Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — John Steinbeck (Part 1)

 

John Steinbeck

“We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — ”Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” — John Steinbeck, “In Awe of Words”

John Steinbeck was both one of the most influential voices in American arts and letters in the 20th century, and served as America’s conscience.  Every thoughtful and precise in his use of language, he asserted in the same essay quoted above that…”(a) man who writes a story is forced to put into it the best of his knowledge and the best of his feeling. The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator. Of course, there are dishonest writers who go on for a little while, but not for long—not for long.”

Few writers have managed to hone their skills and to discipline their minds to the level of Steinbeck.  His steely-eyed and honest observations expressed in his writing cut through the lies that people told themselves about themselves and their times.  Despite attempts by various ideologues of various stripes, his writing defied easy categorization.  This is, I think, because he was a practical man and, as such, this practicality was revealed in his writing.

There are also two major influences in his life that made him what he was.  The first is the place where he grew up, and which informs his great novel East of Eden and his other major works, which was Salinas, California.  Anyone who has been to Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula cannot but help be impressed with the topography and natural beauty of the land, especially as it must have been during his formative years.  Some of the most productive and verdant farmland is found in the Salinas Valley.  During the time of his growing up California was a progressive frontier much different that the bi-polar thinking of our own times.  People tended to be both practical and, if it could be said that they had an ideology, it was mostly based in what has come to be called American Pragmatism in practice and deed, though perhaps not in conscious affect.

The other major influence on his writing occurred through his friendship with the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who co-founded Pacific Biological Laboratories in Monterey.  From all contemporaneous accounts “Doc” Ricketts was an extraordinary and largely self-educated man.  He influenced not only Steinbeck but also the American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, and Henry Miller.  His philosophy combined an advanced sense of ecological thinking and a kind of naturalistic Pragmatism in the collection of knowledge and in determining the essence of truth from that knowledge, which both he and Steinbeck labeled “speculative metaphysics.”  His interests were wide ranging, his knowledge of zoology and biology extraordinary for his time, and his thinking clear and straight.  He never made much money, served his country dutifully in two world wars, experienced long periods of heartbreak, tragedy and disappointment, and from all accounts at the time of his death while driving across a train crossing–was content in his condition, and loved his life.  He was beloved and his influence on Monterey and its environs long-lasting.  So influential was he on Steinbeck as both mentor and alter-ego that one can see a slow decline in the writing of the author after his friend’s death in 1948, though he did manage to complete East of Eden.

Of John Steinbeck’s major and most influential works I would list To A God Unknown (1933), Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), the short story collection The Long Valley (1938), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), the autobiographical non-fiction work The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941), The Pearl (1947), the non-fiction Log of the Sea of Cortez (1951), East of Eden (1952), and the later undervalued Winter of Our Discontent (1961).  Even the lesser works such as Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), Sweet Thursday (1954), and the non-fiction work Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1962) all have something important to say to the reader.  In 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature which was roundly condemned by the literary critics at The New York Times in what can only now be seen as an embarrassing bit of vitriol, but it shows that even in their own times great writers are oftentimes undervalued.

This does not mean that we should place Steinbeck beyond criticism.  At his best, when he achieved his own standards for writing, no one could and can touch him for his ability to both tell the story and to both connect and shock the reader.  At his worst he could be preachy and his prose the most purple hue found in the English language.  Still, at its most purple, much of this prose is both beautiful and transcendent; and when he was passionate or angry and wants to make a point he takes you with him.  It was well known that “Doc” Ricketts had a significant library in Monterey that was destroyed during a Cannery fire that also wiped out his laboratories.  Among those works were not only important scientific papers and books, but also a significant library of poetry.  As such, and knowing the connection, we can trace the influence of poetry in Steinbeck’s prose.  Let Faulkner have his due with his obscure prose structure, and Hemingway with his short, clipped sentences.  Reading Steinbeck is like reading a man who knows his place in the vastness of the universe and is still both awed and puzzled by it.

The works after the Second World War and after Rickett’s death, save East of Eden are also, no doubt, lesser ones or are gentle comedies centered on human weakness, and more than a little nostalgia expressed by the author for a Monterey that had long since passed.  One cannot criticize the man so much as criticize the author for taking this path.  There is no doubt that the war that brought us death camps, the unrestrained destruction of entire cities, and suicide attacks affected him greatly.  The later simultaneous loss of both his best friend through death, and his wife through separation and divorce upon his return from Ricketts’ funeral, certainly drove him into a deep depression that lasted for at least a couple of years.  It is no small irony, then, that many of the works which are considered his lesser ones are also among his most beloved, gave him a measure of economic security, and led people to read his earlier, lesser known, and somewhat more controversial works.  At the same time, the lesser works didn’t pander, nor did they compromise his vision.  They are part of the whole.

Part One:  From To A God Unknown through The Grapes of Wrath

At the center of Steinbeck’s novels and writings is the theme of connection.  These connections include the individual’s connection to another, be that “other” family, friend, or stranger, to nature, and to the vastness of the universe.  The struggle with which his characters (and he) grapple are their relationship to the world.  When they do not think and consider these interconnections, acting from a lack of thought and concern, they fail as human beings.  Conflict and tragedy soon follows.

This theme is first encountered in To A God Unknown (1933).  The main character, Joseph Wayne, moves to California as a homesteader after receiving a blessing to strike out on his own from his father, who dies shortly after his departure.  He builds his home in a fertile Nuestra Senora Valley under a giant oak tree.  Mourning his loss and his absence during his father’s death, Joseph comes to feel as if the oak tree has become both the protecting spirit of his father and symbolizes his connection to the land.  He pays homage to the tree and celebrates an annual fiesta at the homestead commemorating its founding.  He soon convinces his brothers to join him in California and they find land adjacent to Joseph’s homestead.  Not long afterward, he convinces a school teacher named Elizabeth from a nearby town to marry him and join him in running the remote homestead and building a family.  The remainder of the story concerns the connections of the characters to one another, and their connection to the legacy of the brothers’ father symbolized in the oak, which also symbolizes their connection to the land.  When one of the brothers destroys the connection to the oak through the intervention of his religious beliefs, the land runs dry and innocents are killed.  Even Joseph fails to understand his unique role in the story until the very end, when only the most extreme measures will restore things to their rightful order.  As such, To A God Unknown is a brave and unflinching book, borrowing heavily from both biblical and Greek mythology.

The next novel Tortilla Flat (1935), presents the life of a group of paisanos (literally countrymen)–people of Mexican-Indian-Caucasian-Spanish background, who reside in a poor neighborhood of Monterey known as Tortilla Flat, about the time just after the First World War.  Both comedic and tragic, the book consists of a series of tests or quests that the protagonists must face in the vein as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  Once again, the theme of connectedness is introduced, but for a group of individuals who become one in the face of a hostile world in which they are poor and a minority, with one goal–to live and enjoy life to the fullest.  In the words of Steinbeck at the beginning of the novel, “This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three become one thing…when you speak of Danny’s house you are to understand to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which comes sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow.”  Because they never stray from their connections to one another, the people of Tortilla Flat remain happy and vital, even when one of their own group falls to tragedy.

Recently Tortilla Flat has been criticized for perpetuating ethnic stereotypes.  I think, however, that reading the text itself fails to convince one that this is the case.  Ad hominem attacks on the author’s own ethnicity and background are poorly disguised types of bigotry, separating people of their humanity in favor of ethnic identity.  Much as in the case of Huckleberry Finn, ethnocentric critiques tend to impose on the book interpretations based on a type of prejudice and dogma no less offensive and nonsensical than the type of opinions that attached to the characters by those who did hold such prejudices in his own time.  In the latter case, this reaction caused the author to write a forward in the 1937 Modern Library edition in which he stated: “..it did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish.  They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat…good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes.  If I have done them harm by telling a few of their stories I am sorry.  It will never happen again.”

In Dubious Battle (1936) was introduced to many readers as Steinbeck’s proletarian novel, with charges in later years that he had been influenced by Communists or Communism in its writing.  Once again, however, the novel and the novelist fail to be successfully categorized by this critique (Steinbeck’s own dislike of Communism and Communists personally is well documented), and it has rightfully been hailed as one of his best and most realistic novels.  The story centers on the poor working conditions of the fruit pickers in the mythical Torgas Valley of California, which he based on a real strike among pickers in Tulare County.  Among this discontent come two organizers, Jim Nolan, a young man whose father had a strong reputation for red organizing, and the more seasoned Mac MacLeod.  Both work for “the Party” which is never identified.  Both Nolan and MacLeod infiltrate the group of pickers, who are attempting to organize a strike for better conditions, with the intention of provoking more direct and violent confrontations with the growers for their own purposes.  Here Steinbeck studies the behavior of the people who are soon transformed from a disorganized and vulnerable group of individuals, into an organized group of self-governing union men and women, and then, through manipulation, whipped into an unthinking mob.  The novel progresses in supporting this transformation through the often familiar action and response: the workers organizing, the owners taking stronger and more violent measures, scabs being hired, vigilantes and police attacking the strikers and organizers, and the strikers fighting back.  The story ends on a note of uncertainty as the actions of the Party bring unnecessary death and suffering–and a shockingly orchestrated murder–as the goals of the Party become paramount and disconnected from the needs of the people.  We are left with hoping for the best for the strikers, and for the worst for both the Party and the growers.

Of Mice and Men (1937) today has the distinction of being one of the most censored books in the country and, thus, appears on the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books 2000-2009.  That such a simple and profound story could rouse such ire speaks loudly about the effectiveness of the subject matter and the writing.  What the novel highlights more than anything else is human loneliness and alienation due to the boundaries created by race, class, circumstance, ignorance, and disability.

At its core the story revolves around the friendship between the small, intelligent and self-educated George Milton, and the simple-minded giant Lennie Small.  The men are migrant workers who have found a job at a ranch near Soledad, California, after being run out of Weed due to charges of attempted rape by Lennie’s obsession with stroking soft things.  In this case the soft thing was a dress worn by a young woman, which Lennie refused to let go.  The dream of the two men, which they share, is to earn and save enough money to buy a small farm.  For George the dream will give him a sense of accomplishment and security: to “be someone.”  For Lennie, the farm will provide him countless opportunities to stroke soft animals, especially rabbits.  But we learn very early on in the story that Lennie cannot be trusted not to harm that which he desires.  While they are stopped at a stream just prior to entering the ranch, George, who has become Lennie’s erstwhile guardian, notices that Lennie is holding a dead mouse.  Lennie protests that he just wanted to stroke the mouse and is not responsible for its death.

Upon entering the ranch we meet the rest of the characters–though grotesques may be a more appropriate term to use Sherwood Anderson’s idiom–whom are equally driven by loneliness, but for a plethora of reasons.  The main antagonist is Curley, the boss’ son, a man with an inferiority complex only intensified by the actions of his flirtatious wife who, in the story, has no identity of her own except as “Curley’s wife.”  He takes an instant disliking to Lennie, who he views as an easy foil and target, beating him with impunity at the least provocation.

The other ranch hands mostly keep to themselves except for Candy, a one-handed aging handyman with an aging dog, Slim, the main driver of the mule teams who is a natural leader and befriends both George and Lennie, and Crooks, a black stable-hand.  After Candy’s ailing dog is shot by another, unfeeling ranch hand to put him out of his misery, it is Slim, whose bitch has given birth to a litter, who in an act of kindness gives him one of the puppies.  This act and overhearing George and Lennie’s dream of a farm motivates the men to begin to fight off their loneliness and isolation in forming bonds with one another.  Candy, worried about security in his last years, offers to contribute his life savings toward the purchase of the farm in exchange for living there with them.  Crooks, the black stable hand, offers to hoe a garden for them if he is allowed to join them, seeking a sense of autonomy and self-respect in escaping from his degraded condition.

It is in Lennie, however, that the tragedy, which is the story, eventually returns.  Not knowing his own strength, he has killed the puppy given to him by Slim.  Like clockwork enter Curley’s wife, who seems unaware of Lennie’s mental disability, seeing only innocence.  She confides to the unknowing man-child that she is lonely on the ranch, that Curley is not the supportive man she had hoped he would be, and that she flirts with the men only because of her discontent.  She is preoccupied with her own beauty, seeking to escape her circumstances and seeing the strong man as a possible ticket to her dreams.  It is this one-dimensional factor that leads to death, and a selfless act borne of love that still shocks readers today.

The short story collection The Long Valley (1938) is composed of twelve short stories that, on first reading, do not seem to be completely cohesive or well matched.  But on further reading one can discern a shift in the tone of these stories that were important to his developing themes that were to coalesce in The Grapes of Wrath.  The long valley of the title is the Salinas Valley.  But rather than the somewhat affectionate portrayals of common folk found in works such as Tortilla Flat, we find the darker side to the lives of the people of the valley–if not in always in their actions–in their thoughts and motivations.  Steinbeck, despite the comedy and lack of malice in his writing, was always unblinking in his portrayals of his characters, presenting them without judgment, though the descriptions and consequences of their actions would act as their judgment, sometimes deserved, sometimes not.  The stories of most interest are “The Chrysanthemums”, about a woman who is drawn to an itinerant laborer out of loneliness and insecurity; “The Murder”, about an act of murder committed during an act of infidelity and the consequences, or lack thereof; “The Vigilante”, about the lynching of an accused black man; and the Red Pony stories, about the cruelty of children and the cruelty that is tolerated against animals.

A journal notation during this period probably best summarizes his views up to this point:  “In every bit of honest writing in the world,” he wrote, “there is a base theme.  Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other.  Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.  There are shorter means, many of them: there is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme.  Try to understand each other.”  Steinbeck sought to understand these characters, which oftentimes were based on true stories, for he understood that a reprehensible as well as a likeable character must at some level be sympathetic if they are to be successful characters, if their stories are to be told straight and true, and if they are to be seen, unwavering, for what they are.  But, more significantly, his belief was that if people understood their interdependence, the connection and interconnections of everyone and everything in the natural world, that such knowledge would make it hard to commit an act of injustice or aggression against another, would make it hard to destroy the natural environment, to destroy the thing that defines our humanity.  Much like Camus, he saw injustice and cruelty as forms of extreme ignorance.  Like Hannah Arendt, he saw unthinking and unremorseful action in regard to another human being as a form of inhumanity–and of the perpetrator denying their own humanity in the process.  To Steinbeck at this time, it is the application of knowledge, thoughtful reflection, and the acknowledgement of another’s basic humanity that is essential to human society.  His books are not free of seeking justice and atonement, but it a justice and atonement borne of righting the ship, of defending what is good and right, in lieu of some punitive action.

This then leads us to The Grapes of Wrath (1939).  Of all of the “Great American Novels”–and there are several–this one stands in stark contrast to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for it is almost like a bookend of an era.  Where Gatsby chronicled the distorted American drive for wealth and prestige at any cost during a time of perceived plenty, The Grapes of Wrath chronicled the reality of day-to-day survival by the common people in the aftermath of that time of excess.  Where Gatsby showcased the grotesque opulence of the upper classes during the Jazz Age, The Grapes of Wrath revealed the corruption and remorseless greed that left the nation a wasteland of human suffering in their wake.

Steinbeck accomplished this by writing the story of the fictional Joad family of Sallisaw, Oklahoma.  He had been writing a series of articles for the San Francisco News about the plight of migrant workers coming to California for work from the region hit hard by the Dust Bowl.  In doing his research he was given individual case histories and reports from the Farm Security Administration, which was a Depression-era public agency formed to provide relief to farmers hit hard by the depression.  He later came to put this information together in development of the book.

The story follows the travails of the Joad family as they are forced by the bank off of their land.  Seeing a bill offering good paying jobs to pickers in California, the extended Joad family loads up all of their belongings and head to California.  Along the way they are largely treated as pariahs.  Once landing in California they find that the promise of jobs was a bald attempt to flood the state with cheap labor.  As such, people become a commodity like a piece of machinery–in actuality less than a piece of machinery–and all efforts on the part of people to exert their humanity, express their displeasure, or attempt to bargain for fair wages is met with oppression and violence.  Perhaps more than any other novel, The Grapes of Wrath demonstrates that even here, in a nation founded on the principles of human rights and human dignity, can treat its own citizens as an alien entity.

In the end, though, there runs a basic optimism in the book among all of the indignities that are chronicled to have been suffered by the Joads, and the other migrants who were part of that wave of humanity.  It is found in the words of Tom Joad as he is about to leave his family to continue the fight of the dead preacher Casy:  Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.”  At the end of the book, having lost everything, at the end of their tether, it is Ma Joad’s daughter, Rose of Sharon, who provides the book’s last, shocking end.

The Grapes of Wrath was a controversial book during its time, censored and banned in many parts of the country.  But it was to propel public opinion to continue the New Deal policies which were institutionalized to ensure a more equitable distribution of income that would result in a rising middle class, housing programs that created widespread home ownership, price supports in farming, and other ameliorative measures to address the excesses of economic power.  That we have seen the slow undoing of those brakes to economic power, which resulted in another great economic dislocation, has made The Grapes of Wrath both relevant and a cautionary tale to the issues we face today.

Steinbeck wrote about the common people.  His faith was in the native intelligence of those people to figure things out if given the opportunity to both think and understand.  He was no idealist.  He didn’t believe in ideologies that promised nirvana at some unspecified time in the future given just a little sacrifice and suffering today.  Like Jefferson, he opposed all ideologies, religions, and governments that hindered free inquiry.  He chronicled with a steely eyed gaze and an honest writer’s pen everything there was to put down on paper, regardless of how it reflected on humanity.  In the end, the basic decency of humanity won out.  Let us hope that today we learn the wisdom of seeing our common cause as a people–the basic humanity that we all share. 

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