Aga Popęda here, checking in after attending a virtual Stanford webinar this afternoon titled “Reclaiming John Steinbeck: Gavin Jones in Conversation with Daniel Lanza Rivers” that you should be able to watch on the Stanford YouTube channel soon—to reclaim Steinbeck yourself. (The event was organized by The Bill Lane Center for the American West.) After all, as Lanza Rivers (of San Jose State University) pointed out, this is Steinbeck country; John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, and many of his stories take place on the Central Coast. In other words Steinbeck is everywhere in the landscape here, and his ideas—much like California hills and valleys—are “sprawling.”
Jones is a professor of humanities at Stanford University, who just published a book: Reclaiming John Steinbeck: Writing for the Future of Humanity, available in bookstores and online. In it, he claims that for a long time, Steinbeck’s novels were too beloved by the masses in the U.S and in the U.K. to be properly studied.
“Canonically neglected,” Jones says, describing the scepticism of intellectuals and critics toward Steinbeck’s novels and stories. They were too populistic, too sentimental, too unapologetically taking the side of California poor, often immigrants, including early literary character representations of Asian-Americans in American literature. Not a wealthy man, Steibeck wasn’t above writing a marine biology textbook when he had to, and was sensitive to the impacts of the Great Depression (1929-1939), which he witnessed and lived through.
Steinbeck was preoccupied with biology, climate change, ecology, race, social injustice and the fate of humanity on a precarious planet, Jones says. He was aware of the consequences of the Western conquest and lived in a world that was essentially bicultural. Jones estimates that about a third of Steibeck’s work was about Mexico or Mexican immigrants. When it comes to the theme of race, he captured “the consciousness of a white identity that is both attracted and repulsed by nonwhite characters laboring in the California fields.”
In addition to commenting on the obvious and beloved classic, such as The Grapes of Wrath or Cannery Row, Jones reaches to lesser known works by Steinbeck, such as a the collection The Long Valley, where we can encounter stories dealing with the Western eugenics movement (centered around Stanford) and vigilante violence.
Steinbeck’s second novel, To a God Unknown, was completely neglected by critics, but it “deserves our attention not least for pioneering fictional treatment of a timely subject in California: drought,” Jones wrote.
In 1989, crowds gathered at San Jose University to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. The keynote address was delivered by a well-known critic, Jones recounts in his introduction to Reclaiming Steinbeck. During the speech, the critic complained the novel was ruined by didacticism.
Eventually, in 2039, we will celebrate the novel’s centennial. Perhaps, by then, it’ll be in a world slightly more receptive to Steinbeck’s social and climate justice engagement.