Wednesday, September 8, 2010

John Steinbeck: an Appreciation

Steinbeck's hard to classify ideologically: a writer with the common touch, but subtly subversive. His populist novels and naturalist stories mark him as a people's rather than a professor's writer. After being exposed to his works often in school, few study him in college. After my teens, I never heard his works mentioned or had any assigned in university courses as an English major, all the way through my Ph.D. Now, my specialty wasn't American lit., but the comparative neglect Steinbeck's endured from academics says a lot about their own expectations about what a fiction writer should take on ideologically.

I suspect as with Jack London or even John Dos Passos, he may have been admired more abroad over much of the past century for his workingman's sympathies than here at home, where he was regarded as subversive. I think he is, but in a manner that can be more subtle than a lot of clunky, obvious, school-board approved moralistic narratives marketed to schools to assign to teens today.

"Of Mice and Men" still gets calls once in awhile to be banned from libraries or reading lists in classrooms today. But it's a teachable, readable, and accessible parable that as with many of his works connects more easily with everyday folks than socially engineered texts aimed at more of a specialty niche, a sensitive constituency, or an overly pat presentation of complex ethical issues.

That is, Steinbeck eludes easy summation. "In Dubious Battle" documents the [Communist] Party taking credit--and bearing blame--for its role in a fruit-pickers strike in Watsonville. Perhaps I note in him a kindred spirit for my own eclectic political views and reading tastes. Maybe he helped shape my own perspective. For, I stumbled upon a strange, minor novel of his in seventh grade on the shelf of my small public library.

"The Wayward Bus" caught my eye as Steinbeck was on a list of writers we could choose from to do reports about. I liked its ramshackle quality, its cast of characters thrown together in that familiar scenario of disparate types stuck bickering or romancing or communing in a predicament. I also liked his depiction of the rural Californian landscape that was fast receding as I grew up around where I lived. Perhaps not Steinbeck's best, but it inspired me to check out every other work of his I could, even buying some Penguin paperbacks with my scant allowance.

"The Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden" succeed as epics; the Dust Bowl-to-Oakies sweep of the first and the Cain & Abel adaptation of the second make these stories easy to get lost in, and the fact both were made into fine films adds for many no doubt to their enduring appeal among schoolchildren looking for book reports! Also, "The Red Pony" and "The Pearl" often stay in print perhaps due to their brevity among alert students assigned a "novel" to read, but they are decent if not spectacular efforts.

Readers of his bestsellers may not know of his wider contributions. "The Moon is Down" is a play about the Nazis entering a Norwegian town; "Travels with Charley" is about the trip across America he took circa 1960 with his dog in a camper shell trailer. He adapted the Arthurian legends of Malory into Modern English and wrote Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," although he asked his name be removed from the film's credits. He won the Nobel Prize in 1962, which angered critics.

I especially liked his short stories such as "The Chrysanthemums." That and the novella-length "Red Pony" appears in the collection "The Long Valley" (1938); for me, it and "The Pastures of Heaven" (1932) stand out as my favorite books by him. "Pastures" tells in a dozen tales of those in a long, remote valley (Carmel Valley?) near Monterey, where his "Tortilla Flat" also takes place, a more lighthearted effort. Monterey's cashed in on his reputation along the street front along the bay renamed Cannery Row, where no fishermen remain but where a franchise of Bubba Gump's sits near the elegant Aquarium.

Salinas, his birthplace, further inland, is grittier. Few tourists go there, but some may now. Its agribusiness growers opposed for a long time the National Steinbeck Center which finally opened in 1998. There you can see his tiny trailer shell camper, dubbed "Rocinante" after Don Quixote's horse, displayed.

Steinbeck took on the growers, siding with the workers as he had worked beside them at Spreckels Ranch, just south of this city. He ran into trouble for supposed radical sympathies after championing the migrant workers in his fiction. He later covered the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where his son served, and surprised some for his fair-minded portrayal of the common soldier sent over there.

His common touch may seem sentimental or agitprop to today's readers. But as Steinbeck showed his first readers in the Depression, he reminds us of a message worth repeating. He alerted audiences to the dangers to human dignity and family cohesion brought about by the onslaught of factory farming and animal agriculture--that since this era have driven out nearly all the small families who in his lifetime made a more modest living in such California locales. So, he's still teaching some of us by his legacy today, even as he entertains long after our school days may have ended. Perhaps you'll pick up one of his books from a shelf yourself.

(P.S. Read my review of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" for an exposé of how much agribusiness has boomed since the days when local boy Steinbeck worked on a ranch.)

(Posted to 8-9-10; Image can be seen better here: "John Steinbeck Map of America"--well, Central California at least.)

1 comment:

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

P.S. If Steinbeck made the reading list in Soviet schools, I wonder if this led to his removal from American schools at the same time? Or, did film versions and his popularity ensure his favor here?