John Steinbeck Steinbeck, John (Vol. 1)

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Steinbeck, John (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Steinbeck, John 1902–1968

An American novelist and short story writer, Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. His best-known novel is The Grapes of Wrath. See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 5), and Volumes 9, 13, 21, 124.

[John Steinbeck] can produce pages of beauty and impact, preceded and followed by pages of sheer trash, the emptiness of which is only accentuated by the pseudo-grandeur or pseudo-primitivism of the diction. He can be acutely sensitive and true for a chapter, then embarrassingly sentimental and cheaply trite. He can write dialog with authenticity and bite, and go on to more dialog which is reverberant rhetorical noise. He can juxtapose a penetrating analysis of human feeling, especially of sense impression, and painfully artificial fabrication. In short, he has at least as many faults as he has felicities in his talent; his books are by no means rigorously weeded. Still, he has won both critical and popular acclaim, largely, it would appear, because he is, within limits, an affirmative writer…. He does not fit into any of the categories of negativism prevalent in this age's fiction. He is no Pollyanna—far from it. He depicts human existence as conflict, unremitting and often savage battle. But he suggests that life is worth living, flagellant and baffling though it may be. When, as rarely happens, he produces a memorable character like Ma Joad, that character has an irrepressible will to live, even under heart-breakingly adverse conditions, is resourceful and indomitable before the hostility of a world apparently bent on his or her extermination. In a time when the prevalent note in creative literature is that of despondency and abandonment to malign fate, whether armed with sledgehammer or scalpel, Steinbeck's assertion of the resiliency and tough durability of life has set him off from the generality. Moreover, his prepossession with life, rather than ideologies, has made it impossible to pigeonhole him politically, which is not true of many another novelist….

The judgment one must pass on Steinbeck is this: that he is a sentimentalist. This may seem the wildest sort of misstatement, but it is literally true. Clifton Fadiman once said that the classification of Steinbeck as a hard-boiled writer is incorrect; if there must be a comparison with eggs, Steinbeck is soft-boiled….

But Steinbeck's sentimentality is something that goes beyond the facile tear-jerking which Fadiman decries. It is a way of regarding humanity, the way of feeling rather than of reason. "Steinbeck the realist" is a misnomer, for the flight from reason which, in common with so many of his contemporaries, he has indulged in, has prevented him from seeing reality as it is, in its entire fullness and proportioning and significance.

John S. Kennedy, "John Steinbeck: Life Affirmed and Dissolved," in Fifty Years of the American Novel, edited by Harold C. Gardiner, Scribner's, 1951, pp. 217-36.

… Steinbeck has achieved his success by working within limitations which are perhaps self-imposed but which seem on the whole to be imposed on him by his temperament. They tie him down to an exclusive preference for one type of character, which recurs with surprising consistency throughout his work, and to a maximum of two emotional attitudes, one compounded of some delight and much compassion toward the people he writes about, the other of compassion and wrath…. Simple, goodhearted people are so much Steinbeck's speciality that really despicable ones are hard to find in any of his books, and it may eventually be said of him that his greatest weakness was his inability to depict a full-length heel, a thorough out-and-out louse….

Sentimental Steinbeck certainly is, and in his more serious books this is his great weakness. But for his sentimentality he might have seen the predicament of the Okies as in some part the result of their own greed and stupidity…. There is danger in having too much compassion. His heart goes out to people who...

(The entire section is 3,790 words.)