John Steinbeck’s last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, had its origins in a short story Steinbeck first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1956, entitled “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank.” More than one critic has noted the story’s clarity and narrative drive. The basic plot is meshed, though somewhat awkwardly, with the broader events surrounding Ethan Allen Hawley’s “temptation” and “fall.” The novel centers on Ethan as a basically honest man whose fall into corruption is paradigmatic of the moral disease of society as a whole. The time of the novel, 1960, was a time of public scandals in America, including a quiz show fraud and cases of payola and other forms of venality. Steinbeck obviously believed that the materialism of American society had weakened the moral fiber of even basically good men such as Ethan. During the late 1950’s, in fact, Steinbeck wrote letters to Adlai Stevenson, then a senator and presidential candidate, and United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, among others, in which he lamented America’s pursuit of “Things.” He was fearful, he wrote, that his sons would not understand the ways of virtue and courage in an age of treachery and deceit.
Such basic pessimism, first notable in Steinbeck’s work after 1945, is the formative principle of the novel. The corruption is so pervasive as even to reach Ethan’s son Allen, who seeks the easy way to success because “everybody does...
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