Reading Pathways: John Steinbeck
Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath being as commonplace as they are in the respective book-bags of high school freshmen and seniors, a post listing the three “pathways” into the labyrinth of greater Steinbeck-dom might not seem like the most obvious one. The first thing to know about Steinbeck is that he was incredibly prolific, with sixteen novels to his credit, many of them quite long and delicately structured. The other thing I like to say (or to claim more accurately) is that unlike most authors of upwards of ten novels, nearly all of Steinbeck’s sixteen are brilliant, though only a few are widely read.
I will only list one that is a common favorite, because it is so dear to me. I discovered Steinbeck not in a classroom but on a family trip through the Salinas Valley, the famed Central California setting that takes on a near mythic quality in most of his work. I was not more than fifteen at the time and I have what is for me a very rare lucid memory of my mother reading through Cannery Row as the farmlands whirled by my window and my father drove further North. I was just beginning to embark upon my love affair with literature at this age, and I remember being struck by the simple music of Steinbeck’s language as I am struck by it now as I open the book again to its most famous passage:
“Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”
The discovery of Steinbeck coincided for me with that discovery that language could accomplish so much more and describe so much more, than I knew. I suggest that the reader, no matter her age, begin where I began with Cannery Row. Here, Steinbeck concerns himself most singularly with the theme of giving an account of place, of a town, of town’s gathering and scattering within itself, and of its music. We find ourselves in Lee Chong’s Grocery, on an expedition with marine biologist known as “Doc” collecting various sea creatures along the coast (a character based on Steinbeck’s friend the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, to whom the book is dedicated), and in the “The Palace Flophouse Bar and Grill.” The structure of the book functions much like the introduction and development of the musical themes of an opera, interchanging between vignettes of its perennial people and places and essayistic interludes that attempt to capture the music of the town as a whole.
It is in this sense a fitting introduction, or re-introduction, to the music of Steinbeck’s literary world, whose themes are often much darker.
To a God Unknown (Suggested reading before East of Eden)
Only his second novel, this slim book took the young Steinbeck five years to write (longer than he spent on either East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath). In it, all the essential themes that have their mature expression in East of Eden begin to percolate and take form. The farmer’s deep, almost familial relationship to the land he tills is explored, with its ups and downs, its great harvests, its too many rains and too few rains. The nature of brotherhood, and the gulfs opened in the differences between brothers, comes to dominate the novel’s landscape. The protagonist, Joseph, bears a name that is never coincidental when attached to stories of brotherhood. The first brother a preacher and the second an alcoholic who is murdered early in the story, represent, in a sense, the two opposite ways for a son of farmers to cease to be a farmer. Joseph, however, has the deep soul of a farmer, and some of the novel’s drama takes place surrounding his brother’s theological uneasiness with Joseph’s continued conversations with a tree. These archetypal explorations of the relationship between people and the lands and towns they inhabit in Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley has for me always hinged on an insight not only into how life can be turned into symbolism, but also on less baroque and more profound insights that symbolism is effective because it resembles life.
In Dubious Battle (Suggested Reading before The Grapes of Wrath)
This second early novel of Steinbeck’s begins to develop the political and social themes that come to dominate his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, though In Dubious Battle is a masterpiece in its own right. Its title taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost. This novel explores the loss of a different sort of paradise, the loss of modern utopias, a loss made all the more violent for its genuine clash against the indecencies, the unbridled exploitation of mass hunger, that California’s large scale commercial farmers called the “labor market” of the 1930s dustbowl migration. The book manages a rare feat, rare today and even rarer in the balkanized ideological climate of the early thirties. In Dubious Battle eviscerates both the brutality of the system that lead to the immiseration of farmers and comes to discover the boorish opportunism of “The Party.” The ACP is never named directly, existing as “The Party” in a royal sense throughout the book in a way that prophetically anticipates both Orwell and the horrors of “really existing communism” for a novel written many decades before the publication of Gulag Archipelago and from the perspective of the left. With many gut-wrenching descriptions of the insanity of starvation amidst fields of plenty that presage the most horrifying passages of Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle also allows us access to the moral sensitivity of Steinbeck. It is a chronicle of the politicization, rise, fall of a single Communist organizer, who becomes a martyr the moment it suits the cynical purpose of his organization. It is a deep meditation on both the necessity and the tragedy of mass political activity that accomplishes the rare feat of being moral without being moralistic. Finally, it is a work with much to teach us in this era of renewed political anger and demonstrations of all ideological hues.