John Steinbeck

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Steinbeck, John (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Steinbeck, John 1902–1968

Steinbeck, a short story writer and novelist, was one of America's most widely read authors. Noted for his realistic portrayals of people searching for the golden land and happiness, Steinbeck was a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize. Best known for The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck initially professed strong Socialist beliefs, but he later adopted a more conservative ideology. Progressive or conservative, Steinbeck's fiction is always in tune with the great American mythology of the open road, male companionship, personal freedom, and the vitality of the land. See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 13, 21, 124.

If, as Faulkner has rather perversely contended, a writer is to be measured these days by the extent and quality of his failure, Steinbeck must inevitably be reckoned among our most sizeable novelists. Steinbeck's failure is great, and it is incomparably more interesting and valuable than the successes of nine-tenths of his contemporaries. For where Steinbeck has failed is in an effort to engage, with the resources of fiction, the complex realities, the evolving motifs, the outlines and images of things, the very sense of life which make up the matter truly, if deeply and almost invisibly, available to an American novelist of his generation. I am not cheaply hinting that Steinbeck deserves, as the schoolboy saying goes, 'E' for effort. I am saying that because of his effort and even because of its failure he has made more visible for the rest of us the existence, indeed the precise character, of the realities and themes and images he has not finally succeeded in engaging. This is the kind of failure which is, in the end, almost indistinguishable from success….

Amidst the larger failure of Steinbeck there are smaller units of undeniable achievement. At least one of these comprises a whole brief story; more usually the achievement is partial—a passage, a character, or perhaps merely an aspect. Of Mice and Men (1937) seems on a re-reading to stand up remarkably well, to stand up whole and intact. It skirts breathtakingly close to disastrous sentimentality; stock minor characters (especially the villain and the villainess) move woodenly through it; the deliberate stage technique gives one the cramps; and there is an unpersuasive quality of contrivance about the episode—the mercy-shooting of an aged dog—which prepares by analogy for the climax—the mercy-shooting of the animal-child, Lennie. Yet the entire action of the story moves to its own rhythm, rescued and redeemed by a sort of wistful toughness, a sense not of realism but of reality. The end is an authentic purgation of feeling, pity if not terror, and the end crowns the whole.

Of Mice and Men is probably the only one of Steinbeck's works which is satisfying as a whole, and it is a short novel or novella. His longer and thicker writings may be differentiated by the moment and degree of wreckage, and they have culminated in East of Eden (1952), professedly Steinbeck's most ambitious novel. (p. 164)

The badness of East of Eden is a basic premise in this paper and I must return to it, but meanwhile a couple of observations of a less negative kind. The sheer bulk of Steinbeck's work is impressive, for one thing, and marks him clearly as a professional of sorts: twenty-three volumes, some of them no doubt slim ones, in the twenty-six years following his first book, The Cup of Gold, in 1929. Bulk is not the first attribute of artistic achievement, but it is an attribute, and we note again the courage and resiliency which are part of Steinbeck's temperament, which set him apart from the 'signers-off' of contemporary fiction….

More important, and secondly, in the longer novels (To a God Unknown, 1933, In Dubious Battle, 1936, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939, and East of Eden ) we come upon electrifying passages, sudden and tragically short-lived moments of vision, little spurts of verbal energy; momentary manifestations, as it were, of a...

(The entire section is 9,641 words.)