “sympathetic humor and sociological perception.” Today he remains one of America's most respected authors.
The Pastures of Heaven 1932
Nothing So Monstrous 1936
Saint Katy the Virgin 1936
The Red Pony 1937
The Long Valley 1938
How Edith McGillicuddy Met R.L.S. 1943
The Crapshooter 1957
Cup of Gold (novel) 1929
To a God Unknown (novel) 1933
Tortilla Flat (novel) 1935
In Dubious Battle (novel) 1936
Of Mice and Men (novel) 1937
Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts (drama) 1937
The Grapes of Wrath (novel) 1939
The Moon Is Down (novel) 1942
The Moon Is Down: A Play in Two Parts (drama) 1942
Cannery Row (novel) 1945
The Pearl (novel) 1947
A Russian Journal (travel essays) 1948
Burning Bright (novel) 1950
East of Eden (novel) 1952
Sweet Thursday (novel) 1954
The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (novel) 1957
Once There Was a War (nonfiction) 1958
The Winter of Our Discontent (novel) 1961
Speech Accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature...
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SOURCE: Schmidt, Gary D. “Steinbeck's ‘Breakfast’: A Reconsideration.” Western American Literature 26, no. 4 (winter 1992): 303-11.
[In the following essay, Schmidt offers a reappraisal of “Breakfast,” contrasting the story with a similar passage found in Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.]
When John Steinbeck's The Long Valley was published in 1938—just a year before The Grapes of Wrath—it received a mixed critical reception, even though it contained several short stories which eventually came to be recognized as some of Steinbeck's masterpieces. The volume included “The Chrysanthemums,” “Flight,” “The Snake,” and the three short stories that make up The Red Pony. Yet reviewers gave scant praise to these. Eda Walton, writing for The Nation, noted that Steinbeck's “stories are competent, but reading them one goes through no authentic experience.”1 Stanley Young, in the New York Times Book Review, wrote that all the stories have “a directness of impression that makes them glow with life, small-scale though it is.”2 And Clifton Fadiman, in The New Yorker, suggested that though some of the stories were beautifully written, “Mr. Steinbeck is trying just a mite too hard to be sensitive and Open to Beauty.”3
In choosing four of the best stories from the volume, Fadiman selected...
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SOURCE: Hughes, Jr., Robert S. “What Went Wrong? How a ‘Vintage’ Steinbeck Short Story Became the Flawed Winter of Our Discontent.” Steinbeck Quarterly 26, nos. 1 & 2 (winter-spring 1993): 7-12.
[In the following essay, Hughes analyzes the relationship between “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank” and the novel The Winter of Our Discontent and explicates the reasons for the story's critical success and the novel's failure.]
Steinbeck's novel The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) has often been compared, almost always unfavorably, with the short story from which it grew, “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank” (1956). Though both works were written late in his career, the short story has been called “vintage Steinbeck” and praised for its objective, nonteleological point of view, whereas the novel has been criticized for its heavy-handed moralizing and cited as proof of the author's decline.1 How can two so closely related works supply such opposite evidence of Steinbeck's art?
One answer is genre. Expanding a short story into a novel can be tricky, even when considering only the most obvious generic differences. Simply incorporating short pieces into longer works was nothing new to Steinbeck. Earlier in his career he had drawn on such stories as “The Raid” (1934), “Breakfast” (1936), and “The Snake” (1935) in the making of novels In...
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SOURCE: Hearle, Kevin. “The Pastures of Contested Pastoral Discourse.” Steinbeck Quarterly 26, nos. 1 & 2 (winter-spring 1993): 38-45.
[In the following essay, Hearle asserts that the “discourses that are dialogically opposed to one another in The Pastures of Heaven represent variations on two competing perspectives—rural and urban—on the pastoral.”]
In “Discourse in the Novel,” the Russian theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin states,
[T]he central problem in prose theory is the problem of the double-voiced, internally dialogized word in all its diverse types and variants. … [T]he object is always entangled in someone else's discourse about it, it is already present with qualifications, an object of dispute that is conceptualized and evaluated variously, inseparable from the heteroglot social apperception of it.1
In The Pastures of Heaven, the object Steinbeck approaches dialogically is the American “pastoral” West. The title of the book—which is explained in the initial, framing chapter as the exclamation of a Spanish soldier when he first came upon the valley by accident—itself provides clues to the conflicting nature of the various American discourses of the pastoral.
“The pastures of heaven,” however, is only one of many possible translations of “Las pasturas del...
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SOURCE: Busch, Christopher S. “Longing for the Lost Frontier: Steinbeck's Vision of Cultural Decline in ‘The White Quail’ and ‘The Chrysanthemums’.” Steinbeck Quarterly 26, nos. 3 & 4 (summer-fall 1993): 81-90.
[In the following essay, Busch contends that Steinbeck illuminates “modern personal and cultural degeneration through reference to frontier types” in “The White Quail” and “The Chrysanthemums.”]
In the course of his forty-year career, John Steinbeck consistently integrated elements of American frontier history, mythology, and symbolism into his fiction and nonfiction. Steinbeck's fascination with the frontier past germinated during his boyhood in Salinas, at that time a cowtown described by Jackson J. Benson as “a throwback to the frontier towns of a half-century before.”1 This vital interest in the frontier West remained with him throughout his life, impelling him in American and Americans to validate traditional mythic conceptions of the nation's Western heritage. He writes:
The dreams of a people either create folk literature or find their way into it; and folk literature, again, is always based on something that happened. Our most persistent folk tales—constantly retold in books, movies, and television shows—concern cowboys, gunslinging sheriffs and Indian fighters. These folk figures existed—perhaps...
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SOURCE: Ditsky, John. “‘Your Own Mind Coming Out in the Garden’: Steinbeck's Elusive Woman.” In John Steinbeck: The Years of Greatness, 1936-1939, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, pp. 3-19. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Ditsky explores the depiction of women in several stories from The Long Valley.]
During the period in which John Steinbeck wrote the three Depression novels that are the special focus of this Third International Steinbeck Congress, he also published one other notable volume of fiction: the memorable assemblage of short stories collectively entitled The Long Valley.1 Few readers or critics of Steinbeck would argue with the claim that these four volumes represent Steinbeck at his best. But as Robert S. Hughes, Jr., noted in his paper for the Tenth Salinas Steinbeck Festival in August 1989,2 there are very different orientations in Steinbeck's short fiction as opposed to his novels, with the differences being bridged perhaps only in the hybrid work The Pastures of Heaven. Moreover, little of The Long Valley has anything to do with the struggles of the American worker, the preoccupation of the novels that are our subject.
Tetsumaro Hayashi, our director, originally suggested a paper on Steinbeck criticism as it is today and as it will be in the future. But I feel I exhausted my powers as...
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SOURCE: Meyer, Michael J. “Finding a New Jerusalem: The Edenic Myth in John Steinbeck.” In Literature and the Bible, edited by David Bevan, pp. 95-116. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Meyer considers the Edenic myth in the stories of The Pastures of Heaven.]
Even as the earliest settlers set foot on the shores of America, one of the predominant goals that brought them to this new country was the belief that God had ordained a new Eden/Jerusalem/Canaan for His chosen people. The land, a fertile garden in the eyes of newcomers, appeared to have all the requirements of the Biblical cities and countries that were associated with faith and rebirth, with innocence and sinlessness. Therefore it was no surprise that the colonists, mostly devout Puritans, proclaimed America to be a reclaimed garden of Eden—a place where the true believer could claim what was impossible for his forefathers on the European continent—that is, a sense of hope that the new world would be a place to regain all that had been lost in Adam's fall. God had restored his faithful by providing a new country which would foster a re-embracing of the precepts of an Almighty Father and which would eventually become the regained Paradise so longed for by the faithful.
America symbolised a new opportunity for the Christians to recreate the early mythology of their religion; however, unlike Adam, these...
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SOURCE: Shaw, Patrick W. “Steinbeck's The Red Pony (1945).” In A New Study Guide to Steinbeck's Major Works, with Critical Explications, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, pp. 186-205. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993.
[In the following essay, Shaw relates the origins and offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of the four stories that comprise The Red Pony.]
The Red Pony consists of four short stories, each originally published independently over a period of approximately five years. “The Gift,” which tells of the red pony, was published in the North American Review in November 1933. “The Great Mountains” was published in the same journal the following month. The third story, “The Promise,” was published in Harper's magazine in October 1937. “The Leader of the People” was not published in America until 1938, in The Long Valley, a collection of Steinbeck's short stories. It had previously been published in the English magazine Argosy in August 1936. The four stories were brought together as a novella in 1945, when they were published as The Red Pony in a special illustrated edition. All four of the stories, however, were written in the early 1930s. Steinbeck also wrote a movie script for The Red Pony—significantly different from the short novel—which was produced in 1949....
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SOURCE: French, Warren. “The Story Cycles.” In John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited, pp. 44-59. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
[In the following essay, French delineates the defining characteristics of the short-story cycles The Pastures of Heaven and The Red Pony.]
John Steinbeck hit almost accidentally upon the technique that would lead him gradually away from the structural problems he had had with his earliest attempts to move from short stories to novels. The curious thing about this development is that when he did hit upon the technique, he did not immediately recognize its importance. As we approach the first masterworks of his mature years, we must consider what has been so much ignored, to the detriment of both his and his critics' reputations—that Steinbeck was not an intellectual in the sense of being primarily rational rather than emotional. He recognized that he had a lifelong suspicion of intellectuals, with their a priori systems for the management of human affairs, although he would at times dabble in pseudointellectual theories (like that of the phalanx, which will be discussed later, particularly in conjunction with In Dubious Battle), and in the long run his work was confused rather than clarified by his greater attraction to Ed Ricketts's eccentric philosophizing than to the warm, sympathetic concern with still undiagnosed sufferings afflicting human...
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SOURCE: Spilka, Mark. “Sweet Violence in Steinbeck's Eden.” In Eight Lessons in Love: A Domestic Violence Reader, pp. 242-51. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Spilka views “The Murder” as “a splendidly sexist example of social attitudes in fiction that reflect and extend our sanctioned prejudices about domestic violence, and it deserves more attention on those demonstrable grounds.”]
In 1974 I published an essay called “Of George and Lennie and Curley's Wife: Sweet Violence in Steinbeck's Eden,” from which my present title is drawn. About ten years later, when I became a volunteer worker for a Rhode Island agency engaged in the rehabilitation of male batterers, I learned some of the more practical approaches to the puzzling nature of “sweet violence” that I had touched on in the essay. Appropriately enough, I had also touched upon “the perplexities of sexual rage,” especially in Steinbeck's famous novella Of Mice and Men, but also in related fictions including “The Murder,” “The Red Pony,” The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, and East of Eden. That concept had also figured as immediately in the agency's work as in these tales. Beyond that, I had demonstrated in the essay the blatant gender biases that furthered sexual rage, and the paradox of “responsibility” for supposedly “blameless violence” that framed...
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SOURCE: Mann, Susan Garland. “The Pastures of Heaven: Agrarianism and The Emergent Middle Class.” In The Betrayal of the Brotherhood in the Work of John Steinbeck: Cain Sign, edited by Michael J. Meyer, pp. 147-61. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Mann perceives the Cain and Abel myth as a notable aspect of the stories of The Pastures of Heaven.]
“Our enemy has indeed the consolation of Satan on removing our first parents from Paradise: from a peaceable and agricultural nation, he makes us a military and manufacturing one.”
(Jefferson during the War of 1812)
The Cain and Abel myth is not nearly as pervasive or as intentionally employed in The Pastures of Heaven as it is in East of Eden, the Steinbeck novel that Ricardo J. Quinones focuses on in The Changes of Cain: Violence and the Lost Brother in Cain and Abel Literature. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two centrally important patriarchal figures and the conclusion of the long final story about the Whitesides are elucidated if the historically evolving Cain and Abel story is introduced as a parallel text. While Bert Munroe is often blamed for the disastrous things that occur in the valley, he is merely an agent as well as a representative of change. As a regenerate Cain, he and his...
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SOURCE: Etheridge, Chuck. “Raising Cain: Steinbeck's The Red Pony and the Reversal of Biblical Myth.” In The Betrayal of the Brotherhood in the Work of John Steinbeck: Cain Sign, edited by Michael J. Meyer, pp. 297-326. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Etheridge deems the Cain and Abel myth as central to the stories in The Red Pony.]
John Steinbeck once handed his friend Jules Buck a Bible and said, “I'm giving you the source material for all stories” (Benson 710). Certainly, anyone with even a passing familiarity with his works would know that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is a dominant force firing Steinbeck's creative imagination. Especially integral to his work is the Cain and Abel myth, which is central to his whole literary career. Late in life he articulated his belief that this myth was central to the human condition; he wrote, “this one story is the basis of all human neurosis—and if you take the fall along with it, you have the total of the psychic troubles that can happen to a human” (Journal of a Novel 132). The centrality of this myth can been seen in much of his early fiction, particularly in the short novel, The Red Pony.
Before beginning a discussion of the novel itself, it is necessary to explore how the sixteen verses in Genesis 4 which contain the Cain and Abel story impact Steinbeck's...
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SOURCE: Simmonds, Roy. “The Troubled Thirties.” In A Biographical and Critical Introduction of John Steinbeck, pp. 65-78. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.
[In the following excerpt, Simmonds elucidates the main thematic concerns of the stories in The Long Valley.]
The Long Valley contains fifteen stories, most of which were written during the years 1931 through 1934. All of the stories but one are set in the Salinas Valley, the “long valley” of the title. Several of the stories are concerned with the theme of sexual conflict between men and women, and one can speculate that they may reflect aspects of Steinbeck's often uneasy and sometimes tempestuous relationship with Carol.
The one story not set in the long valley, “St. Katy the Virgin,” is an early work and may possibly date back to 1925, when Steinbeck was still attending Stanford University. In style and spirit, it is reminiscent of the sort of work he was producing during his Cabell/Bryne phase, and stands out starkly against the geographical and temporal unity of the other stories in the book. Amusing satirical in tone and set in the 14th. century in what appears to be a rather odd, possibly European, medieval monastic community, it tells the story of a rogue female pig who, upon finally being shown the error of her ways and subsequently embracing Christianity, is endowed with human qualities and...
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French, Warren. “The Red Pony as Story Cycle and Film.” In The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, edited by Jackson J. Benson, pp. 71-84. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.
Traces Steinbeck's adaptation of The Red Pony. from short-story cycle to screenplay.
———. “Travels through the Long Valley.” In John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited, pp. 60-8. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
Thematic analysis of the stories in The Long Valley.
Hughes, Robert S., Jr. “Steinbeck and the Art of Story Writing.” In The Steinbeck Question: New Essays in Criticism, edited by Donald R. Noble, pp. 37-50. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing Company, 1993.
Identifies and discusses Steinbeck's best short stories.
Levant, Howard. “The Red Pony as Story Cycle and Film.” In The Short Novels of John Steinbeck, edited by Jackson J. Benson, pp. 84-94. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.
Stylistic examination of The Red Pony.
Meyer, Michael J. “Fallen Adam: Another Look at Steinbeck's ‘The Snake.’” The Steinbeck Question: New Essays in Criticism, edited by Donald R. Noble, pp. 99-107. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing Company, 1993.
Investigates the theme of the fall of...
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