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...
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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 are so uncomplicated themselves that they are unable to cope with any but the very simplest ideas, and who know they suffer but have trouble knowing why….
Because of this same tendency in Steinbeck there is something worrisome in his great predilection for half-wits and the singular beatitude which he attributes generally to the poor in spirit…. Steinbeck's zealous attention to half-wits and boys and dock-side loafers and paisanos and bindle stiffs has been diagnosed as a preoccupation with primitives. Let us not challenge this diagnosis as far as half-wits and boys are concerned—but if the rest are primitives, the word seriously needs definition. Society, not nature, has made them what they are….
In The Grapes of Wrath these good, kindhearted, ignorantly immoral irresponsibles become the figures of a tragedy. When they pull up stakes for the long drag from Oklahoma to California, they are pushed on by a force which they understand no better than the Greeks understood fate…. I have no desire to make Steinbeck into a rather strained-looking Greek, but it seems to me that he has put into The Grapes of Wrath most of the elements of tragedy: the driving forces, the swift rush of events, inevitability, mounting pity and terror, clash, violence. His characters react properly in the face of evil, and the foolish things they do are pieces of eternally human foolishness.
There is a price to pay, however, for the tragedy we get. Steinbeck's compassion leads to oversimplification, a distaste for complication which extends beyond a mere dislike of complicating personalities….
It would be ungrateful not to accept [the] later works for what they are, but it would be a major error—as well as very unfair to Steinbeck—to take them for Steinbeck's best. His best was better than these. His best was what he wrote in the days when he could not stand without indignation and see injustice done.
W. M. Frohock, "John Steinbeck—The Utility of Wrath," in his The Novel of Violence in America, Southern Methodist University Press, revised edition, 1957, pp. 124-43 (in the Beacon Press paperbound edition, 1964).
John Steinbeck is not critically fashionable today…. It is critically fashionable today to be "disengaged," which means that one accepts the advantages of civilization and declines responsibility for its other aspects. The less hope a writer sees for civilization, the more fashionable he is likely to be. Liberalism, since it is blamed for the sins of its opponents, is distrusted and denounced. Steinbeck is condemned for not being Kafka or Beckett…. Steinbeck's reputation has also suffered because his novels are easy to read. He often fuses a lucid realistic narrative with a symbolic statement about man's condition. The surface narratives, however, are so smoothly executed that people do not read them carefully and miss what lies beneath…. [There are] three general tendencies [which] have done most to shape his fiction. The first of these is his tendency to write allegorically…. A reporter is concerned with what makes an event unique, while an allegorist is concerned with what makes it typical of recurrent patterns of human behavior.
Steinbeck, however, is a marked contrast to many allegorists whose art has been at the service of an entrenched theology; for the second important thing about him is his preoccupation with non-teleological thinking…. Differences arising from teleological and non-teleological approaches have been at the root of many quarrels between science and theology…. [Yet even] the non-teleological thinker … must choose a theology (even if just a consistent opposition to any other theology) to give his work direction.
Steinbeck's theology—the third important thing to remember about him—accords remarkably with that of the nineteenth-century American transcendentalists. It is even more difficult to define transcendentalism than non-teleological thought; it is perhaps enough to say here that it is a set of imprecise, idealistic doctrines that demand that man be both intensely individualistic and selflessly altruistic at the same time…. Steinbeck's "faith" might, in fact, best be summarized by a single line in Whitman's "By Blue Ontario's Shore": "How dare you place any thing before a man?" An insistence on the primacy of human dignity is the force that has kept Steinbeck from committing himself to some Cause. (pp. 7-10)
These three characteristics of Steinbeck's thought have had obvious effects upon his artistic successes and failures. When his personal experience has provided him with engrossing material, his propensity for allegory has provided a plan, his non-teleological thought a capacity for detachment, and his transcendental idealism a vigorous compassion that makes works like The Red Pony and The Grapes of Wrath both socially and artistically significant. On the other hand, when he has dealt with contrived material, the allegory clogs the narrative, the non-teleological effort at detachment seems merely carelessness or contempt, and the transcendental idealism becomes bombastic sentimentality. (p. 10)
In nearly all of his novels, especially in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck stresses the evolutionary idea that man must adapt to changing conditions. Among the worst offenses he feels one man can commit against another is that of inhibiting the process of adaptation or of causing another to revert to a former state in self-defense. (p. 45)
Of Mice and Men marks the end of the first period in Steinbeck's literary career in several ways. First, this was the work that brought him at last really impressive national recognition and substantial reward and thus brought him face to face with the problems of a man in the limelight…. Secondly, Of Mice and Men is the book in which Steinbeck found at last the form he had been struggling for—the method of objective storytelling which is really a fictionalized play…. The short stories to be collected into The Red Pony perfectly blended form and content, but it was not until Of Mice and Men that Steinbeck achieved the same structural soundness in a complex narrative.
Thirdly, in this novel Steinbeck at last discovered how to present the point underlying Cup of Gold in a convincing, contemporary setting. Behind the piratical trappings of the first novel stalked the ironic perception that maturity means the destruction of dreams. Other dreamers had learned this lesson in Steinbeck's novels; but Henry Morgan had been the only Steinbeck hero to survive his disillusionment. George in Of Mice and Men is the first contemporary figure in a Steinbeck novel to "split" before the onslaught of civilization rather than go under. Steinbeck had at last found the figure that could disentangle the grail quest from the mists of legend and make its futility explicit in down-to-earth terms.
Of Mice and Men is Steinbeck's last novel to be directly influenced by Arthurian legend. In The Grapes of Wrath, the writer turns to Biblical traditions for his analogues. This change makes his allegories more generally comprehensible because of the wide familiarity with Biblical imagery. There is an "ivory tower" quality about even Steinbeck's most realistic novels before The Grapes of Wrath; and it was probably his months of living among the migrants that enabled him to shake off the lingering effects of the—to American eyes—somewhat remote myths that had long provided the framework for his novels. (pp. 72-3)
Steinbeck unquestionably started downhill when he left California, for his best books deal with persons and places he knew intimately. After making several false starts, of which only Cup of Gold and To a God Unknown were published, he wrote his distinguished books—The Pastures of Heaven, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, The Grapes of Wrath—about the things that were physically and spiritually closest to him. In The Moon is Down he tried to widen the scope of his work, but his observations of the war discouraged him—he was not yet ready to face unblinkingly the world at large…. In his next several books—The Pearl, The Wayward Bus, Burning Bright—allegory overwhelmed experience and a flirtation with existentialism clashed with his satirical tendencies, so that by the time he came to write East of Eden he no longer trusted his memories and overloaded what might have been a moving pastoral with an elaborate and befuddled allegory. The best things in this big novel, the fragments of the Hamilton story, show, however, the effect of Steinbeck's long separation from the speech of his native region. He is not a man, like Joyce Cary, for example, who can satisfactorily summon an emotionally charged remembrance of things past. (pp. 161-62)
The problem of the allegorist is to maintain the proper balance between science and sensitivity, between the demands of the pattern and the demand of the audience for emotions it can share. Not all Steinbeck's later allegories were adroit. The curious thing is that Steinbeck has often been charged with sentimentality, an overabundance of false emotion, whereas the fault that has plagued much of his work since Cannery Row has been an insensitivity—or a preoccupation with manipulating patterns rather than presenting people—that led to the aridity of Burning Bright and the anti-intellectualism of Sweet Thursday. Only in East of Eden do we find him sacrificing what would be likely to what would be nice. What Steinbeck failed to realize in constructing his later allegories is that it is very unlikely that an author can interest the audience in the fate of characters in whom he himself does not appear interested as more than symbols. Part of the trouble in Steinbeck's postwar books is that he appears to have become detached from his characters because he has been avoiding reality. He has sometimes taken refuge, I suspect, in non-teleological thinking because he has lacked the sophistication to ask "why" people behaved in certain ways—the answer might be too disturbing. (p. 163)
Warren French, in his John Steinbeck, Twayne, 1961.
[John Steinbeck's] remarkable, almost uncanny ability to meet the intellectual and emotional needs of a depression-trained reading public contrasts vividly with the work of those novelists who, with almost missionary zeal, were trying to influence the public mind. He was "ideologically inadequate," in the view of the New York leftist intellectual.
Frederick J. Hoffman, in his The Modern Novel in America, Regnery, revised edition, 1963, p. 160.
One might say that Steinbeck's theme is life and the processes of life at a certain place at a certain time. But the processes of life that interest him are those common to the spirochaete, the tiger and man. They are evolutionary processes, relatively undifferentiated; and this plainly presents him with difficult problems as a novelist, who is normally concerned with something diametrically opposed to Steinbeck's view, namely individuation. Values, except the values that make for the animal survival of the species, are absent from Steinbeck's work—or almost so; he has a generous indignation at the spectacle of human suffering. But apart from this, he is the celebrant of life, any kind of life, just because it is life; and against his passionate sympathy with the Joads of this world must be set his woozy sentimentality over the bums and whores-with-hearts-of-gold he celebrates in Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row.
In effect, this means that Steinbeck is at his best as a novelist when he is dealing with human beings living at something approaching the animal level. These are made acceptable and indeed moving because of the genuine sweetness one feels in Steinbeck's nature and because he sees these human beings as being at least as dignified as animals. He doesn't, in other words, reduce them; his view of life would prevent his doing that.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, p. 163.
John Steinbeck's values—those fundamental beliefs which are the necessary framework within which we understand concrete words and events—are not commonly known to his readers. His most typical subject, by contrast, is common knowledge; and thus it is that Steinbeck came to be known, during the thirties, as a proletarian novelist….
The Grapes of Wrath …, generally conceded to be Steinbeck's best novel, was taken to be a fitting achievement, for it concentrated, more successfully than any other novel, on the depression and on the need for economic and social reforms. Since the 1940 award of the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, however, Steinbeck's reputation has declined. The Nobel Prize (in 1962) has sparked some new attention, but the general feeling is that novels like East of Eden … and The Winter of Our Discontent … ought to be like The Grapes of Wrath but are not. The proletarian novelist is not writing proletarian novels: East of Eden is vaguely mystical; The Winter of Our Discontent is about a faded aristocrat back East. Neither novel comes to grips with the problems handled so courageously in The Grapes of Wrath. The error, however, is not Steinbeck's. It is the reader's. Steinbeck has used proletarian subjects, but he has never been a proletarian novelist.
Max Westbrook, in The Modern American Novel: Essays in Criticism, edited by Max Westbrook (© 1966 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Random House, 1966, pp. 170-71.
[One] should realize that from his first novel, Cup of Gold …, to his last work of fiction, The Winter of Our Discontent …, Steinbeck was predominantly—even obsessively—concerned with religion and the religious experience in our time…. Steinbeck's religious concern is not with one belief, one doctrine, one faith. Christianity and its traditions form a major base for his fiction, but what we shall call his dual method of parable and syncretic allegory enables him to universalize his major themes in a manner for which he is not usually given enough credit. (pp. 6-7)
Steinbeck's basic attitudes toward the human race, and man's often futile attempts to understand and accept the continuing existence of both good and evil are told and retold, in short story, drama, and novel. And because Steinbeck is so constantly aware of the forms that the awareness of good and evil takes, the reader must constantly distinguish between subject and method, for it is only with full awareness of Steinbeck's dual role as religious theorist and artist that one can fully comprehend a given work. (pp. 7-8)
As a nonteleological thinker, Steinbeck is strictly neither mystic nor biologist; neither is he a humanist, naturalist, Christian, or even atheist…. Basically, he is all of these…. From Jesus to Einstein, Steinbeck implies, the historical trend of the "truly adept" has been from teleology to relativity. Relativity, Einsteinian or not, determines Steinbeck's view of mortality and immortality…. Unlike the humanist, the atheist, the existentialist, he does not attempt to derive a substitute for past teleologies. (pp. 9-10)
Briefly stated, [Steinbeck's modern allegorical] method is this: discarding the traditional one-to-one ratio, Steinbeck nevertheless tries to utilize and retain all the suggestive power inherent in allegory, specifically, for instance, in the initials "J. C." and the biblical exodus. One must recognize Steinbeck's intention to echo Jesus Christ in both Jim Casy and Juan Chicoy, but unlike their predecessor Jim Conklin in Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, Steinbeck's characters are not merely Christ parallels. As Steinbeck believes that all honestly experienced religious traditions supplement each other, so his fictional characters derive from equally multiple sources. (pp. 13-14)
[Syncretic] allegory is more prevalent in the twentieth century than many critics realize. Ironically, by its very nature the technique resists teleological definition—perhaps for our purposes, Steinbeck's own reference to the ecology of the ALL will suffice. Traditional allegory resolves paradox; syncretic allegory underlines it. (pp. 18-19)
Those who fail to recognize the basic complexity of syncretic allegory are the first to condemn it, yet from a critical point of view, this technique is one of the most interesting and simple devices to comprehend. As Steinbeck well knows, however, the critical problem lies not in the text but in the teleology of the critic, with the result that in their search for the referent of an intentionally ambivalent allusion, many readers give up in despair. (p. 20)
By close inspection of Steinbeck's character names, as well as by rigid comparison with antecedent biblical events, one should begin to see the deftness with which Steinbeck weaves his web of paradoxical allusion…. One should see, then, that the character names provide the first and most important clues to what Steinbeck is attempting in a syncretic allegory. Indeed, almost every name in The Grapes of Wrath has a biblical antecedent, as do most of the pivotal episodes. (p. 22)
Whereas understanding the significance of the names in The Grapes of Wrath is the reader's responsibility, in East of Eden this need for recognition devolves upon the characters themselves. Those who accept their biblical heritage without comprehending its complexity (Cathy, Aron, Cyrus Trask, and Charles, among others) are doomed. Even those who do recognize the significance of their names come to grief as long as they persist in narrowing in on one source alone. Take Adam Trask, for instance, who … [despite] his partially aware refusal to plant apples,… nevertheless fails to see the evil in his wife, and instead of accepting banishment as did the original Adam, he prefers to remain shackled to the shambles of his dream. (p. 29)
The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden … most obviously demonstrate Steinbeck's technical prowess in the method of syncretic allegory…. With varying degrees of deftness, all of Steinbeck's major novels codify, invert, and juxtapose their biblical sources in an attempt to transcend them. Undoctrinal to be sure, this method is not necessarily anti-Christian, for to deny the absoluteness of doctrine does not always affect one's belief in or practice of the tenets of the institution itself. Nevertheless, Steinbeck's nonteleological faith should be seen properly to have produced an equally nonteleological literary method, an appreciation of which is necessary before any final judgment of his message can be made. (pp. 31-2)
Nowhere in Steinbeck's fiction, I think, is the victory of evil so apparent as in his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. [The] syncretic biblical structure provides a pattern for the narration. In this novel, however, Steinbeck seems less to present speculations about evil than to remind us once again that not only is modern America riddled with it but that the foundations of our heritage were built by the Puritans and pirates who, like the priests and prostitutes in East of Eden, had more in common than they knew. This is a bitter book in which there is no representative of goodness to offset the dishonest and the naive. (p. 41)
What he reports, basically, is that mankind has changed little from the time of its recorded origins; what he hopes is that by understanding this lack of true progress, man will eventually be able to transcend the mistakes and misinterpretations of the past and move, no matter how falteringly, ahead. (pp. 44-5)
John Clark Pratt, in his John Steinbeck ("Contemporary Writers in Christian Perspective"), Eerdmans, 1970.