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Steinbeck, John 1902–1968

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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

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[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 [in In Dubious Battle] from most treatments of such subjects of its period is again the biological point of view. The strike leaders, here, are Communists, as they are in many labor novels, but In Dubious Battle is not really based on the formulas of Communist ideology. The kind of character produced by the Communist movement and the Communist strategy in strikes (of the Communism of the day before yesterday) is described by Mr. Steinbeck, and it is described with a certain amount of admiration; yet the party member of In Dubious Battle does not talk like a Marxist of even the Stalinist revision. The cruelty of these revolutionists, though they are working for a noble ideal and must immolate themselves in the struggle, is not palliated by the author any more than the cruelty of the half-witted Lennie; and we are made to feel all through the book that, impressive though the characters may be, they are presented primarily as examples of how life in our age behaves. There is developed in the course of the story … a whole philosophy of "group-man" as an "animal." (pp. 39-40)

[The] old pioneer of The Leader of the People describes a westward migration which he himself once led as "a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast…. Every man wanted something for himself, but the big beast that was all of them wanted only westering."

This tendency on Steinbeck's part to animalize humanity is evidently one of the causes of his relative unsuccess at creating individual humans. The paisanos of Tortilla Flat are not really quite human beings: they are cunning little living dolls that amuse us as we might be amused by pet guinea-pigs, squirrels or rabbits. They are presented through a special convention which is calculated to keep them cut off from any kinship with the author or the reader. In The Grapes of Wrath, on the other hand, Mr. Steinbeck has summoned all his resources to make the reader feel his human relationship with the family of dispossessed farmers; yet the result of this, too, is not quite real. The characters of The Grapes of Wrath are animated and put through their paces rather than brought to life; they are like excellent character actors giving very conscientious performances in a fairly well-written play. Their dialect is well managed, but they always sound a little stagy; and, in spite of Mr. Steinbeck's efforts to make them figure as heroic human symbols, one cannot help feeling that these Okies, too, do not exist for him quite seriously as people. It is as if human sentiments and speeches had been assigned to a flock of lemmings on their way to throw themselves into the sea. One remembers the short story called Johnny Bear. Johnny Bear is another of Steinbeck's idiots: he has exactly the physique of a bear and seems in almost every way subhuman; but he is endowed with an uncanny gift for reproducing with perfect mimicry the conversations he overhears, though he understands nothing of their human meaning.

It is illuminating to look back from The Grapes of Wrath to one of the earliest of Steinbeck's novels, To a God Unknown. In this book he is dealing frankly with the destructive and reproductive forces as the cardinal principles of nature. In one passage, the hero is described by one of the other characters as never having "known a person": "You aren't aware of persons, Joseph; only people. You can't see units, Joseph, only the whole."… This story … evidently represents, on the part of Steinbeck just turned thirty, an honorably sincere attempt to find expression for his view of the world and his conception of the powers that move it. When you husk away the mawkish verbiage from the people of his later novels, you get down to a similar conception of a humanity not of "units" but lumped in a "whole," to a vision equally grim in its cycles of extinction and renewal.

Not, however, that John Steinbeck's picture of human beings as lemmings, as grass that is left to die, does not have its striking validity for the period in which we are living…. Many parts of the world are today being flooded with migrants like the Joads, deprived of the dignity of a human society, forbidden the dignity of human work, and made to flee from their houses like prairie-dogs driven before a prairie fire. (pp. 41-3)

The philosophy of Mr. Steinbeck is … not satisfactory in either its earlier or its later form. He has nothing to oppose to [the] vision of man's hating and destroying himself except an irreducible faith in life; and the very tracts he writes for the underdog let us see through to the biological realism which is his natural habit of mind. Yet I prefer his approach to the animal-man to the mysticism [for example] of Mr. Huxley; and I believe that we shall be more likely to find out something of value for the control and ennoblement of life by studying human behavior in this spirit than through the code of self-contemplation that seems to grow so rootlessly and palely in the decay of scientific tradition. (p. 44)

Mr. Steinbeck is equipped with resources of observation and invention which are exceptional and sometimes astonishing, and with color which is all his own but which does not, for some reason, possess what is called magic. It is hard to feel that any of his books, so far, is really first-rate. He has provided a panorama of California farm-life and California landscape which is unique in our literature; and there are passages in some ways so brilliant that we are troubled at being forced to recognize that there is something artistically bad about them…. [But we are often reminded] of the ever-present paradox of the mixture of seriousness and trashiness in the writing of Mr. Steinbeck. I am not sure that Tortilla Flat, by reason of the very limitations imposed by its folk tale convention, is not artistically his most successful work.

Yet there remains behind the journalism, the theatricalism and the tricks of his other books a mind which does seem first-rate in its unpanicky scrutiny of life. (pp. 44-5)

Edmund Wilson, "John Steinbeck" (1940), in his Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1950 by Edmund Wilson; copyright renewed © 1978 by Elena Wilson), The Noonday Press, 1950, pp. 35-45.

Alfred Kazin

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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 quality precisely because he felt so deeply for them and had seen at first hand the gap between their simple belief in life and their degradation. He did not confuse the issue in The Grapes of Wrath; he was aroused by the man-made evil the Okies had to suffer, and he knew it as something remediable by men. And where another social realist might have confused the dark corners he described with the whole of life, Steinbeck had the advantage of his Western training, its plain confidence in men. The old pioneer grandfather in The Long Valley, remembering the brutality of men on the great trek, also remembered [its glory]…. (p. 396)

[This] contributed to the success of The Grapes of Wrath and made it the dominant social novel of the period…. [It was] the first novel of its kind to dramatize the inflictions of the crisis without mechanical violence and hatred. The bitterness was there, as it should have been, the sense of unspeakable human waste and privation and pain. But in the light of Steinbeck's strong sense of fellowship, his simple indignation at so much suffering, the Joads, while essentially symbolic marionettes, did illuminate something more than the desperation of the time: they became a living and challenging part of the forgotten American procession. Though the characters were essentially stage creations, the book brought the crisis that had severed Americans from their history back into it by recalling what they had lost through it. It gave them a design, a sense of control, where out of other depression novels they could get only the aimless maniacal bombardment of rage. The lesson of the crisis, so often repeated in the proletarian novel and yet so lifeless in it, was suddenly luminous: it was an event in history, to be understood by history, to be transformed and remembered and taught in history. It was as if Steinbeck, out of the simplicity of his indignation, had been just primitive enough to call men back to their humanity, to remind depression America that a culture is only the sum total of the human qualities that make it up, and that "life can give a periodical beating to death any time," as a contemporary poet put it, "if given a chance and some help."

It was this tonic sanity in a bad time, his understanding of the broad processes of human life, that gave Steinbeck his distinction among the depression realists. But no one can pretend, particularly after a book like The Moon Is Down, that it tells the whole story about him. For Steinbeck's primitivism is essentially uncreative, and for all his natural simplicity of spirit, there is a trickiness, a stage cunning, behind it that has become depressing. Though his interests have carried him squarely into certain central truths about the nature of life, he has not been able to establish them in human character. Nothing in his books is so dim, significantly enough, as the human beings who live in them, and few of them are intensely imagined as human beings at all. It is obvious that his mind moves happily in realms where he does not have to work in very complex types—the paisanos in Tortilla Flat, the ranch hands in Of Mice and Men, the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, the strikers in In Dubious Battle, the farmers in The Long Valley, the symbolic protagonists of democratic struggle and Nazi power in The Moon Is Down. But what one sees in his handling of these types is not merely a natural affection for this simplicity, but a failure to interest himself too deeply in them as individuals…. Steinbeck's perspective on human life always gives him a sense of process, an understanding of the circuits through which the human animal can move; but he cannot suggest the density of human life, for his characters are not fully human.

It is in this light that one can understand why Steinbeck's moral serenity is yet so sterile and why it is so easy for him to slip into the calculated sentimentality of Of Mice and Men and The Moon Is Down…. He is a simple writer who has acquired facility, but though he is restive in his simplicity, his imagination cannot rise above it. And it is that simplicity and facility, working together, a tameness of imagination operating slickly, that give his work its surface paradox of simplicity and trickiness, of integrity of emotion and endless contrivance of means. This does not mean a lack of sincerity; it does mean that Steinbeck is not so simple that he does not know how to please; or to take, as it were, advantage of himself. (pp. 397-99)

What is really striking about [The Moon Is Down]—so openly written, like Of Mice and Men, for the stage—is how fantastically simple the whole anti-Fascist struggle appeared to Steinbeck even as an allegory, and yet how easy it was for him to transcribe his naïveté into the shabbiest theater emotions. There is credulity here, even an essential innocence of spirit, and the kind of slow curiosity about all these war-haunted creatures that has always made Steinbeck's interest in the animal nature of life the central thing in his work. He does not appeal to the hatred of Hitlerism, no; he has never appealed to any hatred…. We hear the affirmation of nobility Steinbeck wanted to make, as we hear it in all his work; but we cannot believe in it, for though it is intended to inspire us in the struggle against Hitlerism, there are no men and women here to fight it…. [These] are not Steinbeck's familiar primitives, only seeking to be human. No, they are not primitives at all. But Steinbeck's world is a kind of primitivism to the end—primitive, with a little cunning. (p. 399)

Alfred Kazin, in his On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (copyright 1942, 1970, by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Reynal & Hitchcock, 1942.

John S. Kennedy

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[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 setting, and specifically the Salinas Valley setting, of most of his productions. (p. 119)

Far more important than the common scene in Steinbeck is the common theme. Something of the sort is discernible, of course, in the output of any writer, however many-sided. In Steinbeck's case the common theme may be called "reverence for life."… Steinbeck's preoccupation with life and living is perhaps the main reason for his popularity and influence.

Dozens of his contemporaries write consistently better than he, with greater subtlety and polish, greater depth and force. He 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. (p. 120)

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,… 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.

He did run afoul of the critical habit, prevalent in the 'thirties and early 'forties, that rated fiction principally, if not exclusively, according to [political bias]…. Thus The Grapes of Wrath (1939) was attacked by the politically conservative as out-and-out Communist propaganda. It was nothing of the sort…. (p. 121)

Steinbeck had written of Communists not unsympathetically and had hit at reactionary Red-baiters in earlier books, but had clearly demonstrated his critical awareness of the bad features of the Communist mentality and methods in the novel, In Dubious Battle (1936), dealing with an abortive strike by migrant fruit pickers of whom monolithically organized owners would take pitiless advantage…. Doc, the character who, it is manifest, speaks for Steinbeck, debunks the legend of the Communists' altruistic humanitarianism; and the Party's cold-blooded exploitation of misery, as well as its callous use of the most despicable means to its power-seeking ends, is graphically shown. Steinbeck evidently rejected communism because communism throttled life. (pp. 121-22)

[The Grapes of Wrath] said, at unconscionable length and with some resort to sensationalism and melodrama, something incontrovertibly true: namely, that thousands upon thousands of Americans were being cruelly victimized and heinously degraded by a system, crazily inept at least in part, which destroyed masses of ordinary people for the inordinate and socially unjust and detrimental enrichment of remote, impersonal corporations. Steinbeck, aroused over the trampling of human life, put this strongly in accents of burning anger and disgust. He did not have to be a Communist to do so, and indeed it was an appalling commentary on the inhumanity or stupidity of the comfortably circumstanced that his indictment of a reeking evil should be answered only by wholly irrelevant name-calling.

But it was not very long until Steinbeck was under fire for precisely the opposite reason and being styled a sort of crypto-Nazi. This happened when The Moon Is Down was published as a novel and produced as a play in 1942…. Steinbeck was writing of occupied Norway …, and his Nazi characters emerged as something like human beings, by no means admirable, but by no means demoniac either. For not making them intrinsically and uniformly monstrous, at a time when some of our most celebrated writers were trying to whip Americans up to a frenzy of indiscriminate hatred, Steinbeck was pilloried. (p. 122)

Communism and nazism have in common a commitment to collectivism, differing though they do as to the auspices under which it should be conducted. Was Steinbeck in favor of some sort of collectivism? It is plain from his books that he does not favor the familiar forms of economic or political collectivism, be they controlled by foreign dictators or native capitalists. For example, he writes scathingly of the monopolist who thwarts the poor Mexican in The Pearl (1947). He hits hard, for another example, at that centralization which would make of American agriculture no more than a mass-production scheme for the aggrandizement of urban shareholders, and this precisely because life is demeaned and quenched in the process. (pp. 122-23)

Steinbeck emphasizes the natural bond between life and productive property, the need that man has of a bit of earth to give him sustenance and dignity. (p. 123)

[In] The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck seems to approve and recommend collectivism of a different sort, a collectivism which, according to him, would foster, rather than crush, life. The Okies have had their ramshackle but cherished homes and their small patches of earth snatched away from them by the insatiable behemoth of big-scale agriculture. What is wrong with this, it is suggested, is not the pooling of hundreds of family-size farms, but the fact of the alien ownership of the amalgam…. [He urges] a sort of popularly chosen and controlled socialism, which Steinbeck heatedly advocates without ever bothering to consider its pitfalls or its possible deleterious consequences.

This idea is not to be dismissed out of hand as absurd or pernicious. The social character of property, the legitimacy and desirability of social ownership of what is indispensable to the common good, the incomparable value and profoundly Christian character of voluntary cooperation and joint endeavor—these are not being called into question. But Steinbeck means something more, something different. Just here we are coming to grips with the central point in Steinbeck's concept of life: namely, that its fullness is found only in the group and never in the individual. While he regards with disfavor a superimposed collectivism, he believes ardently in the primacy of the collectivity. Permeating his works is this idea, which is the very heart of his philosophy of life: that the concrete person is in himself virtually nothing, whereas the abstraction "humanity" is all.

Consider some examples from books published over a span of years, and you will observe the persistency and growth of this attitude. In To a God Unknown (1933), Rama says:

I tell you this man is not a man, unless he is all men. The strength, the resistance, the long and stumbling thinking of all men, and all the joys and suffering too, cancelling each other out and yet remaining in the contents. He is all these, a repository for a little piece of each man's soul, and more than that, a symbol of the earth's soul.

In In Dubious Battle, Doc tells Mac, "You might be an expression of group-man, a cell endowed with a special function, like an eye-cell, drawing your force from group-man …"…. Later, he asks another character, "Can't a group of men be God?" In The Red Pony (1937), the westward migration of the pioneers is described as "a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast." In The Grapes of Wrath Tom Joad, quoting the ex-preacher Casy, declares:

Says one time he went out into the wilderness to find his own soul, and he foun' he didn' have no soul that was his'n. Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole.

                                       (pp. 124-25)

[He] is ever more strongly affirming that, in the last analysis, man has no individual identity, that the human person as such, separately created and distinct from all others, does not in fact exist. Commitment to this idea may well be reaction against the unbridled, atomistic individualism which has wreaked havoc in society as a whole and in innumerable lives, and which, as his books indicate, Steinbeck recognizes as disastrous for mankind. But he has swung to and remains at the opposite extreme, that amalgamism which deprives the individual of initiative, responsibility, value, and even metaphysical being, and makes him no more than a cell in a supposititious monstrosity called "group-man" or an inextricable aspect of a pseudo-mystical entity called the "great big soul." It is the "great big soul" which, for Steinbeck, is life.

Indeed, he goes further than blotting out the boundaries of personality which mark off one man from another. He declares that, for man to be whole, he must be indistinguishably at one with all that exists. Casy, in The Grapes of Wrath, says: "There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy." Here again, one might dismiss objections, on the ground that all that exists, whether organic or inorganic, is interrelated and should be in harmony. There is an intimate interrelationship of all the levels of a universe made through, and bearing the mark of, the one Eternal Word. But Steinbeck is nowhere clear as to the essential, qualitative difference between man and the rest of created beings. (p. 125)

This can be plainly seen in what Edmund Wilson has called Steinbeck's "animalizing tendency." Wilson says that "constant in Mr. Steinbeck is his preoccupation with biology" and points out "his tendency in his stories to present life in animal terms" [see excerpt above]. (p. 126)

[Habitually] and characteristically Steinbeck sets human conduct and animal conduct side by side, on the same plane, not simply as commentaries one on the other but as indications of the same nature in the two apparently disparate sorts of creature. (p. 127)

[He] incessantly presents man as a creature, indeed a captive, of instincts and appetites only, blindly desiring and striving, not reasoning, judging, choosing but automatically responding to impulses and attractions.

As for man's being moral, Doc (who, to repeat, is Steinbeck's spokesman in In Dubious Battle) says: "My senses aren't above reproach, but they're all I have … I don't want to put on the blinders of 'good' and 'bad,' and limit my vision." In The Grapes of Wrath, Casy says of sexual promiscuity: "Maybe it ain't a sin. Maybe it's just the way folks is … There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing." Pa Joad echoes this with, "A fella got to do what he got to do." And Ma Joad says, "What people does is right to do." (pp. 127-28)

And so in man, according to Steinbeck, what counts, what alone matters, is life, its preservation, its transmission…. [In Burning Bright, when his wife's child by another man] is born, Joe Saul greets it as his own, declaiming that every man is the father of every child and every child the offspring of every man. Life is vindicated, life goes on, and whatever violence is done the moral code is of no moment alongside that fact.

The thoughtful reader is appalled by the complete severance of man from morality which the book's argument represents. He reflects that fundamentally what is amiss with these characters is failure or refusal to recognize and accept God's will and word: as regards physical defects, the exclusiveness of marriage, the disposition of life. (p. 128)

[The] human collectivity, men en masse, may be all that is meant by the term "God." Several times in Steinbeck's works one finds the idea that a character has outgrown prayer because, with enlightenment, he no longer knows what or whom to pray to…. On the other hand, the ignorant, superstitious people of whom Steinbeck is writing in The Pearl and The Long Valley (1938) pray because it is part of an immemorial behavior-pattern which, quite as uninformed as their forebears, they unquestioningly accept.

These benighted men and women, incidentally, are Catholic, and it is interesting to see how Steinbeck treats Catholicism. It is not understandingly or sympathetically. (pp. 128-29)

Nowhere does Steinbeck give evidence of adequate knowledge of the Catholicism on which he touches with evident disfavor in his various productions. He seems much more familiar with the cruder sort of evangelical Protestantism, and this is acidly treated in his books. (p. 130)

Steinbeck may justly be said to belong to that populous group of contemporary novelists who, rejecting as procrustean and unlivable a peculiar, diluted blend of Calvinism and Lutheranism, think that, in exposing such freakishness, they are refuting authentic Christianity. They look upon what is a caricature of authentic Christianity…. The privativism which Casy, Pat Humbert, and other Steinbeck characters find and disavow in what they take to be integral Christianity is actually a disease at the heart of a faint and fragmentary copy of genuine Christianity. (p. 131)

Steinbeck, therefore, nowhere comes to grips with the basic, pristine Christian religion. Hence he never takes into account what it has to say about human nature, human life, human destiny. He is not conversant with its moral code as a whole. He is not familiar with its bearing upon the human predicament, the light it casts upon it and the resources it brings to mortals for managing and solving it.

His last book, Burning Bright, harshly highlights all that is weakest in Steinbeck as a philosopher and a writer of fiction. Even if one could do the impossible and agree that adultery is no more than an outdated word so long as life is propagated, there is the question of [the fate of Victor, the baby's father]. Friend Ed, goodness and wisdom personified, recommends that Victor be used and then cooly kills the young man when convenience calls for that. There is no slightest hint that the murder is a wicked injustice. The brutality, the icy amorality of this is one of the most shocking things in all Steinbeck's output, the more shocking because it comes from a supposedly mature man and is surrounded with resounding generalities about the sacredness of life. Yet it is scarcely surprising in view of the sophistry in which, in his succession of works, Steinbeck has become ever more tightly entangled. And, by the way, one might here stress the fact that it is the sophistry, rather than the foul speech, which is most regrettable in Steinbeck's fiction. Burning Bright is almost entirely free of the vulgar, obscene, or blasphemous dialog which characterizes so many of Steinbeck's books. It is only the coarse Victor who recalls, and that but faintly and briefly, the profane and filthy language of the figures which dominate, and are constantly articulate in the idiom of lewdness, in several of the other novels. The rest of the principals use no offensive words, indeed their talk has an exalted ring to it, and yet the ideas they express are far worse than mere lurid utterance. To reproduce verbatim the gutter language of people who are virtually mute unless they resort to lascivious lingo is hardly to be compared with the communication of a philosophy of life which is totally fallacious. (pp. 131-32)

In Burning Bright, too, may be seen at its worst Steinbeck's failure with characters. He has written about fifteen volumes of fiction by now, yet given us almost no memorable characters. Ma Joad is a possible exception, but it is hard to name even half-a-dozen more. For the most part the men and women in Steinbeck's narratives are hazy, faceless, pithless. They are not sharply drawn, clearly projected, unmistakably themselves, or recognizable from one's experience however catholic. They have no forms, in the philosophical sense, which is but another way of saying that they have no souls. There are about them certain superficial peculiarities which make for a measure of material individuation, but almost nothing making for personality. They are heavily documented types, not living people. Nor is this merely a deficiency in imagination or technique. It springs from Steinbeck's conviction that a man or woman is just "a little piece of a great big soul." It has been said of Steinbeck that he is not a creative artist; if this is true, it is to be attributed to his missing the point of God's several creation of humans, each a separate entity, each a microcosm and a mystery which cannot be wholly fused or confused with any other. There is not anything abstract about God's attitude toward men, but there is about Steinbeck's.

Also in Burning Bright there is on display Steinbeck's tendency to cause his characters to speak in bombast. This novel abounds in the most stilted, overblown, porous talk that a reader is likely to encounter anywhere. It is hardly more than an accumulation of big, empty words through which an aimless wind blows, making unintelligible noises. Here Steinbeck is manifesting his penchant for the amorphous notion orotundly uttered. Imprecision in thinking is matched by imprecision in expression. The gutless abstraction emerges as a vapor of speech.

This is the irony of John Steinbeck's work: that, in his concern for Manself and Life, he has dissolved both for want of exact and plenary knowledge of what they are. He who would affirm the dignity of man, deals that dignity a shattering blow by denying man the dimensions and the personality which alone confer a dignity that is intrinsic and not an accident of circumstance, the attributes of sovereign intellect and unforced free will which alone make man more than the beasts that perish. He who would extol Life and win its reverence, strips it of whatever differentiates it from mere biological existence. And yet, over and over again in Steinbeck's writing, there are crude intimations of something beyond what, when he is being definitive, he sets as the terms of man's being. One could wish that the novelist would rigorously examine these, for it is only from apprehension and appreciation of them that there can come the clarity and strength which his work lacks. (pp. 132-33)

The judgment one must pass on Steinbeck is this: that he is a sentimentalist…. [His sentimentality] 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. (p. 134)

John S. Kennedy, "John Steinbeck: Life Affirmed and Dissolved," in Fifty Years of the American Novel, edited by Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. (abridged by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons; copyright © 1951 Charles Scribner's Sons), Scribner's, 1951 (and reprinted in Steinbeck and His Critics: A Record of Twenty-five Years, edited by E. W. Tedlock, Jr., and C. V. Wicker, University of New Mexico Press, 1957, pp. 119-34).

T. A. Shippey

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

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.

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Steinbeck, John (Vol. 124)


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