Dear John’s letters

The title of Robert Gottlieb’s NYRB piece on John Steinbeck is a little misleading: though he has plenty of worthwhile things to say about the man who produced more bad work than any other “great” American writer, Gottlieb will not be the one to rescue Steinbeck from himself. That is the task of readers willing to work through The Grapes of Wrath (a great novel with terrible things in it) and East of Eden (a terrible novel with great things in it)  while spending as little time as possible with The Pearl, The Red Pony or Of Mice and Men, those lethal weapons generations of schoolteachers have used to kill any youthful interest in Steinbeck’s work. The pity is that so few readers (or critics) seem interested in making this worthwhile journey.

Gottlieb is properly dismissive of Steinbeck’s first novel, the tedious pirate tale Cup of Gold, and To a God Unknown, which reflects the baleful influence of Joseph Campbell. (We can only be grateful that Campbell’s affair with Steinbeck’s wife ended the friendship — one shudders to think of how half-baked The Long Valley or Of Mice and Men would have turned out with more globs of mythic claptrap stirred into the batter.) He is also properly supportive of the overlooked In Dubious Battle, that hard-nosed predecessor of The Grapes of Wrath, and The Log from the Sea of Cortez, that minor masterpiece about a scientific voyage along the Baja peninsula with marine biologist Ed Ricketts, the beloved friend who appears in various guises through some of Steinbeck’s best and worst writing. (Gottlieb does, however, fall into the common error of taking “About Ed Ricketts,” written years after Rickett’s untimely death, at face value. ) But Gottlieb apparently hasn’t even read The Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck’s first great book, and he makes the huge mistake of treating Steinbeck’s masterpiece, Cannery Row, as a nostalgic retreat to the casting-call ethnic comedy of Tortilla Flat.

The occasion for Gottlieb’s review is the last and least of the Library of America’s Steinbeck volumes, which includes the pallid Burning Bright and The Wayward Bus, and The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck’s last  attempt at a “major” work, and a novel that’s bound to its late-1950s era in ways that The Grapes of Wrath and other period novels are not. Just as To a God Unknown is clouded by Joseph Campbell, The Winter of Our Discontent groans under the influence of James Gould Cozzens and Sloan Wilson, whose notions about The Moral Decline of America read like little more than the fretting of old white guys who feel time passing them by. But it also includes Travels With Charley In Search of America, a sentimental favorite because it was the book that introduced me to Steinbeck’s work, though time and scholarship have not been kind to the old man’s claims of having crossed the country to speak with its people. As Gottlieb says:

Steinbeck’s heart, as always, is in the right place, but there’s something artificial about Charley: many of the encounters he reports sound like pure inventions. His son John put it bluntly: “Thom and I are convinced that he never talked to any of those people…. He just sat in his camper and wrote all that shit.”

During the Sixties he had become a kind of cultural ambassador for the United States, close to people like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Dag Hammarsjköld. He had always been less radical than people thought he was—the outrage over injustice and poverty in The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle was personal, not ideological. He was, in fact, a liberal, middle-of-the-road Democrat—passionate about FDR, an ardent campaigner for Adlai Stevenson, and eventually close to Lyndon Johnson, whom he liked and vigorously supported, particularly on the Vietnam War.

This position did nothing to improve his standing with intellectuals, but it was sincere. He believed the Viet Cong were murderers, despised the draft-card burners back home, and admired the American troops he encountered as a war reporter on a trip to Southeast Asia in 1966, only two years before his death. Young John was in Vietnam, and Steinbeck managed to get himself helicoptered to an exposed hill outpost where John was fighting. In a surreal moment, the mutually antagonistic father and son found themselves under fire together. The son was to write, “I saw my father behind some sandbags overlooking my position with his M-60 at the ready…. I mean, who, in God’s name, was producing this movie?”

Steinbeck’s problem was a common enough one among old, lauded authors — his Great Writer status was gained through work long behind him, and his attempts to make grand pronouncements about the State of America Today said more about his personel crotchets than anything else. I can’t really knock him for that: a lot of people were baffled by the way America was changing in the 1960s — a confusion that lasts to this day — and while it’s ironic that the onetime bohemian and author of Tortilla Flat couldn’t get his brain around beatniks and hippies, it’s not cause for condemnation. His finest work still stands above his worst, and its easy to find.

One thought on “Dear John’s letters

  1. […] Steven Hart appreciates Steinbeck. […]

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