John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Steinbeck remains a writer of the 1930’s, perhaps the American writer of the 1930’s. Although his first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929, its derivative lost-generation posturing gives little indication of the masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, he would publish at the end of the next decade. Steinbeck developed from a Romantic, imitative, often sentimental apprentice to a realistic, objective, and accomplished novelist in only a decade. The reasons for this change can be found in the interplay between a sensitive writer and his cultural background.

A writer of great talent, sensitivity, and imagination, Steinbeck entered into the mood of the country in the late 1930’s with an extraordinary responsiveness. The Depression had elicited a reevaluation of American culture, a reassessment of the American Dream: a harsh realism of observation balanced by a warm emphasis on human dignity. Literature and the other arts joined social, economic, and political thought in contrasting traditional American ideals with the bleak reality of breadlines and shantytowns. Perhaps the major symbol of dislocation was the Dust Bowl; the American garden became a wasteland from which its dispossessed farmers fled. The arts in the 1930’s focused on these harsh images and tried to find in them the human dimensions that promised a new beginning.

The proletarian novel, documentary photography, and the documentary film stemmed from similar impulses; the radical novel put more emphasis on the inhuman conditions of the dislocated, while the films made more of the promising possibilities for a new day. Painting, music, and theater all responded to a new humanistic and realistic thrust. The best balance was struck by documentary photographers and filmmakers: Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein in photography; Pare Lorentz, Willard Van Dyke, and Herbert Kline in film. As a novelist, Steinbeck shared this documentary impulse, and it refined his art.

In Dubious Battle

In Dubious Battle tells the harsh story of a violent agricultural strike in the Torgas Valley from the viewpoint of two Communist agitators. Careful and objective in his handling of the material, the mature Steinbeck provided almost a factual case study of a strike. In a letter, he indicated that this was his conscious intention: I had an idea that I was going to write the autobiography of a Communist. Then Miss McIntosh [Steinbeck’s agent] suggested I reduce it to fiction. There lay the trouble. I had planned to write a journalistic account of a strike. But as I thought of it as fiction the thing got bigger and biggerI have used a small strike in an orchard valley as the symbol of man’s eternal, bitter warfare with himself.

For the first time, Steinbeck was able to combine his ambition to write great moral literature with his desire to chronicle his time and place.

Significantly, the novel takes its title from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) in which the phrase is used to describe the struggle between God and Satan, but it takes its subject from the newspapers and newsreels of the 1930’s. The underlying structure demonstrates the universal struggle of good and evil, of human greed and selfishness versus human generosity and idealism. Jim, theprotagonist killed at the conclusion, is obviously a Christ figure, an individual who has sacrificed himself for the group. Here, Steinbeck needs no overblown symbolic actions to support his theme. He lets his contemporary story tell itself realistically and in documentary fashion. In a letter, he later described his method in the novel: “I wanted to be merely a recording consciousness, judging nothing, simply putting down the thing.” This objective, dispassionate, almost documentary realism separates In Dubious Battle from his earlier fiction and announces the beginning of Steinbeck’s major period.

Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men was written in 1935 and 1936 and first published as a novel in 1937 at the height of the...

(The entire section is 3,149 words.)