John Steinbeck John Steinbeck American Literature Analysis

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John Steinbeck American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold, is not much like his later work in theme, setting, or style, it supplies hints of themes that were to pervade his later work. The book is much influenced stylistically by the medieval legends with which Steinbeck had become familiar during his boyhood. The protagonist of the book, Henry Morgan, is a brigand, a rugged individualist who is as much a nonconformist as Danny is in Tortilla Flat. Those two protagonists, from two drastically different backgrounds, would have understood each other and sympathized with the other’s outlook.

In his second and third books, The Pastures of Heaven and To a God Unknown, Steinbeck discovered the direction that most of his future novels would take. He wrote about the central California agricultural areas in which he had grown up, and, in the latter book, he also experimented with symbolism stimulated by his early reading of medieval literature. The characters in these books are memorable as individuals, but they clearly represent universal types as well.

As promising as The Pastures of Heaven was, it was not a commercial success. The beginning of Steinbeck’s widespread national acceptance came with Tortilla Flat, which might not have been published at all had Covici not read Steinbeck’s two preceding books and been favorably impressed by them. In Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck transplants the medieval legend of King Arthur and his knights to the Monterey Peninsula, where Danny and his jolly band of paisanos lead lives of immediate gratification and satisfaction.

The eastern establishment that essentially dominated literary criticism at that time did not always know how to handle Steinbeck’s setting—California was the last frontier to the New York critics of the day—and many of them were appalled at the frivolousness and irresponsibility of Steinbeck’s characters in the book. What shocked them most, however, was that Steinbeck made no value judgments about his characters. Rather, he presented them and let his readers make of them what they might.

The public accepted Danny and his boys because they represented to an economically depressed society an escape from the constraints that society had placed on many of its citizens. Danny and company lived outside those constraints. In Tortilla Flat, one finds the quintessential Steinbeck, the Steinbeck flexing his muscles before writing his great classic, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s greatest strength was his understanding and respectful depiction of people on the fringes of society.

It is important to remember that Steinbeck is not one with the people about whom he writes. He embraces them appreciatively, not with the sense that he wants to be one of them, but with a genuine respect for them as they are. In his best work, it is this disinterested, objective, yet warm presentation that entices readers. If one thinks in terms of dichotomies, American novelist Henry James would be at one extreme in depicting human beings, Steinbeck at the other.

This explains, in part, Steinbeck’s frequent rejection by the critics. The professionals who wrote about his work had essentially been brought up in the Jamesian tradition; they had lived their lives either in the eastern establishment or outside it trying to break in. Steinbeck disoriented and threatened some of them. As a result, his writing has not received the serious and objective critical evaluation it deserves.

If Danny and his boys are a sort of lost generation transplanted to the central California coast—and they do at times put one in mind of the characters in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) in that they are searching for the same universal answers that Hemingway’s characters are. They are also prototypes for characters such as George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Kino in The Pearl, and others who live on the fringes of society.

Steinbeck’s visit to a migrant workers’ camp in 1937 helped to focus his energies...

(The entire section is 5,361 words.)