John Steinbeck

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Steinbeck, John 1902–1968

See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 21, 124.

Steinbeck was an American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and essayist. He is best known for his realistic and vivid portrayal of the hardships of the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath, which depicts a group of sharecroppers en route to California. While exposing the ordeal of their poverty, Steinbeck also seeks to affirm the sanctity of life and the unifying, clarifying forces inherent in human suffering. Although he was a popular success, Steinbeck has not enjoyed a consistently favorable critical reception. Critics note that his strong, sympathetic characterizations often lapse into sentimentality, although many find that the strength of his narrative line often compensates for this weakness. Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

Edmund Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mr. Steinbeck's] virtuosity in a purely technical way has tended to obscure his themes. He has published eight volumes of fiction, which represent a variety of forms and which have thereby produced an illusion of having been written from a variety of points of view…. [Attention] has been diverted from the content of Mr. Steinbeck's work by the fact that when his curtain goes up, he always puts on a different kind of show.

Yet there is in Mr. Steinbeck's fiction a substratum which remains constant and which gives it a certain weight. What is constant in Mr. Steinbeck is his preoccupation with biology. He is a biologist in the literal sense that he interests himself in biological research. The biological laboratory in the short story called The Snake is obviously something which he knows at first hand and for which he has a strong special feeling; and it is one of the peculiarities of his vocabulary that it runs to biological terms. But the laboratory described in The Snake, the tight little building above the water, where the scientist feeds white rats to rattlesnakes and fertilizes starfish ova, is also one of the key images of his fiction. It is the symbol of Mr. Steinbeck's tendency to present human life in animal terms.

Mr. Steinbeck almost always in his fiction is dealing either with the lower animals or with humans so rudimentary that they are almost on the animal level; and the relations between animals and people are as intimate as those in the zoöphile fiction of David Garnett and D. H. Lawrence…. Mr. Steinbeck does not give the effect, as Lawrence or Kipling does [however], of romantically raising the animals to the stature of human beings, but rather of assimilating the human beings to animals. (pp. 35-7)

And Steinbeck does not … dwell much, as Lawrence likes to do, on the perfections of his various beasts each after its own kind. It is the habits and behavior of the animals, not the impression they make, that interests him.

The chief subject of Mr. Steinbeck's fiction has been thus not those aspects of humanity in which it is most thoughtful, imaginative, constructive, nor even those aspects of animals that seem most attractive to humans, but rather the processes of life itself. In the ordinary course of nature, living organisms are continually being destroyed, and among the principal things that destroy them are the predatory appetite and the competitive instinct that are necessary for the very survival of eating and breeding creatures. This impulse of the killer has been preserved in a simpleton like Lennie of Of Mice and Men in a form in which it is almost innocent; and yet Lennie has learned from his more highly developed friend that to yield to it is to do something "bad." In his struggle against the instinct, he loses. Is Lennie bad or good? He is betrayed as, the author implies, all our human intentions are, by the uncertainties of our animal nature. And it is only, as a rule, on this primitive level that Mr. Steinbeck deals with moral questions: the virtues like the crimes, for him, are still a part of these plan less and...

(The entire section is 7,381 words.)