When American literature of the 20th century is discussed, three authors generally loom above the rest: William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Yet there is another author who, despite the unevenness of his oeuvre, deserves to be placed in their company: John Steinbeck. Despite having written a novel that was considered, in its day, the greatest an American had ever produced (the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath in 1939), having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and having one of the most enthusiastic of international readerships, Steinbeck has never been given the respect other writers of his generation have received. Though T. Coraghessan Boyle's 1996 novel, The Tortilla Curtain, Bruce Springsteen's 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad, and similar homages signal a rise in Steinbeck's cultural esteem, he has still not gotten his critical due.
American literary culture maintains, at best, a schizophrenic relationship with the artists who produce and stimulate it. Authors previously thought to occupy hallowed ground in American literature have recently been derided as Dead White Males, scions of privilege with little interest in "the people," in political, racial and class realities. Perversely, John Steinbeck, who died in 1968 and whose 100th birthday will be observed in February 2002 (the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California plans a Centennial celebration), has for decades been derided as a writer overly concerned with the common man, with the very political issues canonical American authors ignored at their peril. In addition, Steinbeck's fiction has been regarded as "sentimental," a catch-all term of abuse that relates, in the views of his detractors, to his childlike and naïve treatment of humanity, the shallowness of his characterizations, his black and white, good-versus-evil depiction of political struggles, and the overwritten lushness of his prose. As with all criticism, however misguided or unfair, there are glints of truth within this heap of faultfinding. Yet it is important to place Steinbeck within the context of his times and in relation to his peers in order to fairly evaluate his achievement, which is, to my mind, as significant, moving, frustrating, daring, and heroic as that of any American author who deserves to be known as "great."
The famous literary critic Lionel Trilling used Steinbeck as an example of the kind of American writing that traded in art and complexity for social relevance. Trilling believed that post-World War II American culture was suffused with self-congratulation. Liberalism had become smugly convinced of its own virtuousness; it suffered from a kind of idealization that caused it to celebrate Communism without admitting the reality of the countless lives lost under Stalinism. According to Trilling, Steinbeck wrote novels that called attention to social injustice but ignored the demands of mature art.
Mature art called for complexity and shading, for characters who were "round," who had dimensions that resisted pat interpretation. For critics like Trilling, Steinbeck's characters were too cartoonish. Instead of showing the complexity of human relationships in a capitalist society, Steinbeck‹it was felt‹opted for black and white, clear-cut depictions. Steinbeck created characters whose goodness or evilness was apparent: he placed goodness in the hands of the suffering‹the "great unwashed," like the Joads‹and evil in the hands of anyone with power in society. Rebelling against the tidal force of liberalism in postwar America, critics like Trilling deemed Steinbeck too immature a thinker to write artistic novels instead of merely socially conscious ones. Steinbeck suffered from a double-edged political criticism. On the one hand, it was felt that his view of politics was too simplistic to carry much weight. On the other, it was increasingly felt during the '40s and '50s (when Steinbeck's reputation became firmly established) that politically conscious literature could not be aesthetically pleasing‹could not be art.
Alfred Kazin, in a widely read piece, cemented the view‹now a standard one‹that Steinbeck never wrote well after The Grapes of Wrath. But this view, however entrenched, is easily challenged. Always eager to create new forms and battered by the titanic success of his instantly famous 1939 novel, Steinbeck turned to new kinds of literary output. His post-Grapes of Wrath work is amazingly varied in tone, style, concern, and form: The Sea of Cortez (1941), written with Ed Ricketts, a self-made marine zoologist and philosopher with whom Steinbeck formed an intensely meaningful friendship, combines a scientific study of marine life in the Gulf of California with personal reflection; Burning Bright (1950), about a sterile, difficult man whose wife commits adultery in order to give him a child, is a play written in prose, a hybrid form which few other than Steinbeck have attempted; The Short Reign of Pippin IV (1957), hearkening back to the unclassifiable first novel Cup of Gold (1929), is a rambunctious romp about a 20th century French king. In 1976, the work distilled from Steinbeck's vast research on Arthurian legend, The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights appeared. (This work is loved by medievalists everywhere.) And his famous, almost phantasmagorical novel East of Eden (1952) ‹ a biblical retelling of his own family history that seems to anticipate Gabriel Garcìa Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude ‹ though drubbed by critics, became a classic film directed by Elia Kazan and starring James Dean. It should also be remembered that Steinbeck tried his hand at screenwriting ‹ The Forgotten Village (1941) and Viva Zapata! (1952), the latter starring Marlon Brando. He also wrote the story for one of Alfred Hitchcock's most underrated films, Lifeboat (1944), in which a motley crew of Americans trapped aboard the titular vessel must work together to outwit their enemies.
The theme of disparate individuals working together as one forms the basis for one of the most important and recurring themes in Steinbeck: the idea of the phalanx. For Steinbeck, the cult of individuality in American life prevented social change by fixing the individual in an isolated position of ineffectuality. Only when people worked together could real social harmony and progress occur.
Despite the unfairness of Kazin's views of Steinbeck's post-'30s work, it remains indisputably true that his work before the 1940s remains his most interesting and beautiful. The California locales Steinbeck made famous ‹ Salinas, where he was born, Monterey, the sardine-factory-haven where the paisanos of Tortilla Flat (1935), Cannery Row (1945), and Sweet Thursday (1954) have their adventures ‹ still bask in the glow of the advances made in regional fiction by Steinbeck. The Pastures of Heaven (1932), one of Steinbeck's least appreciated works, is a collection of stories about farmers in the same California valley. "They are descendants," writes Jay Parini (in his superb biography of Steinbeck [Henry Holt; 1995], to which I am indebted), "of the original immigrants who wrested the land from the Native American people who lived there before them and to this day remain only partially absorbed." Like Willa Cather in her 1925 novel The Professor's House, Steinbeck is here concerned with the aftermath of racial history in America, symbolized by the repercussions of Indian removal. In Dubious Battle (1936), a minor epic of a novel about migrant fruit-pickers on strike, marks Steinbeck's first overt engagement with issues of class. The Red Pony (1937), beloved by children everywhere, is a deceptively simple and ambivalent story about a boy, a pony, and life and death. And, of course, The Grapes of Wrath, made into a classic film by John Ford, depicted the lives of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl farmers on their mythic quest for work and freedom in California.
But of all Steinbeck's works, his greatest is his simplest: Of Mice and Men (1937). This tale of California bindle stiffs ‹ farm laborers who roam from place to place seeking work ‹ is Steinbeck's most affecting work. Like The Pearl (1947), it is an allegorical tale about human drives. Critics have missed the pointed unrealism of many of Steinbeck's works ‹ a fablelike quality that functions in tandem with the bitter realities of the plots. This is Steinbeck's distinction ‹ he portrayed tales of social strife with the rhapsodic beauty of a mythographer.
George Milton and Lennie Small are a classic mismatched duo: George is "small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features." But Lennie is his opposite: "huge...shapeless…he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws." George's intelligence matches the sharpness of his features; Lennie's slow-wittedness matches his ponderous gait. Famously, these are men with a dream ‹ their fantasy is to have a little farm to themselves, where they can grow vegetables and where Lennie can tend to "the rabbits." Like a child (Lennie bears more than a passing resemblance to Faulkner's Benjy in the 1929 The Sound and the Fury), Lennie demands that George reiterate their dream again and again, pleading to be told about the little farm they will own and the rabbits he will be allowed to tend. He wants George to tell him how much more fortunate they are than the other men who live as they do:
"Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world…With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us."
Though George grouses over having to take care of Lennie and having to retell the farm-fantasy over and over again, both Lennie and their utopian dream mean a great deal to George. Lennie and George represent the power of male bonding ‹ and the stark sadness of isolation, as Lennie's climactic death confirms. Both George and Lennie, as is apparent from reading the novel, mean a great deal to Steinbeck, too ‹ he had been a bindle stiff himself once and had known people upon whom he based these lifelike characters.
The utopian dream of the farm they can call their own rouses others as well ‹ Candy, the old man whose old dog Slim shoots; Crooks, the black stable hand with a bad back (who appears in the book, but not in the opera)‹ the mere suggestion of a life they can call their own is irresistible. The simple beauty of this dream ‹ and the futility of ever achieving it ‹ give Of Mice and Men its enduring power. Though Curley's Wife, the Eve of this tale (she isn't even given a proper name), has often been criticized as a misogynistic, archetypal figure of Woman-As-Seducer, Steinbeck also imbues her with a poignant loneliness that humanizes her. When told she has a husband she should be spending time with, rather than harassing the men with her seductive wiles, she responds, "Sure I gotta husban'. You all seen him. Swell guy, isn't he?" She adds: " ‹ Sat'iday night. Ever'body out doin' som'pin. Ever'body! An' what am I doin'? Standin' here talkin' to a bunch of bindle stiffs!"
Of Mice and Men is only matched, in its lyric simplicity and beauty and aching evocation of the pain of isolation, by Carson McCullers's short novel, The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951). Of Mice and Men ‹ which has had a fertile and international life in film and theater and, now, opera ‹ is a powerful indication that Steinbeck's idiosyncratic genius lay in making socially conscious literature poetic and rapturous. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald complained that Of Mice and Men was a rip-off of Frank Norris's McTeague (1899), nothing could be farther from the truth. That classic piece of naturalist fiction (a genre that takes a pitilessly scientific view of human relations) has no belief in the power of male friendship, which it harrowingly parodies in its Desert Valley climax, in which two friends-turned-enemies ensure their own doom. But for Steinbeck, the dream of utopian fraternity contains, for the dreamer, the liberating power of imagination and the will to believe that somewhere, someday, such dreams may be realized.