Steinbeck's childhood home on Central Avenue, Salinas, California. This Steinbeck Country photograph courtesy of windyhillpublications.com.
Introducing The Steinbeck Question, Donald Noble asks why, given the acknowledged literary and historical import of The Grapes of Wrath, does Steinbeck often still receive less critical attention than his contemporaries like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner? In the essay following Noble's introduction, Jackson Benson, author of the mammoth 1984 biography The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, compiles thirty-five years of Steinbeck scholarship since Peter Lisca's Wide World of John Steinbeck (1959) and offers new insight to try to answer Noble's question.
There seems little to say about Steinbeck's critical reputation before Tortilla Flat, his first commercial success. In retrospect, his two volumes of short stories, The Pastures of Heaven and The Long Valley contain much of his finest work, but aside from his editor, few people paid attention to Steinbeck's work till Tortilla Flat was published. Benson writes that although this book succeeded critically and commercially, its comedic elements led many critics to categorize Steinbeck as a gifted humorist (a reputation Steinbeck later encouraged with works like Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and The Short Reign of Pippin IV).
When In Dubious Battle was published in 1936, Steinbeck's critical reputation received a boost. Reviewers had dismissed his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), as overly Romantic, and his second, To a God Unknown, as unfocused, pretentious mysticism; but with IDB, they acknowledged that Steinbeck's abilities had matured and that he had created a unified, well-conceived, and well-characterized novel, qualities more conservative critics viewed as characteristic of belles lettres.
Opinion of In Dubious Battle varied among Marxist critics. Bernard Smith, writing for the New York Herald-Tribune, said that the character Mac says "things for which he could be expelled in disgrace from his party twenty times over. Specifically, this man displays a recklessness and a cold-blooded manipulation of violence which are romantic fictions of the author's imagination." However, in the New Masses, Walter Raston defended Steinbeck's portrayal of Mac and Jim, the communist organizers.
Oddly enough, In Dubious Battle nearly wasn't published. When Steinbeck sent the manuscript to New York, his friend and primary editor, Pascal Covici, was out of town. The manuscript was sent to another reader whose Communist sympathies led him to object to Steinbeck's unflattering portrait of a communist-organized strike among California fruit pickers. Fortunately, Covici returned just in time to save the rejected manuscript and push through its publication. Both critically and commercially successful, In Dubious Battle, in the words of Lincoln Steffens, was a "stunning, straight, correct narrative about things as they happen."
In a larger sense, this incident typifies the strained relationship Steinbeck always had with the more leftist-oriented critics of the publishing and academic worlds. As Benson, and others, note, leftists wanted Steinbeck to continue producing work like In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, and many wanted him to go even further and take a harder stand against capitalism. To them, the publication of Grapes in 1939 indicated that Steinbeck was progressing in the direction that they had hoped after IDB. In fact, critics on the left and the right of the political spectrum saw Grapes as propagandist and socialist. In the context of their times that reaction is understandable.
Until the Nazi-Soviet anti-aggression pact in the late thirties, Marxist forces in America, although always a minority, had nevertheless been growing in influence in both political and critical spheres, although, as Barbara Foley recently points out, what qualified in the eyes of critics like the editors of The New Masses as proletarian literature changed over that decade. Unfortunately for Steinbeck's future reputation, his identification with communistic/socialistic literature and causes unduly influenced critical reception of his work. Not only did it establish unrealistic expectations on the part of more liberal critics like Mary McCarthy, but it also influenced those more conservative critics and publishers (like Luce and Hearst) who would always associate Steinbeck with the literary left. Given the waning Marxist influence in academia in the forties and fifties and the growing conservative forces in academia in those same years, especially the New Critics, Steinbeck's work found itself seeded on stony ground.
Yet, with the release of Grapes and its film adaptation by John Ford a year later (with Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad), Steinbeck's popularity with the American public soared, and with that public his reputation never diminished. Even in Russia, where publishers rushed Grapes into print, Steinbeck did well. Over 300,000 copies sold in 1941 alone according to Barbara Foley. Of course, as Benson again reminds us, that sort of unswerving reader loyalty may adversely affect a writer's critical reputation. Still, in 1940, the year The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Steinbeck's reputation with both the general public and the critics seemed secure, and everyone predicted greater things to come.
What came, a year later, was Steinbeck's collaboration with his friend the marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, The Sea of Cortez, a non-fiction work based on their joint scientific research and specimen-gathering trip to northern Mexico, which confused the critics. Why was the author of The Grapes of Wrath writing about sea life and musing philosophically about the nature of things? Then, when Cannery Row came out a few years later, leftist critics were no longer confused. They were certain that Steinbeck had abandoned his crusade of championing the downtrodden, and worse yet, had turned to ridiculing and exploiting them in the bums and whores of the Row.
But Steinbeck had just returned from his brief career as a war correspondent and said he had written Cannery Row as a sort of therapy. To return to the area, the times, and the people he had loved so much as a young, struggling writer acted as a balm on the horrors he had seen during the war. But, the continuing hostile reaction of many (not all, but many) critics to his work after Grapes led Steinbeck to denigrate the critical establishment while simultaneously trying to figure out what they wanted so that he could produce it for them. He had never cared that much for financial success--if he had, Steinbeck would never have experimented as much as he did with his writing. He wrote fiction and non-fiction, serious and comedic novels, war correspondence, war propaganda, journalism, philosophy, plays, short stories, and travelogues.
The work he continued, although still selling well, at best only received lukewarm praise. The Wayward Bus, Sweet Thursday, and East of Eden all attempted to recapture some of that past success without duplicating past forms. Steinbeck adamantly refused to repeat the formulas of past successes (having that in common with many of the Modernists of that era), and he went out of his way to try different approaches to his art.
Steinbeck intended East of Eden, above all, to be his last great effort to write the great American novel which seemed expected of great authors, a novel to equal, if not surpass, The Grapes of Wrath. Although he began it as an autobiographical exercise, Steinbeck quickly found the Biblical themes incorporated into his story of the Trask family overwhelming his artistic curiosity and appealing to his fondness for epic and myth. When critics began reviewing East of Eden, they sensed this pull between some sort of personal nostalgia evident in Steinbeck's scenes involving his mother's family, the Hamiltons, and the epic scope of the Cain and Abel story retold through the tragic history of the Trasks. To many critics, then as now, these forces in the book seem irreconcilable.
Indeed, since Grapes, Steinbeck's work had been getting more personal, more subjective; which when compared with the narrative distance of In Dubious Battle and Grapes seemed such a great contrast, that whether or not there was a subsequent artistic decline, so many critics perceived it. Even among latter-day supporters of Steinbeck's work, his artistic decline during the fifties seemed evident. Critics including Benson object to dismissing the work of as talented and as influential a writer as Steinbeck based on the perceived quality of the work of his later career.
By the time Steinbeck wrote his last books, The Winter of Our Discontent and Travels With Charley, he had become so disillusioned with his society and with the critics, that he seems to have abandoned his quest for the great American novel. Ironically, however, his critical reputation showed signs of reviving in the early sixties. Peter Lisca's Wide World of John Steinbeck and Warren French's John Steinbeck began to interest a younger generation of critics in Steinbeck. And, in 1962, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although American critics scoffed at awarding this prize to Steinbeck, it showed that outside his own country, his critical reputation had continued to grow (as, in fact, it still does--Steinbeck's current critical reputation in Japan is quite high).
Benson and other Steinbeck scholars have suggested that Steinbeck's support of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War may have hindered the turnaround in his critical reputation in the sixties; yet, by the end of that decade, not long after Steinbeck's death in 1968, Tetsumaro Hiyashi established The Steinbeck Quarterly; and throughout the seventies and eighties, more dissertations, articles, and books on Steinbeck and his writing were published than most scholars would have predicted twenty years earlier.
Two major biographies of Steinbeck have been published within the last fifteen years. 1984 saw publication of Jackson Benson's mammoth The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. Over 1000 pages, Benson's book draws on over a decade of research, including interviews with many of Steinbeck's professional and personal acquaintances. Benson's biography of Steinbeck allowed scholars to assess Steinbeck's work and its critical reception in light of his personal history and his historical context for the first time with this much detail.
Jay Parini's biography of Steinbeck was published in January of 1995. He acknowledges his debt to past Steinbeck scholars, particularly Benson, and in half the pages of Benson's opus, he recounts the increasingly familiar study of Steinbeck's life. Parini's shorter biography might be more attractive for the lay reader with its novelistic narrative; and with anecdotal selections and psychological speculation based on further interviews, Parini brings Steinbeck's personality forth in sharper detail than many previous attempts.
Steinbeck's popular reputation continues unabated. As Benson notes, The Grapes of Wrath still sells about 100,000 copies annually, and all of his books remain in print.
Perhaps, as Benson and Noble suggest, academia will finally recognize Steinbeck, like that other American humorist and man of the people, Mark Twain, as a major literary figure. They rightly comment, however, that in the current academic climate of attention to writers of color, women writers, and non-Western writers, another dead, white, male author more or less may seem inconsequential.
That may be so, but, on the whole, the academy should be large enough to accommodate all these neglected authors. I wonder, rather, if the current practice of re-examining past works might not eventually work to the advantage of Steinbeck's critical reputation. Certainly some of the most interesting Steinbeck criticism of the last five years has been feminist criticism. In The Steinbeck Question, Charlotte Hedalla explores Steinbeck's recurrent metaphor of the valley or garden as an American Eden. He places his women, whose sexuality must be contained or cloistered, in Eve-roles, Hedalla says. Paul Hintz, in the same collection of essays, comments on Steinbeck's male narrative voice and his silent women, particularly in Cannery Row. At any rate, the burgeoning field of Cultural Studies should also open new doors for Steinbeck scholarship. Within the scope of Cultural Studies, many literary works and art forms that have been routinely dismissed by academicians as "popular" may now be reassessed in view of the politics behind their exclusion from or marginalization within the literary canon.
Text © Scott Simkins 1997 revised 2004