In my last post regarding John Steinbeck, I left off with the great novels of the 1930s, ending with the Grapes of Wrath. For most novelists his achievements up to this point would be regarded as considerable. What I am most impressed with is that his own history as a novelist proves how ephemeral such achievements can be. He was a writer and good one. His many jobs, especially the occasional newspaper job that he took, seemed to inspire him to his best work. For more than anything he was a realist. With his realist eye for detail, and his natural sympathy for people, he enraged both power and privilege through his precise and occasionally remonstrative prose. I don’t think a better thing can be said of any writer.
With the controversy that followed the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck found solace in spending time collecting marine specimens with his friend and mentor Ed (Doc) Ricketts. For six weeks the two men rented a Monterey fishing boat with a four man crew named the Western Flyer to travel down the Pacific Coast to Baja California and into the Gulf of California, recording and collecting marine species along the coast. Ricketts had achieved some success with his book Between Pacific Tides, which became the definitive handbook for the study of intertidal species along the west coast, and which is still considered a seminal work. The men had planned on co-writing a book about the species found within the tides in the San Francisco Bay area, but the project had come to nothing. But even Ricketts was eager to get away from his beloved Monterey, suffering from a breakup with a married lover.
The end result of the journey was the book The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941), though the trip was anything but leisurely. The expedition was an exhausting, though fulfilling and happy, one for the men, who concentrated their energies on collecting and cataloguing. Steinbeck and Ricketts had hoped the sale of the book would at least be sufficient to pay for the expenses of the trip, aside from the sale of specimens to laboratories and public aquaria across the country that they brought back. It proved to be, however, a commercial disappointment. Soon the events of the Second World War would overtake any interest in the book. Furthermore, the notes that underlay the book were those of Ricketts, while the prose to give the notes a narrative structure contributed by Steinbeck. For the time it was considered an odd book: an uneven read, combining as it did scientific knowledge, storytelling, and contemplations on ecology and humankind’s connection to nature. With the advantage of time, though, it can be seen that the book made a significant contribution to the science of marine invertebrate identification and distribution along Baja and within the Gulf of California. The species list, which accompanied the initial editions of the book, is impressive and indicative of the dedication of the two men to their task. But it also anticipated what later in the century and in our own time has become a common device among science popularizers such as Jacques Cousteau, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Jared Diamond, among others. But it goes further than that, for the environmental message in the book anticipates such groundbreaking works as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.
For Steinbeck, the Second World War would change his life and transform his writing until the end of his life, as it did for Hemingway, Dos Passos, Salinger, Ballard, Heller, Jones, Mailer, Vonnegut, and others. But unlike the younger writers on that list that would emerge in the post-war period, who could find a new language–oftentimes oblique–to deal with the industrial slaughter of that great catastrophe, the writers from the ’30s–oftentimes also veterans of the Great War–seemed to be struck dumb, horrified by the depths of human cruelty, altering their subjects by finding solace where they could.
A man of action, Steinbeck contributed his writing, at first, to the war effort in the book The Moon Is Down, about a village in an unnamed northern European occupied country (presumed to be Norway) that works to overthrow their invaders through a resistance movement, and Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team. For the former he received the Norwegian King Haakon VII Freedom Cross. It was translated into several European languages and distributed secretly to underground organizations across the continent to bolster the morale of similar resistance movements elsewhere, especially in France. The latter work was done with the cooperation of the U.S. Army Air Corps to increase recruitment.
Not content with continuing work on the home front, he accepted a position with the New York Herald Tribune, traveling with the units in the European theater. As with his writing during the 1930s, his keen eye for reality informs his stories, telling the story of the life of the common soldier. He was also recruited as a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the precursor for the CIA. The actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had organized U.S. Navy special warfare units to engage in psychological, diversionary, and deception operations known as the Beach Jumpers. He participated with Fairbanks in some of these raids, helping to capture a small island off the coast of Italy. During his service he was wounded several times by shrapnel and suffered from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Part Two: The Pearl through The Winter of Our Discontent
One familiar with Steinbeck’s writing wants to follow him into his sojourn in the reminiscences of his time with Ed Ricketts. The novels, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday are guilty pleasures–escapism of the highest caliber. One cannot visit the town of Monterey without the imprimatur of Ricketts and Steinbeck being noted everywhere, so great is the influence of these works. Yet they are fantasies–idealized escapes from a tormented man who was reaching back to a simpler time, to the friend and mentor before the fire that engulfed the world. The man of simple prose recording life as it is abandons reality in these works. And who can blame him? He had certainly contributed enough words to what had actually happened, having been there. He did not possess the desire, as most men of that generation did not, to relive it. He certainly did not seem to have the vocabulary to transform it into fiction. Hemingway took a similar course with his writings of Cuba, Africa, anti-heroes running nightclubs or fishing boats, finally recapturing part of his voice with The Old Man and the Sea.
For Steinbeck the book that combined the return of his voice with his desire to look to the past was through the novella The Pearl (1947). As with many of his stories, it is based on a folk tale, in this case one that he heard when visiting the region in Baja California in 1940 with Ricketts. In the story, the child Coyotito is stung by a scorpion. The parents, Kino and Juana, must find a way to pay for treatment for their young son. Kino, who is a pearl diver, finds an enormous pearl, which everyone in the village covets. They find that the local pearl auction is rigged, the buyers attempting to convince Kino that what he found is worthless. Soon misfortune follows the family as the villagers and trackers attempt to take the pearl from them. They try to make their way to the capital, where the auctions are not rigged, but are met with tragedy along the way.
The Pearl operates on many levels. In high school it is often required reading, and most teachers present it as a parable of human greed, materialism, and the actual value of things. But Steinbeck is not so simple. For the pearl also represents anything of value that an individual may possess, whether it be tangible or intangible. It is also something taken from nature, which Kino is convinced by the society in which he lives can be turned into money. Its beauty disappears the longer it is out of its element so that by the end of the story it is a grotesque object. Remembering Steinbeck’s influences, when people are separated from their humanity great misfortune follows. For the village of the pearl its very presence corrupts everything around them, blinding them from acknowledging the humanity, the connections that bind them together as human beings. As with his earlier stories, great misfortune results, and usually it falls on the most vulnerable.
Recovering from his depression from the war, the breakup of his marriage, and the death of Ed Ricketts, we find what Steinbeck intended to be his magnum opus, East of Eden (1952). On the surface this is a novel about the Hamilton and Trask family in the Salinas Valley of California. In reality, though, the novel moves away from the story of the Samuel Hamilton, the family patriarch, who Steinbeck modeled on his maternal grandfather, and toward the Trasks. This is because the Hamiltons become the bedrock of the Salinas Valley, representing stability and good, as opposed to the Trasks, who want the same thing that binds the Hamiltons together, but which alludes them because of their poor decisions, despite the great wealth (though possibly misbegotten) that bought them the best farm in the valley.
It is also this characteristic that makes the Trasks more interesting. Steinbeck apparently saw this himself as he transforms the second half of the novel into a parable based on the biblical account of Cain and Abel. Adam Trask, who has had a difficult growing up back east, inherits money from his father’s estate, though he suspects that the fortune was dishonestly obtained. He takes pity on Cathy Ames, who seems to be the victim of violence, and marries her, not knowing that she is cruel and a murderess. Having deluded himself into domestic bliss, Adam soon finds out about Cathy’s true character. She shoots and wounds him after giving birth to twin boys, Caleb and Aron, in making her escape from the boredom of domestic life. Finding her way to the town of Salinas, she changes her name and takes over as the madam of the most notorious whorehouse in the county.
Adam tries to raise his boys with the help of his Cantonese cook, Lee, and the Hamiltons on the adjacent farm. Adam is inspired to copy the success of Samuel Hamilton, but loses the family fortune in a badly conceived business venture. As he nears maturity Caleb, the troubled son, is determined to redeem his father’s shame at losing the family fortune and goes into farming himself. Aron, the “good” son, decides to attend Stanford and become an Episcopal priest. The brothers vie for the affections of the beautiful daughter named Abra from one of the most well-to-do families in the valley.
Moody and always testing limits, Caleb discovers that his mother, who his father had said had died, was the notorious Madam Kate in the town of Salinas. He keeps this knowledge a secret from both his father and his brother, but it fuels his skepticism of both his father’s sanctimoniousness, and his brother’s goodness. Soon the First World War breaks out and Caleb enters into a business venture with Will Hamilton, the son of Samuel, to sell beans from the valley to European buyers at a premium. He is wildly successful at this scheme and cannot wait to present the money to his father, seeking his father’s love and approval which always seemed to allude him.
When Aron returns from school, hoping not to be upstaged by his brother, Caleb presents the money to his father. Adam rejects the money, characterizing it as tainted, compared to the pure motives of his brother. In retaliation Caleb brings Aron to meet their mother, destroying the boy’s illusions. The ties between father and sons, and between brothers, are now cut (the ties between the mother and her children long since severed), and in typical Steinbeck fashion tragedy ensues, though there is a sort of redemption at the end.
I am of two minds regarding East of Eden. On the one hand it is an impressive work. It introduces narrative elements that were extremely unconventional in 1952–anticipating the devices of changing narrative perspectives, and describing the times and places with his usual precision. On the other hand, however, there is a heavy-handedness to the writing. He takes the biblical story of Cain and Abel and turns it into a black-and-white assessment of human frailty. The Trasks are doomed from the start, and one cannot but resent the author for making them so. As such he not only diminishes the complexity of the human condition, but also dilutes the themes that he had explored in his previous works. Still, it is a great novel and much wisdom can be found here, for in Steinbeck’s telling Caleb (as Cain) is the son most driven by that most human of all human needs–the need for love–while Aron (as Abel) is driven only by the slender reed of societal respectability.
For most literary critics Steinbeck’s best work usually ends here with East of Eden, with perhaps a mention of the non-fiction book Travels with Charley (1962). In retrospect, however, while I find Steinbeck’s observations recorded in that volume regarding the changes that were overtaking his beloved California and the racial hatred he witnessed in the American South both interesting and as clear-eyed as usual, I keep coming back to The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) as his last significant work.
The book introduces us to the character Ethan Allen Hawley, whose family once was among the aristocrats of the seaside village of New Baytown somewhere in New England. Now the Hawleys are common folk, Ethan having to make a living as a grocery clerk. With so many reminders of the family’s once great past among the artifacts of their sprawling ancestral home, his wife Mary, and their children, Allen and Ellen, are ashamed of their lack of resources. His friends criticize him for his integrity, suggesting that he take bribes, or be more ruthless in his business dealings, especially with his boss, Alfio Marullo.
Succumbing to the pressure to improve his economic condition he finds out that Marullo is an undocumented immigrant and in the country illegally. Ethan turns Marullo in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the man is deported. Before deportation, however, Marullo turns over the store to Ethan because of all of his years of his honest service, believing him deserving. Having achieved this misbegotten gain, Ethan then seeks to take control of a strip of land owned by his best friend Danny, who is the town drunk, and on which the town plans to build an airfield. Ethan gives Danny money to get treatment for his alcoholism in exchange for willing the land to him. Danny, instead of seeking treatment, slips the will under the door of the store and is soon found dead with a bottle of whiskey and sleeping pills.
Thus, almost overnight Ethan has achieved the success that his wife and friends always wished for him. Soon, however, he is in for a shock as he learns that his son has won an essay contest by plagiarizing the books found in their old home library. When he confronts his son the boy is not remorseful, and it is this knowledge that wakes him to the corruption inherent in his own actions. It is at this point that Ethan realizes that he must do something to atone for his greed.
As with so many of Steinbeck’s books, he was ahead of his time with The Winter of Our Discontent. Some hailed it as his best work since The Grapes of Wrath, but most judged it an inferior work, preachy and cynical. Given the time–the optimistic years of the early 1960s–Steinbeck’s novel seemed to be an unnecessary downer, misplaced in an era of expanding opportunities. But with time it has been observed that he identified a sickness in the American character that was soon to overtake the nation in the ensuring years. As such, the novel explores the same issues explored by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby and Dreiser in An American Tragedy. What is missing in Winter is the shocking dénouement that characterized his best work of the 1930s, and which is present in both Gatsby and American Tragedy.
In summary, John Steinbeck observed and recorded both the best and worst of the human character. The wisdom in his books concern the same issues with which we grapple today–how to separate what is important from the material, how to stay true to our natures, and in staying true to our natures how to adhere to the best part of our natures. He saw people for what they were and wrote of them sympathetically and accurately, even when they behaved badly. As such we find that expecting to find perfection in the human species is a silly game and a fool’s quest. We can do nothing but what is right and behave humanely–that the choice is in our hands–and that love is the organizing principle of our species.