“Mr. Steinbeck, almost always in his fiction, is dealing either with the lower animals or with human beings so rudimentary that they are almost on the animal level.”
So said Edmund Wilson, lion of the fashionably radical literary elite, in the New Yorker in 1936. Wilson’s one-time wife, society leftist Mary McCarthy, writing for The Nation, disposed of Steinbeck as “childish” and “infantile.”
They were talking about In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck’s first big book—a novel about an apple-pickers strike (set in a fictionalized Watsonville) that treats both growers and labor organizers as enemies of the workers.
While the fancy critics’ opinions seem almost shocking today, they were common among literary critics and academics in the 1930s, many of whom claimed progressive political opinions. For them, Steinbeck was a threat because he did not kowtow to the officially sanctioned left-wing ideology of the day. (For a variety of reasons that are well-articulated in his letters and speeches, he hated Communists as much as he hated greedy capitalists.)
Susan Shillinglaw, a San Jose State professor speaking at this weekend’s Steinbeck Festival [see schedule, page 19], writes that In Dubious Battle “dissects with a steady hand both the ruthlessness of the strike organizers and the rapaciousness of the greedy landowners.” Sure enough, Steinbeck pissed off both sides.
The attacks against him worsened after The Grapes of Wrath. In Salinas and Oklahoma—home to the working people he championed in that great novel—upstanding citizens bought the book in great numbers, piled them up and built bonfires. Priests called John Steinbeck a pornographer and politicians called him a Communist.
Rep. Lyle Boren, a Democrat from Oklahoma at the time of the book’s publication, said “his book is a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.” The American Federation of Farmers (AFF)—a group made up not of traditional family farmers, but of a then-new breed of agribusinessmen—undertook a smear campaign to “show” that Steinbeck’s portrait of the life of a migrant laborer was a nightmarish fantasy, and that real life was good for pickers. The AFF hired “journalists” to shill for the company with stories of happy field workers, and even went so far as to commission a book called Plums of Plenty.
Under attack by the right, Steinbeck had few defenders on the left. In universities and literary journals, critics turned their noses up. While disagreeing with his renegade politics, they said they hated his writing, too—it was vulgar; common.
Reading The Grapes of Wrath, it’s no wonder it was hated by people in power. The book is a cutting revelation of the violence underlying native American greed. It reveals this violence in the pain of one family, a family recognizable as human beings, fellow Americans. That’s why the book is heart-wrenching, and a very effective piece of propaganda.
Next to Steinbeck, Michael Moore looks like a weak-kneed liberal. Fahrenheit 9/11 proves the venality of only one man and his coterie; The Grapes of Wrath recasts a piece of American history in the dark light of brutal oppression.
Like Moore, Steinbeck played to the regular guy and gal. His book was read not only by the kind of sophisticates who read Marx (and now read Chomsky); he was a pop-culture artist, read by carpenters and hairdressers. The book-burnings persisted, but millions of people read The Grapes of Wrath. Despite his many enemies on both sides of the political spectrum, Steinbeck became a literary and cultural hero, the greatest champion the American worker has ever known.
Jack Hicks, a UC Davis professor also speaking at the Steinbeck Fest, says Steinbeck’s revolt was “non-ideological.”
“He had an extraordinary capacity for compassion,” Hicks says. “Living with the migrants, he was just outraged by what he found. He witnessed the suffering of the people, and the indifference of the government. So he was radicalized—a better word would be humanized. And the root of his anger was outrage of the inability of the American government to address the plight. He was a moral witness.”
Steinbeck’s moral outrage did not bend much. In responding to his critics, Steinbeck did not back down an inch.
“I am a very dangerous revolutionary,” he said. “Herein is my revolt: I will fight for the right of the individual to function as an individual without pressure from any direction. I am unalterably opposed to any interference with the creative mind. It may be wrong, but out of it come the only rights we know.
“I place myself at the service of this revolutionary cause. The minds and spirits of men can and will be free.”
Despite the fact that he was deeply hated by a lot of important people, Steinbeck was enormously successful. Even as he inspired passionate criticism, he won some critical accolades—in part because ordinary people loved him.
The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It was followed by Of Mice and Men (1937), another book about farm laborers plagued by the Depression and the Dust Bowl—also a big success. Then he picked up where he had left off to write the “Labor trilogy.”
The Long Valley (1938), like The Pastures of Heaven (1932), gives us the life of a small California farm, in the same way that Cannery Row (1945), like Tortilla Flat (1935), gives us a world created by a small community of outsiders. Then, when World War II broke out, Steinbeck signed up as a correspondent, living with and even fighting alongside the troops. He wrote some straight-up propaganda (which failed as both literature and propaganda). He wrote the script for Viva Zapata!, directed by his good friend Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando. And during this time, he wrote the masterful epic, East of Eden, which was revolutionary in the literary if not political sense.
In time, Steinbeck became known as one of America’s and the world’s most important writers, and finally, in 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
But even then, the Steinbeck-haters were sharpening their knives.
The day before the award was to be presented, the New York Times ran an unusually rancorous attack-piece on Steinbeck, under the headline, “Does a Writer with a Moral Vision of the 1930s Deserve the Nobel Prize?” In the piece, Arthur Mizener, a Princeton professor who proudly exhibited what we would today call “classism,” called Steinbeck a “limited talent” whose work was “watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing.
“As soon as he tries to see adult experience in the usual way and to find the familiar kind of moral in it,” Mizener sniffed, “[his] insight and talent cease to work and he writes like the author of any third-rate best-seller.”
Whether or not Steinbeck saw that one coming, he was ready for his critics. In his acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize awards banquet, the laureate proved his eloquence and his passion in a defense of literature itself as a popular art—an art of the people:
“Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches,” he said. “Nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tinhorn mendicants of low calorie despair.
“Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.”
Steinbeck believed that his literary critics hated him for his politics rather than for the artistic flaws they said were found in his work. He was probably correct, and this is still true. The music critic Terry Teachout, in an article published in March of this year, offered the following: “Hard as it is to imagine today, there was a time when second-rate propaganda-pushers such as Lillian Hellman and John Steinbeck were widely regarded as major writers.” An important thing to know about this opinion is that it was stated in The Weekly Standard, a political journal of the wacko right.
So maybe it’s time for Steinbeck to become cool.
Back in the ‘30s, the fact is, it wasn’t cool to be dissed by the commies; it was frankly much cooler to at least sympathize. Witness the great American Red journalist John Reed, who was nowhere near as good a writer as Steinbeck, but was considered so cool that Warren Beatty made a movie about him.
Steinbeck wasn’t flamboyant like Hemmingway, and he wasn’t effete like Fitzgerald, and his characters weren’t exotic like Faulkner’s. He was too Western to be cool like Bowles and too old to be cool like Kerouac.
The one thing he’s always had going for him, as far as cool is concerned, is that Steinbeck is dangerous, and dangerous is cool.
By the 1950s, when cool was invented, Steinbeck was trying to be a pillar of the establishment. By the mid-’60s he was a friend of LBJ and a supporter of the war in Viet Nam.
Perhaps as a result, a new, hyper-politicized generation, which was on its way to winning a cultural revolution, paid little attention to Steinbeck.
“He was seen as a stodgy old man who had become an enemy,” Jack Hicks says. “One always fears this—you don’t want to end up a crank and a curmudgeon. It’s easy to see Steinbeck as someone who does that.”
However, it’s Hicks’ belief—one he’ll share at a talk on Saturday (see schedule, page 19), that Steinbeck began to change his views toward the end of his life. Hicks gives credit for the change to Stienbeck’s son, John Steinbeck IV.
Like his patriotic father, John IV had gone to war. In Viet Nam, the younger Steinbeck experienced a harsh awakening. In Saigon, he saw “the arcane underbelly of the culture of the war,” Hicks says. Gradually, John IV hooked up with a group of radical reporters creating what became the Dispatch News Service.
When he came back to the States, John IV became “a heavy-duty member of the counter-culture,” Hicks says. Thoroughly disenchanted with what modern America had become, he experimented with drugs, and in 1967 he was busted for possession of 10 pounds of pot.
Although he had long been a critic of the kind of radicals that his son now associated with, Steinbeck, Sr. rallied to his son’s side. And there, Hicks believes, Steinbeck may have become reacquainted with a piece of his former self.
Hicks, co-editor of an acclaimed anthology of California literature published last year, is fascinated with the relationship between Steinbeck and his son, in which he seems to find a kind of redemption.
“I think the trauma his son experienced taught Steinbeck something new about life, in particular about war,” Hicks says.
“I’m interested in the relationship between generations, in general, in what each owes the other. One role may be to help the preceding generation modify its views.
“As you get older, you become more hardened in your views. But you can also be taught by the generation that comes after you. As a teacher, I’m acutely aware of that fact.”
In the elder Steinbeck, we do find, fresh growth on the old roots of a radical. In Travels With Charley, in which the old man roams the countryside in a pickup truck with his dog, John Steinbeck shows himself to be capable of new discoveries: “This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me.”
Perhaps there is still a new Steinbeck waiting to be discovered.