John Steinbeck

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Steinbeck, John (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Steinbeck, John 1902–1968

An American novelist and short story writer, Steinbeck won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. His realistic accounts of rural poverty in the United States, most notably The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, are American classics. See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 9, 13, 21, 124.

Travels with Charley in Search of America, a series of travel articles from Holiday that became a leading bestseller…, is a hodge-podge of superficial social criticism, ripe sentimentality, one endless joke about the urination of Steinbeck's dog, bad prose, encounters that surely must have been invented, and factual inaccuracies. There are streaks of honesty and insight in the book, and one chilling and effective look at New Orleans racism. Travels with Charley and The Winter of Our Discontent are clearly the work of a writer who, if he was not always a lightweight, is a lightweight now.

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "John Steinbeck and the Nobel Prize," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 113-17.

The reason so many of Steinbeck's former admirers no longer enjoy his work is that the weaknesses of the earlier writings, excusable enough in a young novelist, have prevailed: the woodenness and the sentimentalism. Over the years he has become the idol of book clubs and movie audiences, and of a vast uninstructed reading public. Literary experts of high standing have either ignored Steinbeck or, in critical books and journals of limited circulation, have exposed his defects. Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, and Maxwell Geismar are three important critics, for example, who have detailed Steinbeck's imperfections….

At a time when people were hungry and dispossessed and wandering, Steinbeck was one of their literate spokesmen. But too many readers mistook his sentimentalism for compassion; sentimentalism, that is, in the sense of tearfully expecting too much from life. We can perform a service to our culture, to the preservation of its truest values, by not overrating the work of this man of goodwill who was sometimes a competent novelist, though never "great."

Harry T. Moore, "Epilogue" (© 1968 by Harry T. Moore), to his The Novels of John Steinbeck, 2nd edition, Kennikat Press, 1968.

Steinbeck was never a utopian because he was always a man with a place. He was a Californian, and his writings never succeeded very well when he tried to walk alien soil. Yet his California was a very special one, a narrow strip embracing Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties, sleepy California that time passed by. He ignored the great cities except in glimpses and if he wrote of other places, it was likely to be the New England village of Winter of Our Discontent or the Northwest orchards of In Dubious Battle. In a literal sense, he was a conservative, a man who valued and even clung to the old America; the real power of Grapes of Wrath is the savage anger at the impersonal process that uproots men from the land and rapes it, substituting rattletraps and highways for place and kindred.

In that sense, he was romantic, sure that past times were far from perfect and yet possessed of virtues and qualities now lost, human even in their cruelties and stupidities as the industrial age is not….

Conservative and romantic, Steinbeck stuck to the sturdy rationalism that insists that the old questions will not be wished away, that the old virtues cannot be dispensed with, that the rule of first things first still applies. The direct route is the best, because the best cannot be captured unaware or bought cheap.

That did not make him lapse into quietism, or leave him indifferent to social reform. Far from it: compassion and concern lie on the direct route too. So, for that matter, does violence, and Steinbeck knew that there is a love which must take up the knife to slay another, because it is the same love which leads...

(The entire section is 4,219 words.)