Steinbeck, John (Vol. 13)
Steinbeck, John 1902–1968
See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 21, 124.
Steinbeck was an American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and essayist. He is best known for his realistic and vivid portrayal of the hardships of the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath, which depicts a group of sharecroppers en route to California. While exposing the ordeal of their poverty, Steinbeck also seeks to affirm the sanctity of life and the unifying, clarifying forces inherent in human suffering. Although he was a popular success, Steinbeck has not enjoyed a consistently favorable critical reception. Critics note that his strong, sympathetic characterizations often lapse into sentimentality, although many find that the strength of his narrative line often compensates for this weakness. Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.
[Mr. Steinbeck's] virtuosity in a purely technical way has tended to obscure his themes. He has published eight volumes of fiction, which represent a variety of forms and which have thereby produced an illusion of having been written from a variety of points of view…. [Attention] has been diverted from the content of Mr. Steinbeck's work by the fact that when his curtain goes up, he always puts on a different kind of show.
Yet there is in Mr. Steinbeck's fiction a substratum which remains constant and which gives it a certain weight. What is constant in Mr. Steinbeck is his preoccupation with biology. He is a biologist in the literal sense that he interests himself in biological research. The biological laboratory in the short story called The Snake is obviously something which he knows at first hand and for which he has a strong special feeling; and it is one of the peculiarities of his vocabulary that it runs to biological terms. But the laboratory described in The Snake, the tight little building above the water, where the scientist feeds white rats to rattlesnakes and fertilizes starfish ova, is also one of the key images of his fiction. It is the symbol of Mr. Steinbeck's tendency to present human life in animal terms.
Mr. Steinbeck almost always in his fiction is dealing either with the lower animals or with humans so rudimentary that they are almost on the animal level; and the relations between...
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Steinbeck's approach to the novel was interesting because he seemed to stand apart at a time when naturalism had divided writers into two mutually exclusive groups, since the negation of its starved and stunted spirit came more and more from writers who often had no sympathy with realism at all, and were being steadily pulled in the direction of surrealism and abstractionism…. (p. 393)
Steinbeck, standing apart from both the contemporary naturalists and the new novel of sensibility that one finds in Faulkner and Wolfe, brought a fresh note into contemporary fiction because he promised a realism less terror-ridden than the depression novel, yet one consciously responsible to society; a realism mindful of the terror and disorganization of contemporary life, but not submissive to the spiritual stupor of the time; a realism equal in some measure, if only in its aspiration, to the humanity, the gaiety, the wholeness, of realism in a more stable period…. Steinbeck is a greater humanist [than Farrell], and there is a poetry in some of his best work, particularly The Long Valley stories and The Pastures of Heaven, that naturalists of Farrell's stamp have never been able to conceive. But there is something imperfectly formed about Steinbeck's work; it has no creative character. For all his moral serenity, the sympathetic understanding of men under strain that makes a strike novel like In Dubious Battle so notable in the...
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John S. Kennedy
[Steinbeck's] first nine works were markedly different one from another in matter and tone and style. He shifted sharply and with a show of ease from costume drama to fantasy at once earthy and lyric to knockabout farce to abrasive naturalism to argument none too successfully disguised as narrative, proving that he could do more or less creditably in a number of fictional forms, even if in none did he demonstrate the mastery and finesse of indisputable greatness.
But though his books might show contrast in form, pace and diction, they inevitably had certain things in common. For example, binding together the now rather extensive body of novels, short stories, sketches, plays, is the California setting, and specifically the Salinas Valley setting, of most of his productions. (p. 119)
Far more important than the common scene in Steinbeck is the common theme. Something of the sort is discernible, of course, in the output of any writer, however many-sided. In Steinbeck's case the common theme may be called "reverence for life."… Steinbeck's preoccupation with life and living is perhaps the main reason for his popularity and influence.
Dozens of his contemporaries write consistently better than he, with greater subtlety and polish, greater depth and force. He can produce pages of beauty and impact, preceded and followed by pages of sheer trash, the emptiness of which is only accentuated by the...
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T. A. Shippey
It is when Steinbeck abandons caution [in The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights] that he contributes most to the Arthurian tradition. In the early sections on Merlin, Balin and Balan, the feud with Morgan le Fay, he is often translating Malory closely…. As a result the modernisms show up.
The opening of the Arthurian story, though tidied and expounded, does not grip one's affections. When Malory starts to flag, however, Steinbeck takes over. The tale of Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt's involvement with the young, the old, and the middle-aged ladies is, in Malory, dull. Gawain shows the worst side of his character in philandering with Ettarde, Marhalt copes relaxedly with a giant, Ewain wins a two-against-one bout, and the ladies do nothing. To this Steinbeck adds suddenly and out of his own head the most compelling of twentieth-century thriller themes—professionalism, expertise, training. The elderly lady who takes Ewain over, it transpires, is the greatest coach there ever was, and she puts him through a crash course described in loving detail, wrinkle by wrinkle.
It is when his lady starts making remarks about weight and burst buttons that he sends for his questing gear. The effects are comic in detail, sombre in implication: distinctively of this century, and so in the spirit of all the other Arthurians who have, century by century, taken what significance they wanted from the matter they loved. It is...
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