Study Guide

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck Essay - Steinbeck, John (Vol. 21)

Steinbeck, John (Vol. 21)

Introduction

John Steinbeck 1902–1968

American novelist, short story writer, playwright, nonfiction writer, journalist, and screenwriter. See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 13, 124.

Steinbeck's novels of the common people and the troubles that beset them have earned him the reputation as one of America's greatest writers. He has employed various forms, from short story to allegory to morality play, yet his approach is consistently realistic. Critics often feel that the realism is marred by his sentimentality, but Steinbeck's clear, forceful writing and his sensitive treatment of his characters are considered his strengths.

Steinbeck often used religious motifs to universalize his work. The Eden theme and the Cain and Abel story are predominant in East of Eden. The Grapes of Wrath relies on a combination of Old and New Testament symbols for its emotional impact. Steinbeck's work also reveals a preoccupation with biological relationships and patterns, an interest promoted by his friendship with the marine biologist Edward Ricketts. Steinbeck discerned parallels between animal and human life that he believed could produce a better understanding of human behavior. An accurate observation of the land and its inhabitants resulted from Steinbeck's interest in science.

Steinbeck was impressed with the Arthurian legends and contended that Tortilla Flat was written as a modern-day example of the Knights of the Round Table. However, some critics have difficulty finding the Arthurian theme in the book. Steinbeck later began translating Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur into more accessible, contemporary language. The incomplete work was published posthumously as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. It was received with great enthusiasm; critics praised Steinbeck's use of language in this book as the best of his career.

The social outcast is a prevalent character in Steinbeck's work. In Cannery Row Steinbeck infuses a group of these characters with a dignity and nobility that makes it possible for the reader to like them in spite of their irresponsible ways. The working class is also represented in Steinbeck's novels, especially in In Dubious Battle. Here Steinbeck attempts to present an objective view of illegal strikes and shows genuine concern for the workers not only as employees, but also as people.

The Grapes of Wrath, an accurate and moving account of the mass migration during the American Depression, is probably Steinbeck's best-known novel. Here again he attacks social injustice, but there are several other essential themes. Along with traditional religious beliefs, Steinbeck explores the implications of the transcendentalist belief that each person is a part of the over-soul and that individual actions cannot be interpreted as right or wrong. The family as a source of strength to its members and the community as a whole is another important theme of the book. The Joad family is a universal symbol for the need for group effort and support to accomplish the greater good for the greater number of people.

Steinbeck is remembered primarily as a writer who was unafraid to denounce the faults of individuals and society as he saw them. His sympathetic portrayal of the proletariat endears Steinbeck to readers of every generation, and the skill with which he wrote has earned him a place among America's most important writers. Steinbeck was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, 9, 13, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed., and Something About the Author, Vol. 9.)

Louis Paul

The weeds and the willows and the tall waving grain of California's sweet valleys, rabbits and mice and a woman's soft hair, the hot slanting sun and the hungry desire of a pair of floaters to own a handful of dirt are the materials out of which this lovely new novel by John Steinbeck is evoked. Purling water is purling water here, without overtones; a gracious sky is as beautiful as in any lyric poetry. The men are lads sent down to the ranch from Murray and Ready's in San Francisco: Lennie, like Nature itself, whose powerful fingers killed little animals before he knew it, and George, struggling to become human. "Of Mice and Men" is another of John Steinbeck's parables of earth, and no writer I know shapes the soil into truer patterns for us to understand.

In "Pastures of Heaven" this dream had its first fruition. A tapestry whose threads were woven from the design the lives of the men and women of a fertile valley created in the author's imagination, these stories are unforgettable. A prose that seemed made of wind and weather and growing acres came alive in them. "To a God Unknown" continued Steinbeck's inner examination of earth, when a tree and a mossy rock and the silent fury of a drought murdered the fragile human figures. And then, because Nature is anything but monotonous, this versatile novelist went down into Monterey, bought himself a "balloon" of claret, made the acquaintance of Danny and his paisano pals, and decided to recount the adventures and achievements of Pilon, Pablo, Big Joe and Company in "Tortilla Flat." Again when the fun of living with the childlike was done, the writer presented for our information, in "In Dubious Battle," what is unquestionably the most important study of strike technique to find its way on paper in this nation.

These works have been called dissimilar. Versatile, perhaps; in a day when success has the tendency to standardize, versatility in a novelist or any one else is thought of with some astonishment. The threads that run continuously through these stories by John Steinbeck are, under examination, more than perceptible…. Here … is an intelligence as explicit as...

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Carlos Baker

"The Wayward Bus" may confidently be taken as a twentieth-century parable on the state of man. Although Steinbeck is not quite so insistent on his moral as Jonathan Swift, the underlying conception in what he has to say was succinctly summarized by the King of Brobdingnag in "Gulliver's Travels": "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." Steinbeck's moral is therefore hardly new, and it has been occasionally exploited in our own day by such artists as John O'Hara and such polemicists as Philip Wylie. But in recent years the subject has rarely received so searching a treatment as Steinbeck gives it. Both because of the richness of its texture and the solidity of its structure, this new novel, unlike many parables, makes good reading. And it might even be good for one's soul.

The wayward bus is an ancient, aluminum-colored conveyance which serves the public as connecting link between two great arterial highways in central California. But its chief importance is that it serves Steinbeck as a vehicle of thought and action. He assembles in it eight members of his cast, carefully graded as to age and sex, and sends them talking and fighting across the forty-nine miles of rain-sodden and flood-swept country which lies between Juan Chicoy's lunchroom-filling station at a crossroads named (perhaps significantly) Rebel Corners and a point within eye-shot of the lights of a town called (perhaps significantly) San Juan de la Cruz….

Steinbeck makes the bus ride an excuse for a long look at the internal substance of his characters. What he finds beneath the skin will not cause [readers] to jump out of theirs, but it may well cause them to squirm in their chairs at the partial but painful truth of Steinbeck's implied conclusions.

The passengers in the bus are none of the pleasantest, possibly because Steinbeck examines their respective constitutions with such meticulous care and clinical...

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Mark Schorer

Probably the best of John Steinbeck's novels, "East of Eden," is long but not "big," and anyone who, deceived by its spread in space and time (c. 1860–1920), says that it is "epical in its sweep," is merely in the usual grip of cliché. Its dramatic center is a narrow story of social horror that rests quite disarmingly on the proposition that "there are monsters born in the world to human parents." But through the exercise of a really rather remarkable freedom of his rights as a novelist, Mr. Steinbeck weaves in, and more particularly around, this story of prostitution a fantasia of history and of myth that results in a strange and original work of art.

"East of Eden" is different from any of the earlier Steinbeck novels. It is, in a sense, more amorphous, less intent on singleness of theme and effect….

Mr. Steinbeck's tightly constructed short novels, in fact, and even such longer work as "The Grapes of Wrath," have given us no preparation for this amplitude of treatment that enables him now to develop, within this single work, not only a number of currents of story, but a number of different modes of tracing them….

[The] novelist reconstructs the history of his maternal grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, who came to the Salinas Valley in about 1870 with his wife, and there produced a brood of children. From the history of Samuel Hamilton, which, although it is a story of economic failure is also a sunny and exhilarating account of a rich and various family life set against the rigorous background of a recalcitrant land, we move into the dark and violent story of Adam Trask.

In about 1900, Trask arrives in Salinas with a strange and very pretty wife. His own home was a Connecticut farm which he could not share with his brother, Charles, the Cain to Adam's Abel, and when he finds the girl, Cathy, beaten nearly to death on his doorstep, he nurses her back to health,...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Martin Shockley

I propose an interpretation of The Grapes of Wrath in which [Jim] Casy represents a contemporary adaptation of the Christ image, and in which the meaning of the book is revealed through a sequence of Christian symbols.

Before and after The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck has used symbolism and allegory; throughout his work he has considered a wide range of Christian or neo-Christian ideas; in relation to the context of his fiction as a whole, Christian symbolism is common. His use of Biblical names, for instance, is an inviting topic yet to be investigated. The Pearl is an obvious allegory on the evil of worldly treasure. The Pirate in Tortilla Flat exemplifies a Steinbeck...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)

Elizabeth Janeway

[This "fabrication," "The Short Reign of Pippin IV,"] is a froth of a book which must have been great fun to write. In addition, it is one of the purest expressions of true, simple, American affection for the French that has ever been written—compounded with our equally simple conviction that they are also, after all, a funny race.

Mr. Steinbeck's hero is Pippin Arnulf Héristal, a middle-aged amateur astronomer….

The unfolding of M. Héristal's story is directed not by anything he has done, but by something that he is: in his veins flows the blood of Charlemagne…. Thus, when sometime in the near future a French government expires into slightly more than normal anarchy, and...

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Dan Vogel

More than a mere allegory, "Flight" reveals characteristics of myth and tragedy. A myth is a story that tries to explain some practice, belief, institution, or natural phenomenon, and is especially associated with religious rites and beliefs. The natural phenomenon, for Steinbeck, is not the facts of nature, with which historical myths deal; rather, it is … the development of innocent childhood into disillusioned manhood. The myth that Steinbeck wrought also contains another quality of myth, the rite. The plot of "Flight" narrates symbolically the ritual: the escape from the Mother, the divestiture of the Father, and the death and burial of Childhood. To discern these mythic symbols, it is necessary to review the...

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Eric F. Goldman

Shortly after Labor Day, 1960, Steinbeck left his Long Island home for a swing around the United States.

Three months and 10,000 miles later the 58-year-old novelist was back, physically and emotionally exhausted. But it was all decidedly worth the effort. The resulting book ["Travels with Charley"] is pure delight, a pungent potpourri of places and people interspersed with bittersweet essays on everything from the emotional difficulties of growing old to the reasons why giant Sequoias arouse such awe….

He traveled accompanied only by his aged French poodle, Charley. The poodle is wonderful. Charley takes over a good deal of the book, the ambassadeur extraordinaire between...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Harry Morris

[Nothing] more clearly indicates the allegorical nature of [The Pearl] as it developed in Steinbeck's mind from the beginning [as the various titles attached to the work—The Pearl of the World and The Pearl of La Paz]. Although the city of La Paz may be named appropriately in the title since the setting for the action is in and around that place, the Spanish word provides a neat additional bit of symbolism, if in some aspects ironic. In its working title, the novel tells the story of The Pearl of Peace. When this title was changed to The Pearl of the World for magazine publication, although the irony was partially lost, the allegorical implications were still present. But Steinbeck had...

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Joseph Fontenrose

In the fall of 1937, while returning from New York and Pennsylvania, where he had worked on the stage version of Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck drove through Oklahoma, joined migrants who were going west, and worked with them in the fields after they reached California. The Grapes of Wrath is thus a product of his own experience and direct observation; its realism is genuine. (p. 68)

[The] story ends in medias res. Some readers have objected to the closing scene, in which the young mother who lost her child suckles a grown man. The episode not only has folkloristic and literary antecedents …, but for Steinbeck it is an oracular image, forecasting in a moment of defeat and despair...

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Bruce K. Martin

Two very basic questions about ["The Leader of the People"] upon which its critics have been unable to agree are the identity of the main character and the nature of the change or development, if any, which he undergoes. (p. 423)

There is, of course, much to be said for Grandfather's importance in the story. His arrival at the ranch precipitates at least indirectly all of the important subsequent action. Also, the nature of each of the other characters is in large part determined by his response to Grandfather, since the old man is the common object of interest for Jody, his parents, and Billy. Nor can there be any question but that Grandfather's remarks to Jody after overhearing Carl's...

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William Goldhurst

Of Mice and Men is a short novel in six scenes presented in description-dialogue-action form that approximates stage drama in its effect…. The time scheme runs from Thursday evening through Sunday evening—exactly three days in sequence, a matter of some importance, as we shall see presently. The setting is the Salinas Valley in California, and most of the characters are unskilled migratory workers who drift about the villages and ranches of that area picking up odd jobs or doing short-term field work and then moving on to the next place of employment. Steinbeck focuses on two such laborers who dream of one day saving up enough money to buy a small farm of their own. (p. 124)

The title of...

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Peter Lisca

In one of the little essays Steinbeck did for the Saturday Review in 1955, "Some thoughts on Juvenile Delinquency," he writes as follows concerning the relationship of the individual to the society in which he lives: "… I believe that man is a double thing—a group animal and at the same time an individual. And it occurs to me that he cannot successfully be the second until he has fulfilled the first." The nice organic relationship which Steinbeck here postulates near the end of his writing career is seldom to be met in his fiction. Much more frequently we are presented with characters who choose one of two extremes—either to reject society's demands and escape into individualism, or to reject...

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Leo Gurko

Of the great religions, Manicheism generates the most suspense. In it, the contending principles of good and evil, God and Satan, light and darkness, soul and body are so evenly matched that for long periods darkness is actually triumphant over light. In Christianity, the rebellious angels rise up but are easily defeated in battle and contemptuously cast down into hell. One never gets the impression that Satan is a serious threat to God or that he has any real chance of prevailing. In Manicheism, he is not only a serious threat but for a time he actually does prevail. When God sends his agent, Primal Man, to put down darkness, Primal Man is defeated in battle and taken prisoner. Particles of light are captured by the...

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Mark Spilka

A minor classic of proletarian conflict, Of Mice and Men was written in 1937, first as a novel, then as a play….

The sycamore grove by the Salinas River, so lovingly described in the opening lines, is more than scene-setting: it is an attempt to evoke the sense of freedom in nature which, for a moment only, the protagonists will enjoy. By a path worn hard by boys and hobos two migrant laborers appear. The first man is mouse-like…. He is the planner from the poem by Robert Burns: as with other mice and men, his best arrangements will often go astray. (p. 170)

The nearest town is Soledad, which means "lonely place" in Spanish; the town where they last worked, digging a...

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John Gardner

When John Steinbeck was at work on his "The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights" in the middle and late 1950's, he hoped it would be "the best work of my life and the most satisfying." Even in its original form, the project was enormous—translation of the complete "Morte d'Arthur" of Sir Thomas Malory; and the project soon became still more difficult, not translation but a complete retelling—rethinking—of the myth. Steinbeck finished only some 293 uncorrected, unedited pages, perhaps one-tenth of the original. Even so, the book Steinbeck's friend and editor Chase Horton has put together is large and important. It is in fact two books, Steinbeck's mythic fiction on King Arthur's court, and a fat, rich...

(The entire section is 658 words.)

Robert Murray Davis

Steinbeck critics have either ignored "The Murder," refusing it even the attention of condemnation, or treated it very gingerly because on the surface it is an enormously disturbing story with a theme and action seemingly allied to the John Wayne mystique that only a dominated woman and a dominant man will be happy together.

Quite short, the story can be summarized still more briefly. After the death of his parents, Jim Moore marries and brings to his California valley ranch Jelka Sepic, repudiating her immigrant father's advice to beat her regularly in order to make her a proper wife…. One evening as he is going to town he meets a neighbor coming to inform him about the butchering of one of his...

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PAUL McCARTHY

Like William Faulkner and Willa Cather, John Steinbeck wrote his best fiction about the region in which he grew up and the people he knew from boyhood….

Far more extensive than Faulkner's county or Cather's homeland, the Steinbeck territory covers thousands of square miles in central California, particularly in the Long Valley, which extends south of Salinas, Steinbeck's hometown, for over one hundred miles and lies between the Gabilan Mountains on the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains along the Pacific coast. (p. 23)

In the territory appear Mexicans, Spanish, and Chinese, as well as German, Irish, and English; not only ranchers and farmers but also migrant workers, community...

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Barbara B. Reitt

John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (1962), recounting his trip across the United States with his dog in a custom-made camper, was enormously popular. The book's many readers liked his anecdotal sentimentality. The dog with the crossed front teeth and bourgeois name made poodlehood forgivable, and the author avoided profound criticism of the country, lacing his account with vivid descriptions of the landscape and a variety of American characters. Travels is a collage that millions of Americans found to be pleasant, casual reading….

Though Travels is one of [Steinbeck's] potboilers, ignoring it is a critical mistake, for both the circumstances surrounding its composition and...

(The entire section is 1444 words.)