Study Guide

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck Essay - Steinbeck, John

Steinbeck, John

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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 (speech) 1962

Travels with Charley: In Search of America (nonfiction) 1962

America and Americans (travel essays) 1966

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (letters) 1975

Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath” (journal) 1989

Criticism

Gary D. Schmidt (essay date winter 1992)

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 “The Chrysanthemums,” “The White Quail,” “The Harness,” and “Breakfast,” and in so doing he was the last critic for some time to nod a kind head towards “Breakfast.” Since that time it has received little critical attention. One of the reasons for this might be its length; it is by far the shortest story in the collection, taking only four pages. And Steinbeck's almost verbatim repetition of the tale in chapter twenty-two of The Grapes of Wrath seemed to imply that the earlier piece was a mere draft, a short scene which had no artistic integrity of its own but which needed a larger context.

And so Peter Lisca has called it a “short sketch” and a “fragment.”4 Jackson J. Benson refers to it as little more than a scene, though a “very moving and very real scene.”5 When the editors of the Steinbeck Quarterly decided to devote part of their fifth volume to the stories of The Long Valley, no essay on “Breakfast” was included. Tetsumaro Hayashi's rationale for this was that “Breakfast” is “a comparatively insignificant piece and a rarely anthologized one.”6 When Pascal Covici selected the story for the Viking Portable Library's Steinbeck in 1943, he entitled the story simply “A Fragment” and introduced it as “one of many working notes for The Grapes of Wrath.7 (It actually came out of research for In Dubious Battle.) But recently R. S. Hughes has argued that the work is a completely worked out, symmetrical “sketch” that finds its unity in the slow progression of the dawn.8

The literary criticism of this short story is correspondingly slight. James Hanby has suggested that “Breakfast” is a humanistic vision of the twenty-third psalm, in which the Salinas Valley becomes the Valley of the Shadow of Death and the hospitality of the migrant family mirrors the hospitality of the Good Shepherd, a hospitality that Edwin M. Moseley has interpreted as a “ritual communion.” In his Jungian analysis of the story, Carroll Britch has seen the older man as a god-man, lord of the archetypal human family as well as the elements of the world. The narrator, Britch suggests, finds in the old man an unconscious projection of his own more primal tendencies. And most recently, John H. Timmerman has found the significance of the story in its emphasis on the family, pointing ahead to Steinbeck's great theme of the family of man.9

Certainly “Breakfast” is not Steinbeck's most important short story. And in many ways it is a simple scene, gathered from his walks around the migrant camps of the Salinas Valley from the summer of 1934, when Steinbeck set out to experience first-hand what he would be writing about in In Dubious Battle. The narrator—apparently a migrant picker (but perhaps the writer?)—comes upon a small family on the side of the road just before dawn. The young mother fixes hot biscuits and bacon while nursing her child. The father and grandfather come out of a tent and offer breakfast to the narrator. Dawn breaks as they finish and the two men invite the narrator to come to the cotton fields with them to see if they can get him on; they have been working for twelve days and have new dungarees. The narrator refuses and walks away down the country road.

If “Breakfast” were only a sketch or fragment—a simple preparation for a chapter in The Grapes of Wrath—we might expect that Steinbeck would have transferred it bodily into the novel with little change. But that is not the case. There is a wholeness about the story, a completeness about its scene, about the moment which has stayed with the narrator. It is a wholeness not necessarily maintained in the later version. While many of the details are the same, the major difference lies in the perspective of the character who comes upon the family group. In The Grapes of Wrath this character is Tom Joad, who has spent the first two-thirds of the novel taking care of his family. He comes upon the group after they have settled in a government camp, having fled a Hooverville that had been burned by the Farm Association.10 That is, he comes upon the scene bearing with him a context which differs starkly from the image now before him. Steinbeck includes more dialogue in the novel's version. The girl greets Tom (she averts her eyes in “Breakfast”) and there is an amiable exchange before they all sit down to eat. Tom announces that he plans to look for work, and then the dawn begins to show. The light seems to call the other two from their eating, for they stop as soon as it shows on their faces, bringing with it the promise of another day of work. There is no certainty that Tom notices the dawn; it is unclear if he, like the narrator of “Breakfast,” sees the light reflected in the older man's eyes. When they ask if Tom wishes to come with them, he agrees almost with joy, and there the scene ends. Steinbeck will later subdue the joy when they go to lay pipe and hear that the Farm Association has lowered their wages.

The emphasis in the scene from The Grapes of Wrath is very much on the sheer activity; it is a single part of the general waking up of the Weedpatch Camp. It also stresses the absolute kindness and goodness of the migrant workers, the unity of their families, and their willingness to extend their generosity and concern outside of their own family circles. In the novel this works towards Steinbeck's increasingly wide definition of the family and contrasts with the hardheartedness of the Farm Association. But the concerns of “Breakfast” are quite different, and though many of the same details are used, most of them work in different ways and towards different meanings. This comes about because of the much stronger presence of the narrator in the short story. The reader is consistently aware of the presence of the narrator, consistently aware that all of the events are perceived and interpreted through his perspective. It is also a scene which is in the narrator's past. Though there is no clue as to how long ago it occurred, it is clear that this incident has had a strong effect on him, one which he recalls with pleasure again and again.

The narrator calls the scene “a sunken memory” and finds himself bringing more and more detail out of it with each remembering. When he presents the scene, then, it is as a creation of his memory, and presumably includes what he recalls only upon ordered reflection. The story is a culmination of his attempt to articulate the meaning which he feels is in the scene, a meaning which still eludes him at the end of the story. For remembering is not enough to make the details cohere in a meaningful way, even though it brings “the curious warm pleasure.”

By the end of “Breakfast,” the narrator's memory has produced a vivid scene, but he is conscious of his own failure to find the source of the beauty in it. Claude-Edmonde Magny suggests that the narrator recognizes “that the scene is pregnant with a profound poetry that he cannot elucidate, that he cannot communicate to the reader.”11 And though Magny does not examine the real source of that poetry, it is true that this tension—this inability to communicate what he knows is beautiful—is at the very center of the story. Much of what the narrator reports are details which seem to elicit no reaction from him. The opening paragraphs emphasize the visual, particularly light in relationship to objects. Light colors the rims of the mountains...

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Robert S. Hughes, Jr. (essay date winter-spring 1993)

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...

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Kevin Hearle (essay date winter-spring 1993)

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...

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Christopher S. Busch (essay date summer-fall 1993)

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...

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John Ditsky (essay date 1993)

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...

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Michael J. Meyer (essay date 1993)

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,...

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Patrick W. Shaw (essay date 1993)

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.]

I. BACKGROUND

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...

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Warren French (essay date 1994)

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...

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Mark Spilka (essay date 1997)

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...

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Susan Garland Mann (essay date 2000)

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)

...

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Chuck Etheridge (essay date 2000)

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...

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Roy Simmonds (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 5348 words.)