illustrated portrait of American author John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck Long Fiction Analysis

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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...

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separatesIn 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 Depression. Steinbeck constructed the book around dramatic scenes so that he could easily rewrite it for the stage, which he did with the help of George S. Kaufmann. The play opened late in 1937, with Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as Lennie. A film version, directed by Lewis Milestone, appeared in 1939. The success of the play and film spurred sales of the novel and created a wide audience for Steinbeck’s next book, The Grapes of Wrath.

Like his classic story of the Okie migration from the Dust Bowl to the promised land of California, Of Mice and Men is a dramatic presentation of the persistence of the American Dream and the tragedy of its failure. His characters are the little people, the uncommon “common people,” disoriented and dispossessed by modern life yet still yearning for a little piece of land, that little particle of the Jeffersonian ideal. Lennie is the symbol of this visceral, inarticulate land-hunger, while George becomes the poet of this romantic vision. How their dream blossoms and then dies is Steinbeck’s dramatic subject; how their fate represents that of America in the 1930’s and after becomes his theme. His title, an allusion to the Scottish poet Robert Burns, suggests that the best laid plans “of mice and men often gang a-gley”; so the American vision had gone astray in the Depression decade Steinbeck documented so movingly and realistically.

The Red Pony

The Red Pony involves the maturation of Jody Tiflin, a boy about ten years old when the action opens. The time is about 1910, and the setting is the Tiflin ranch in the Salinas Valley, where Jody lives with his father, Carl; his mother, Ruth; and the hired hand, a middle-aged cowboy named Billy Buck. From time to time, they are visited by Jody’s grandfather, a venerable old man who led one of the first wagon trains to California. “The Gift,” the first section of the novel, concerns Jody’s red pony, which he names Gabilan, after the nearby mountain range. The pony soon becomes a symbol of the boy’s growing maturity and his developing knowledge of the natural world. Later, he carelessly leaves the pony out in the rain, and it takes cold and dies, despite Billy Buck’s efforts to save it. Thus, Jody learns of nature’s cruel indifference to human wishes.

In the second part, “The Great Mountains,” the Tiflin ranch is visited by a former resident, Gitano, an aged Chicano laborer reared in the now vanished hacienda. Old Gitano has come home to die. In a debate that recalls Frost’s poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” Carl persuades Ruth that they cannot take Old Gitano in, but—as in Frost’s poem—their dialogue proves pointless. Stealing a broken-down horse significantly named Easter, the old man rides off into the mountains to die in dignity. Again, Jody is faced with the complex, harsh reality of adult life.

In “The Promise,” the third section, Jody learns more of nature’s ambiguous promises when his father has one of the mares put to stud to give the boy another colt. The birth is complicated, however, and Billy Buck must kill the mare to save the colt, demonstrating that life and death are inextricably intertwined. The final section, “The Leader of the People,” ends the sequence with another vision of death and change. Jody’s grandfather comes to visit, retelling his timeworn stories of the great wagon crossing. Carl cruelly hurts the old man by revealing that none of them except Jody is really interested in these repetitious tales. The grandfather realizes that Carl is right, but later he tells Jody that the adventurous stories were not the point, but that his message was “Westering” itself. For the grandfather, Westering was the source of American identity. With the close of the frontier, Westering has ended, and the rugged Westerners have been replaced by petty landholders such as Carl and aging cowboys such as Billy Buck. In his grandfather’s ramblings, Jody discovers a sense of mature purpose, and by the conclusion of the sequence, he too can hope to be a leader of the people.

The Red Pony traces Jody’s initiation into adult life with both realism and sensitivity, a balance that Steinbeck did not always achieve. The vision of the characters caught up in the harsh world of nature is balanced by their deep human concerns and commitments. The evocation of the ranch setting in its vital beauty is matched only in the author’s finest works, such as Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s symbols grow naturally out of this setting, and nothing in the story-sequence seems forced into a symbolic pattern, as in his later works. In its depiction of an American variation on a universal experience, The Red Pony deserves comparison with the finest of modern American fiction, especially with initiation tales such as William Faulkner’s The Bear (1942) and Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories.

Responding to a variety of social and artistic influences, Steinbeck’s writing had evolved toward documentary realism throughout the 1930’s. In fiction, this development is especially clear in the works In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Long Valley. Even more obvious was the movement of his nonfiction toward a committed documentation of the social ills plaguing America during the Depression decade. Steinbeck’s newspaper and magazine writing offered detailed accounts of social problems, particularly the plight of migrant agricultural workers in California’s fertile valleys. The culmination of this development was Their Blood Is Strong (1938), a compilation of reports originally written for the San Francisco News and published with additional text by Steinbeck and photographs by Lange originally made for the U.S. Farm Security Administration (FSA).

The Grapes of Wrath

It is significant that Steinbeck first conceived of The Grapes of Wrath as just such a documentary book. In March, 1938, Steinbeck went into the California valleys with a Life magazine photographer to make a record of the harsh conditions in the migrant camps. The reality he encountered seemed too significant for nonfiction, however, and Steinbeck began to reshape this material as a novel, an epic novel.

Although his first tentative attempts at fictionalizing the situation in the agricultural valleys were heavily satiric, as indicated by the early title L’Affaire Lettuceberg, Steinbeck soon realized that the Okie migration was the stuff of an American epic. Reworking his material, adding to it by research in government agency files and by more journeys into the camps and along the migrant routes, Steinbeck evolved his vision. A grand design emerged; he would follow one family from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California. Perhaps this methodology was suggested by the sociological case histories of the day, perhaps by the haunted faces of individual families that stared back at him as he researched in FSA files.

In discussing his plans for his later documentary film, The Forgotten Village (1941), Steinbeck remarked that most documentaries concerned large groups of people but that audiences could identify better with individuals. In The Grapes of Wrath, he made one family representative of general conditions. The larger groups and problems he treated in short interchapters that generalized the issues particularized in the Joad family. Perhaps the grand themes of change and movement were suggested by the documentary films of Lorentz (later a personal friend), The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938), with their panoramic geographical and historical visions. Drawing an archetypal theme from Sir Thomas Malory, John Bunyan, John Milton, and the Bible—the ultimate source of his pervasive religious symbolism—Steinbeck made the journey of the Joads into an allegorical pilgrimage as well as a desperate race along Route 66. During this journey, the Joad family disintegrates, but the larger human family emerges. Tom Joad makes a pilgrim’s progress from a narrow, pessimistic view to a transcendental vision of American possibilities. The novel ends on a note of hope for a new American Dream.

The Grapes of Wrath was a sensational best seller from the beginning. Published to generally favorable reviews in March, 1939, it was selling at the rate of more than twenty-five hundred copies a day two months later. Controversy helped spur sales. As part documentary, its factual basis was subject to close scrutiny, and many critics challenged Steinbeck’s material. Oklahomans resented the presentation of the Joads as typical of the state (many still do), while Californians disapproved of the depiction of their state’s leading industry. The book was attacked, banned, burned—but everywhere it was read. Even in the migrant camps, it was considered an accurate picture of the conditions experienced there. Some 430,000 copies were sold in a year; in 1940, the novel received the Pulitzer Prize and the Award of the American Booksellers Association (later the National Book Award).

Naturally, all the excitement attracted the attention of Hollywood, even though the controversy over the novel seemed to preclude a film version, or at least a faithful film version. Nevertheless, Darryl F. Zanuck produced and John Ford directed a faithful adaptation starring Henry Fonda in 1940; the film, like the novel, has become a classic, and it gave Steinbeck’s vision of America in the 1930’s even wider currency.

Indeed, Steinbeck’s best work was filmic in the best sense of that word—visual, realistic, objective. These qualities nicely balanced the allegorical and romantic strains inherent in his earlier fiction. During World War II, however, his work, much to its detriment, began to cater to the film industry. In fact, much of his postwar writing seems to have found its inspiration in Hollywood versions of his work. His own screen adaptation of an earlier story, The Red Pony, proves a sentimentalized reproduction of the original. Still, he was occasionally capable of recapturing his earlier vision, particularly in his works about Mexico—The Pearl and Viva Zapata!

The Pearl

Mexico always had been an important symbolic place for Steinbeck. As a native Californian, he had been aware of his state’s Mexican heritage. Even as a boy, he sought out Chicano companions, fascinated by their unconcern for the pieties of white culture; he also befriended Mexican field hands at the ranches where he worked during his college summers. Later, his first literary success, Tortilla Flat, grew from his involvement with the paisanos of Monterey, people who would today be called Chicanos.

For Steinbeck, Mexico was everything modern America was not; it possessed a primitive vitality, a harsh simplicity, and a romantic beauty—all of which are found in The Pearl. Mexico exhibits the same qualities in the works of other modern writers such as Malcolm Lowry, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene, Hart Crane, and Katherine Anne Porter. All of them lived and worked there for some time, contrasting the traditional culture they discovered in Mexico with the emptiness of the modern world. Steinbeck also was fascinated by a Mexico still alive with social concern. The continued extension of the revolution into the countryside had been his subject in The Forgotten Village, and it would be developed further in Viva Zapata! For Steinbeck, Mexico represented the purity of artistic and social purposes that he had lost after World War II.

This sense of the writer’s personal involvement energizes The Pearl, making it Steinbeck’s best work of fiction in the years following the success of The Grapes of Wrath. At the beginning of the novella, the storyteller states, “If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it.” The critics have read Steinbeck’s short novel in a number of ways, but strangely enough, they have not considered it as a parable of the author’s own career in the postwar period. Much like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952), The Pearl uses the life of a simple fisherman to investigate symbolically an aging artist’s difficult maturation.

Steinbeck was presented with the tale during his Sea of Cortez expedition in 1940. In his log, he recounts “an event which happened at La Paz in recent years.” The story matches the basic outline of The Pearl, though Steinbeck made several major changes, changes significant in an autobiographical sense. In the original, the Mexican fisherman was a devil-may-care bachelor; in The Pearl, he becomes the sober young husband and father, Kino. Steinbeck himself had just become a father for the first time when he wrote the novella, and this change provides a clue to the autobiographical nature of the parable. The original bachelor thought the pearl a key to easy living; Kino sees it creating a better way of life for the people through an education for his baby son, Coyotito. If the child could read and write, then he could set his family and his people free from the social and economic bondage in which they toil. Kino is ignorant of the dangers of wealth, and The Pearl is the tale of how he matures by coming to understand them. Steinbeck, too, matured from his youthful innocence as he felt the pressures of success.

As in his best fiction of the 1930’s Steinbeck fuses his universal allegory with documentary realism. Perhaps planning ahead for a screenplay, Steinbeck’s prose in the novel often takes a cinematic point of view. Scenes are presented in terms of establishing shots, medium views, and close-ups. In particular, Steinbeck carefully examines the natural setting, often visually contrasting human behavior with natural phenomena. As in his best fiction, his naturalistic vision is inherent in the movement of his story; there is no extraneous philosophizing.

Steinbeck’s characters in The Pearl are real people in a real world, but they are also universal types. Kino, the fisherman named for an early Jesuit explorer; Juana, his wife; and Coyotito, their baby, are almost an archetypal family, like the holy family in a medieval morality play. Kino’s aspirations are the same universal drives to better himself and his family that took the Okies to California’s Central Valley. Like the Joads, this symbolic family must struggle at once against an indifferent natural order and a corrupt social order. Unfortunately, aside from the screenplay of Viva Zapata! Steinbeck would never again achieve the fusion of parable and realism that energizes The Pearl.

In his Nobel Prize speech of 1962, Steinbeck indicated what he tried to accomplish in his work: The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams, for the purpose of improvement.

No writer has better exposed the dark underside of the American Dream, but few writers have so successfully celebrated the great hope symbolized in that dream—the hope of human development. Steinbeck’s best fictions picture a paradise lost but also posit a future paradise to be regained. In spite of his faults and failures, Steinbeck’s best literary works demonstrate a greatness of heart and mind found only rarely in modern American literature.


John Steinbeck Short Fiction Analysis


Steinbeck, John