John Steinbeck Steinbeck, John (Vol. 13) - Essay


(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 almost aimless, of these almost unconscious, processes. The preacher in The Grapes of Wrath … evidently gives expression to Mr. Steinbeck's own point of view: "This here ol' man jus' lived a life an' jus' died out of it. I don't know whether he was good or bad, but that don't matter much. He was alive, an' that's what matters. An' now he's dead, an' that don't matter….

The subject of The Grapes of Wrath, which is supposed to deal with human society, is the same as the subject of The Red Pony, which is supposed to deal with horses: loyalty to life itself. The men who feel themselves responsible for having let the red pony die must make up for it by sacrificing the mare in order that a new pony may be brought into the world alive. And so Rose of Sharon Joad, with her undernourished baby born dead, must offer her milk … to another wretched victim of famine and flood, on the point of death from starvation. To what end should ponies and Oakies continue to live on the earth? "And I wouldn' pray for a ol' fella that's dead," the preacher goes on to say. "He's awright. He got a job to do, but it's all laid out for 'im an' there's on'y one way to do it. But us, we got a job to do, an' they's a thousan' ways, an' we don' know which one to take. An' if I was to pray, it'd be for the folks that don't know which way to turn." (pp. 38-9)

[What] differentiates Mr. Steinbeck's picture of a labor movement with radical leadership...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)

Alfred Kazin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Steinbeck's approach to the novel was interesting because he seemed to stand apart at a time when naturalism had divided writers into two mutually exclusive groups, since the negation of its starved and stunted spirit came more and more from writers who often had no sympathy with realism at all, and were being steadily pulled in the direction of surrealism and abstractionism…. (p. 393)

Steinbeck, standing apart from both the contemporary naturalists and the new novel of sensibility that one finds in Faulkner and Wolfe, brought a fresh note into contemporary fiction because he promised a realism less terror-ridden than the depression novel, yet one consciously responsible to society; a realism mindful of the terror and disorganization of contemporary life, but not submissive to the spiritual stupor of the time; a realism equal in some measure, if only in its aspiration, to the humanity, the gaiety, the wholeness, of realism in a more stable period…. Steinbeck is a greater humanist [than Farrell], and there is a poetry in some of his best work, particularly The Long Valley stories and The Pastures of Heaven, that naturalists of Farrell's stamp have never been able to conceive. But there is something imperfectly formed about Steinbeck's work; it has no creative character. For all his moral serenity, the sympathetic understanding of men under strain that makes a strike novel like In Dubious Battle so notable in the social fiction of the period, Steinbeck's people are always on the verge of becoming human, but never do. There is a persistent failure to realize human life fully in his books, where the characters in many American naturalistic novels have simply ceased to be human. After a dozen books Steinbeck still looks like a distinguished apprentice, and what is so striking in his work is its inconclusiveness, his moving approach to human life and yet his failure to be creative with it.

Steinbeck's moral advantage as a realist in the depression era was to be so different in his region—the Salinas Valley in California—his subject, as to seem different in kind. It was his famous "versatility" that first earned him his reputation …, but this was the least noteworthy thing about him and has come more and more to suggest not versatility but a need to feel his way. His great possession as a writer was not an interest in craft or an experimental spirit; it was an unusual and disinterested simplicity, a natural grace and tenderness and ease in his relation to his California world…. Steinbeck's gift was not so much a literary resource as a distinctively harmonious and pacific view of life. In a period when so many better writers exhausted themselves, he had welded himself into the life of the Salinas Valley and enjoyed a spiritual stability by reporting the life cycles of the valley gardeners and mystics and adventurers, by studying and steeping himself in its growth processes out of a close and affectionate interest in the biology of human affairs. Steinbeck's absorption in the life of his native valley gave him a sympathetic perspective on the animal nature of human life, a means of reconciliation with people as people. The depression naturalists saw life as one vast Chicago slaughterhouse, a guerrilla war, a perpetual bombing raid. Steinbeck had picked up a refreshing belief in human fellowship and courage; he had learned to accept the rhythm of life. (pp. 393-95)

People in Steinbeck's work, taken together, are often evil; a society moving on the principle of collective mass slowly poisons itself by corrupting its own members. But beyond his valley-bred conviction of the evil inherent in any society where men are at the mercy of each other's animalism, Steinbeck knew how to distinguish, in works like The Long Valley, In Dubious Battle, and The Grapes of Wrath, between the animal processes of life and social privation. Out of his slow curiosity, the strength of the agrarian tradition in him, Steinbeck was able to invest the migration of the Joads, if not his monochromatic characters, with a genuinely tragic...

(The entire section is 1680 words.)

John S. Kennedy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Steinbeck's] first nine works were markedly different one from another in matter and tone and style. He shifted sharply and with a show of ease from costume drama to fantasy at once earthy and lyric to knockabout farce to abrasive naturalism to argument none too successfully disguised as narrative, proving that he could do more or less creditably in a number of fictional forms, even if in none did he demonstrate the mastery and finesse of indisputable greatness.

But though his books might show contrast in form, pace and diction, they inevitably had certain things in common. For example, binding together the now rather extensive body of novels, short stories, sketches, plays, is the California...

(The entire section is 3339 words.)

T. A. Shippey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is when Steinbeck abandons caution [in The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights] that he contributes most to the Arthurian tradition. In the early sections on Merlin, Balin and Balan, the feud with Morgan le Fay, he is often translating Malory closely…. As a result the modernisms show up.

The opening of the Arthurian story, though tidied and expounded, does not grip one's affections. When Malory starts to flag, however, Steinbeck takes over. The tale of Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt's involvement with the young, the old, and the middle-aged ladies is, in Malory, dull. Gawain shows the worst side of his character in philandering with Ettarde, Marhalt copes relaxedly with a giant, Ewain wins a two-against-one bout, and the ladies do nothing. To this Steinbeck adds suddenly and out of his own head the most compelling of twentieth-century thriller themes—professionalism, expertise, training. The elderly lady who takes Ewain over, it transpires, is the greatest coach there ever was, and she puts him through a crash course described in loving detail, wrinkle by wrinkle.

It is when his lady starts making remarks about weight and burst buttons that he sends for his questing gear. The effects are comic in detail, sombre in implication: distinctively of this century, and so in the spirit of all the other Arthurians who have, century by century, taken what significance they wanted from the matter they loved. It is only a pity that, having struck this vein, Steinbeck could take it no further than the end of "The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake."… Possibly the involved ironies and contending loyalties of the Morte would have defeated Steinbeck as they have other rehandlers. But the man who made George shoot Lenny might have coped even with Gawain's final letter to Lancelot. Or he might have left it out and told the story a new way.

T. A. Shippey, "East of Camelot," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 29, 1977, p. 536.