Study Guide

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck Essay - Steinbeck, John (Vol. 5)

Steinbeck, John (Vol. 5)

Steinbeck, John 1902–1968

An American novelist and short story writer, Steinbeck won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. His realistic accounts of rural poverty in the United States, most notably The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, are American classics. See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 9, 13, 21, 124.

Travels with Charley in Search of America, a series of travel articles from Holiday that became a leading bestseller…, is a hodge-podge of superficial social criticism, ripe sentimentality, one endless joke about the urination of Steinbeck's dog, bad prose, encounters that surely must have been invented, and factual inaccuracies. There are streaks of honesty and insight in the book, and one chilling and effective look at New Orleans racism. Travels with Charley and The Winter of Our Discontent are clearly the work of a writer who, if he was not always a lightweight, is a lightweight now.

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "John Steinbeck and the Nobel Prize," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 113-17.

The reason so many of Steinbeck's former admirers no longer enjoy his work is that the weaknesses of the earlier writings, excusable enough in a young novelist, have prevailed: the woodenness and the sentimentalism. Over the years he has become the idol of book clubs and movie audiences, and of a vast uninstructed reading public. Literary experts of high standing have either ignored Steinbeck or, in critical books and journals of limited circulation, have exposed his defects. Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, and Maxwell Geismar are three important critics, for example, who have detailed Steinbeck's imperfections….

At a time when people were hungry and dispossessed and wandering, Steinbeck was one of their literate spokesmen. But too many readers mistook his sentimentalism for compassion; sentimentalism, that is, in the sense of tearfully expecting too much from life. We can perform a service to our culture, to the preservation of its truest values, by not overrating the work of this man of goodwill who was sometimes a competent novelist, though never "great."

Harry T. Moore, "Epilogue" (© 1968 by Harry T. Moore), to his The Novels of John Steinbeck, 2nd edition, Kennikat Press, 1968.

Steinbeck was never a utopian because he was always a man with a place. He was a Californian, and his writings never succeeded very well when he tried to walk alien soil. Yet his California was a very special one, a narrow strip embracing Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties, sleepy California that time passed by. He ignored the great cities except in glimpses and if he wrote of other places, it was likely to be the New England village of Winter of Our Discontent or the Northwest orchards of In Dubious Battle. In a literal sense, he was a conservative, a man who valued and even clung to the old America; the real power of Grapes of Wrath is the savage anger at the impersonal process that uproots men from the land and rapes it, substituting rattletraps and highways for place and kindred.

In that sense, he was romantic, sure that past times were far from perfect and yet possessed of virtues and qualities now lost, human even in their cruelties and stupidities as the industrial age is not….

Conservative and romantic, Steinbeck stuck to the sturdy rationalism that insists that the old questions will not be wished away, that the old virtues cannot be dispensed with, that the rule of first things first still applies. The direct route is the best, because the best cannot be captured unaware or bought cheap.

That did not make him lapse into quietism, or leave him indifferent to social reform. Far from it: compassion and concern lie on the direct route too. So, for that matter, does violence, and Steinbeck knew that there is a love which must take up the knife to slay another, because it is the same love which leads to a knowing willingness to sacrifice the self. (p. 230)

Wilson C. McWilliams and Nancy R. McWilliams, "John Steinbeck, Writer," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 9, 1969, pp. 229-30.

Steinbeck is entirely representative of an American type of great influence during the first two decades following World War II, the Stevenson Democrat. Steinbeck was indeed preeminent among the men of letters to whom this label could be applied; he was one of the many who, having lived through the frustrations of the Depression and the horrors of the war, hoped that the direction of the country might at last be entrusted to a quiet, introspective, cautiously idealistic man with roots in a characteristically American agrarian community.

The trouble with the Stevensonians during an age of affluence like the 1960's is that they were rarely able to convert their nebulous vision of a better society into meaningful specifics. They were driven into trying to see in the pacification of the Mekong Delta the restoration of Candide's garden. (p. 297)

Steinbeck's political views became increasingly irrelevant, because—like many others of his liberal persuasion—he insisted on seeing the present in terms of the past. Steinbeck had frozen into a political position that in the 1930's enabled him to avoid fashionable error and made him the champion of common sense, but that in the 1960's isolated him from the problems of affluence. (This judgment is grounded in the idea that in the 1930's the nation's problems were primarily those of underproduction and physical survival, but that in the 1960's—although there are still a sizable number of "disadvantaged" persons in the society—the problems were principally those of overproduction and spiritual disenchantment.)

What is most significant is how closely the thinking of the man who, regardless of critical demurrers, was one of the most distinguished twentieth-century American writers mirrored that of Lyndon Johnson, whose once awe-inspiring reputation as a political operator crumbled because of his inability to communicate with most people under forty. Johnson, like Steinbeck, insisted on responding to the problems of the 1960's as if they were those of the 1930's. (p. 299)

Steinbeck was able to see the Vietnamese conflict not in ideological terms but as a necessary stimulant to American morale. He embraced—again like many of his countrymen—the puritanical notion that a nation can flourish only when it is fighting against physical odds—"westering."…

In effect, Steinbeck was arguing, we were using Vietnam simply to establish the continuing virility of our local brand of morality. In an interview after belatedly receiving the Nobel Prize, Steinbeck observed that it was more difficult in the 1960's than in the 1930's to determine who was an underdog, more difficult—to borrow the title of one of his most famous essays—to tell good guys from bad. The admission shows that Steinbeck's thinking had not become sophisticated enough to deal with the subtle problems of an age of affluence. Part of the trouble is that when values are principally physical—as in problems of survival—it is not difficult to perceive the differences between contenders; but when values are principally intellectual or spiritual—as in problems of adjustment—it may be very difficult to perceive differences. (pp. 303-04)

In his great novels of the 1930's Steinbeck intentionally alerted the nation to the dangers that persistence in the stereotyped thinking fostered by the chimerical speculative abundance that a virgin continent once promised presented to a land that had failed to solve the problems of fairly distributing its resources. In the 1960's his novels unintentionally alert us to the dangers that persistence in the stereotyped thinking derived from the privations endured during the Depression and World War II present in coping with the problems of an age of affluence in which economic momentum can be maintained only by a program of controlled waste that is not destructive of human resources.

Steinbeck had trouble during the last two decades—as The Winter of Our Discontent especially suggests—because he still saw human problems in the currently irrelevant terms of clashes between exploiter and victim, the ignoble and the noble. He failed to grasp that in an age when a potential threat of atomic destruction hangs over the whole world—when man could annihilate himself—the question of who "wins" this or that particular physical engagement can hardly be a burning issue. Nobility is no longer even a possibility. The failure of Steinbeck's private politics was to reflect a general failure of American politics. There are many luxuries we can no longer afford. The political fastidiousness of the polite liberal—epitomized by Steinbeck—is surely one of them. (pp. 304-05)

Warren French, "John Steinbeck (1902–1968)," in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorn, 1971, pp. 296-306.

Talismanic symbols take many and various forms in Steinbeck's novels. In To A God Unknown the rock in the forest glade is a talisman to Joseph Wayne, and the rock is described much like the pink piece of stone in The Winter of Our Discontent. In these two cases the talisman is true to the dictionary definition of a stone, but in other novels the idea is expanded to include anything that men believe in or go to for some kind of nonrational fulfillment, anything that sparks a man to identify with it and project the mystery of his being upon it. On a larger scale, the idea is manifest in the land in Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath; on a smaller scale, the talisman is the image of the virgin that Juan Chicoy communes with but does not accept as a Christian symbol in The Wayward Bus, Kino's pearl, Danny's house in Tortilla Flat, and a wide variety of other objects throughout Steinbeck's fiction.

One prevalent form of the talismanic pattern is the relationship between men and particular "places." In The Winter of Our Discontent Ethan has a hidden cave along the side of the sea, a sanctuary of sorts where he can retreat from worldly traumas and, through a sense of harmony and oneness with his environment, gather together the fragments of his being and find wholeness and unity within himself. Virtually all of Steinbeck's characters have a talismanic place such as Ethan's. (pp. 263-64) Steinbeck is reluctant to offer any simple explanation for the need men have of such places, but throughout his writing there is the implicit suggestion that some sort of fundamental relationship exists between the places and the deeper parts of the human psyche. (p. 264)

Identification results when man transfers part of his own being to his symbols, when an object becomes suffused with human spirit so that a complete interpenetration exists.

On a simple level Steinbeck is merely describing the common psychological quirk of a man identifying with his tools or with the object of his work, infusing his spirit into his physical environment. At bottom, however, the identification has wider implications and is grounded in Steinbeck's basic monism, his belief that one thing is all things and all things are one thing—that whole which "Is"—and thus share a fundamental relatedness. (pp. 265-66)

With many of Steinbeck's characters the attempt to express this tacit sense of relatedness is channeled into talismanic identification. The talisman becomes a vehicle to help man feel his oneness with the whole and express that feeling, and the pattern of talismanic identification becomes a ritual—such as the Viking burial ceremony, and generally with religious overtones—for overcoming the cosmic alienation of a separate being and for reaffirming the oneness of creation. Such a ritual contributes greatly to Steinbeck's second novel, To A God Unknown, in the person of an old man who lives alone on a cliff overlooking the sea. Every night he watches the sun go down and makes some small sacrifice to it. He waits for the perfect time to offer the ultimate sacrifice of himself, just as the main character, Joseph Wayne, will sacrifice himself to the land for rain at the end of the book. (pp. 266-67)

By far the strongest and most enduring of the talismanic identifications in Steinbeck's fiction is that of men with the land. As a talismanic symbol, land fuses the three main elements of the pattern of identification that I have mentioned: man attaching spiritual value to an object as a means of satisfying some deep and unidentifiable need; man infusing his spirit into his possessions or the objects of his work; and man using the talisman as a vehicle for perceiving and affirming his relatedness to a larger whole. The desire for land is, of course, physical, but it is also talismanic, charged as Ethan Hawley's stone and place are, with more than material or rational significance. (p. 267)

The pattern of talismanic identification is most successful to the characters in Steinbeck's later novels when the sense of relatedness and continuity that it helps them achieve and express becomes organic and is translated, as it is in The Pearl, into a principle of right action in the world. The talisman itself remains necessary primarily as a vehicle and as a sort of emotional prop, something, such as Ethan Hawley's Place, that a man can use to periodically recharge his courage and moral energy. (p. 271)

The transcendence of the talisman that is manifest in The Pearl and Sweet Thursday is prefigured in The Grapes of Wrath in somewhat different terms. Here the talismanic pattern is handled in a far more naturalistic manner and is subsumed within the larger narrative design. One of the major structural devices of The Grapes of Wrath is the movement from a lone individual (Tom) to a group of individuals (Tom, Casey, and Muley) to a family (Tom's reunion with the Joads) to a union of families (Joads and Wilsons) to a community (Weedpatch) to the family of mankind. The center of this movement is the Joad family, and while the family is not a talisman, it nevertheless performs a talismanic function. Like Danny's house in Tortilla Flat it is the vital force that gives form, meaning, and sustenance to the life of the Joads. Unlike Tortilla Flat, however, when the Joad family diffuses, creation does not collapse into chaos. Instead, as in The Pearl, the talismanic pattern leads beyond itself to an awareness of the whole.

The Joad family becomes the family of man. Tom verbalizes this awareness in his parting speech to Ma, and Rosasharon puts his words into action at the end of the novel, as the most intimate and private of family functions becomes an act of relinquishment, of love and compassion for mankind as a whole.

In Steinbeck's other "big" novel, East of Eden, the talismanic pattern is centered in the Cain and Abel story. Here, as in Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck uses an archetypal narrative as the key to his novel. But there is a significant difference: the Arthurian legend simply furnished him with a possible model of the talismanic pattern; in East of Eden Steinbeck conceives of the story itself as having talismanic power. (p. 272)

To many followers of Steinbeck … it has long been evident that beneath their surface diversity his novels contain a unified body of thought. This blend of consistency and versatility also characterizes the talismanic patterns of his novels. In each book the pattern is distinctive; it changes from novel to novel throughout his career, often merging with the larger structural designs of specific books. But as I have suggested, the principle itself has deep roots in Steinbeck's imagination and forms an underlying structural pattern in much of his major fiction. It is not difficult to speculate on the motive behind its extensive use. At the heart of Steinbeck's work is a conviction that the writing most worth doing is that which can penetrate to the sources of human thought and behavior and present in the form of some objective correlative the archetypal and mythopoeic knowledge that lies deep in the mystery of human experience. The talismanic pattern in its various guises is one of these correlatives. (pp. 274-75)

Todd M. Lieber, "Talismanic Patterns in the Novels of John Steinbeck," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1972 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), May, 1972, pp. 262-75.

From as far back as Cup of Gold (1929) to his most recent work, John Steinbeck has shown a proclivity for dealing with people who are searching for a golden land of happiness, the fulfillment of a dream, quests that of course entail an escape both into and away from the past. Indeed, the past in the novels of Steinbeck constantly forms the design not only of rare exotic moments but of those more mundane periods in the daily lives of his people, who are tied to those earlier times that produced them and that gave birth to what has come to be called the American Dream.

Like that first modern American novel of escape, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is not only a book of travel but a novel of escape—as in Tom Joad's instance, from the consequences of his acts; as in the instance of the Joad family, from the conditions and economics of the land; as in the instance of Preacher Casy, from an untenable past with its irreconcilable split between what the preacher is (or becomes) and the tenets he has long preached but now no longer believes in. If Tom Joad is the hero of this novel of escape, he is a hero who shares the characteristics of countless picaresque heroes who so often seem to be fleeing from something that threatens their well-being. But if he shares something of the tradition of the picaresque hero, he shares that tradition with the comic overtones omitted. (p. 95)

Sam Bluefarb, "The Joads: Flight Into the Social Soul," in his The Escape Motif in the American Novel (copyright © 1972 by the Ohio State University Press; all rights reserved), Ohio State University Press, 1972, pp. 94-112.

[Although] Steinbeck had written "Of Mice and Men" as a novel—it was published earlier the same year—he had had the intention from the first of turning it into both a play and a movie. [George S.] Kaufman took over the manuscript of the play while Steinbeck was busy gathering material for the novel that was eventually to become "The Grapes of Wrath." Kaufman was a brilliant director and the ablest play doctor of his time; in that capacity, he set great store by a well-turned, strongly motivated plot. In the present instance, the dialogue is obviously Steinbeck's and the tidy laying out of the scenes owes much to Kaufman.

Styles in playwriting change, and by an irony it may be that to contemporary audiences Kaufman's careful workmanship will seem a mere patness; we tend to like plays to be looser and more open-ended and therefore more ambiguous than they were in the thirties. What allows "Of Mice and Men" to triumph over the neat joins of its manufacture is the extraordinary amount of emotion that continues to reverberate in its lines; after thirty-seven years, their semiliterate simplicities of hope and despair are as touching as ever. Big, simpleminded, affectionate, and inadvertently murderous Lennie and his banty companion and protector, George, are true friends. They are bound together by a love that has scarcely a trace of the sexual in it, save to the extent that everything Lennie loves he must move close to and caress….

Lennie is George's doom, which he accepts in part because he knows that Lennie cannot live without him and in part because love—even poor Lennie's defective love—is precious to him. Year after year, they go on cherishing the dream of someday settling down on a little farm together, where Lennie will raise rabbits. This never-to-be-realized dream is a startlingly precise equivalent of Beckett's never-arriving Godot: in each case, the painful absurd is made bearable by the presumption of an alternative that, though it can be described, doesn't exist. Beckett's icy existential fastidiousness causes him to draw back from the melodrama of any action that would signal "The End," since for him "The End" amounts to an unacceptable artifice. Being at heart a sentimentalist, Steinbeck believes in endings, whether happy or sad. The ending of "Of Mice and Men" is a shocker, and it is no less shocking because we have been anticipating it all evening long.

Brendan Gill, "Recalled to Life," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New York Magazine, Inc.), December 30, 1974, p. 52.

When this play [Of Mice and Men] was first produced in the '30s, the Natural Man enjoyed something of a vogue. Eugene O'Neill's Hairy Ape, Hemingway's grunting heroes and Steinbeck's wretched Okies were the common components of tragedy. But even milestones can erode with the years and weather. Depression America is not Recession America; economic determinism is no longer in literary style. The ranch hands who surround George and Lennie are types rather than characters, and the stagecraft contains all the ungainly devices of yesteryear: the breathless entrances, the lamplit confessionals, the contrived pathos that redeems criminal actions.

Stefan Kanfer, "Brute Strength," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), December 30, 1974, p. 53.

Of Mice and Men … strikes me in retrospect as one of the best pieces of dramatic writing since our country's coming-of-age in the 1920s.

It is something more than a rugged tale of itinerant agricultural workers during the Great Depression. It is a sort of American "legend." There is a mythic simplicity about it. What emerges is not only a sense of the loneliness of American existence, the separation between persons, the lack of brotherhood, our incapacity to fructify our vast continent with the warm blood of fellow feeling, but an inference to the effect that until brawn and brain become one in our land we shall suffer the dumb ache of isolation, a perpetual state of partial being.

It may well be that Steinbeck did not think of his story in these terms, but that is nonetheless what he created. Its moral point lies in the telling. There is no artifice or "aesthetic" design in it; it is rather stark. The mood and meaning spring naturally from the authentic Americanism of the language, the spareness of the character delineation. Even those who do not get the play's "message" as conscious content must be touched by direct contact with the naked material. The play is modest in form and large in emotional implication. (p. 27)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 11, 1975.

In the prewar heyday of sentimental socialism, Of Mice and Men may have seemed lean and forceful; now its mentality appears antiquated, and it depends solely on whatever craft it can muster. But, alas, it is very much of a storyteller's play, proceeding linearly by piling up brief episode on episode, usually by the introduction of a new character and his or her story, or by the mere intensification of plot elements. It does not operate in breadth and depth, as drama must; it does not develop characters by deepening our understanding of their backgrounds, needs, and interplay, but simply pushes them into further and stickier plot situations or recitatives. It is still a much better play than, for example, [such a current success as] All Over Town, but it can no longer ride the crest of a historical wave. (p. 56)

John Simon, "Off Base, Off Color, Off and Running," in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), January 20, 1975, pp. 56-7.

Steinbeck's play [Of Mice and Men] is one of the American best…. I can't imagine a list of, say, Twenty Best that could omit it. The tragic inevitability at which Steinbeck aimed is dimmed by the creakiness of the arrangements. We know with somewhat pleasant ironical foreknowledge in the first scene, when the two friends discuss their plans to have a place of their own, that they will never get it; but Steinbeck ensures the grim ending with the nervous young husband at the ranch and his arbitrarily restless wife. Besides, Lennie's feeblemindedness mitigates the tragedy. He is a "case" on the loose, not a man susceptible to trouble. If he were only slow-witted, instead of defective, there would be some hint of what his life might have been. With the idiot Lennie there are no alternatives.

Still Steinbeck touched some deep American themes, the great myths of the road and of the two male companions. (Snickers in today's audience at the lines about two men traveling together; the ceremony of innocence is drowned.) And there is a strong residue of 19th-century feeling about the land—working on the land is the basic good, owning some of it is salvation. I can't think of another successful American play since 1937 with that feeling, or even one centered on rural work. Because of what has happened since it was written, Of Mice and Men, with its faults unchanged, has become a play about the end of something in America and in American drama. (p. 18)

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 25, 1975.