John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
Contributing Editor: Cliff Lewis
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students read Steinbeck as a social critic or merely as a story-teller. The task is to define Steinbeck as a writer in the mode of the twenties. One must define such terms as illusion, mythic, archetype, depth psychology, and symbol in establishing his artistic process. Secondly, one must show a student the ongoing conflict in Steinbeck's work between expectation and change, consciousness and altered circumstances.
Students love reading Steinbeck; I cite passages from his letters to indicate his artistic interests in the above ideas. I point out particular details in the works to support my interpretations. In "Flight," I have them look for description of an Indian; I explore similar conflicts and ways of perceiving in our daily lives. For a discussion of "Flight," I ask them to define the stereotypical Indian brave, stereotypical Mexican children, the role of school and education in cultural assimilation, the future of Indian culture.
I offer the view of Steinbeck as a modern artist who sees the artist's role as analogous to a psychiatrist's: to know thyself. If each work is seen as dealing with a different human drive--sexual repression, religious quest, rejection, self-hate, security and certainty of tradition, the need to belong, etc.--Steinbeck's work takes on a pattern. By all means, link such drives to similar ones readily found in students' lives.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Half of Steinbeck's writings present ethnic characters whose identity is in crisis because of the conflict between cultures. For his Indians, whether in Mexico or the United States, efforts to retain the pastoral world and its values are tragically doomed. Indeed, the call of a lost Eden brings conflict with contemporary society to most Steinbeck characters. His characters cannot escape past influences: be it biological, cultural, religious, or the collective activities of migration and war. To become conscious of these hidden drives is the human quest. Evolutionary stages are represented by either unconscious memory or expressed in cultural myths as, say, the Garden of Eden. And this pressure for change, which is particularly American, and the conflict it brings, is the underlying Steinbeck theme. Nor should the reader overlook the domestic conflict between men and women. It may encompass the issue of power, of cultural influence as in "Flight," or of vast unused leadership to be tapped through Ma Joad. Certainly Steinbeck's work is saturated in history: fascism and Marxism in the thirties; the loss of national ideals after World War II. He draws upon the intellectual movements of his time in anthropology, biology, and psychology. His historical perspective then was termed "holistic"--defined today as ecological, with human beings biologically and culturally connected to the universe and using human will to blend past and future. Steinbeck's last works are autobiographical, questioning whether he succeeded as father, husband, artist. And, intriguingly, he questions within those novels the extent to which his private life influenced his fiction.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Steinbeck tried to find an organic means of expression for each book that he wrote. He considered his work to be experimental. He intentionally used a documentary style for The Grapes of Wrath, the fabular for The Pearl, the picaresque for Tortilla Flat, and so on. Generally he belongs to the myth-symbol school of the twenties. Dreams, the unconscious, reccurring myths, symbolic characters--these qualities are characteristic of what Jung called the "visionary" style. Realism, Steinbeck once noted, is the surface form for his interest in psychology and philosophy. To this The Grapes of Wrath is no exception. I'd add that his work about Indians follows the outlines of tragedy. Finally point out that Steinbeck's work included film scripts, plays, and political speeches and war propaganda.
Steinbeck's earliest writings, whose subject was the individual psyche, sold poorly. With his fifth book, the picaresque Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck became a popular writer, and with In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, novels rooted in the issues of the depression, Steinbeck achieved international fame. Before those publications, his West Coast audience did not comprehend his direction. For most he was a "mystic" writer, and for Edmund Wilson, Steinbeck was writing "biological" stories. It may be this lack of comprehension that led him to insert characters into his novels who commented on the significance of the action. The one reviewer who saw Steinbeck's literary subject as the "unconscious," received a note from Steinbeck thanking him for the insightful review.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
For his treatment of the mob psyche and the group, one can find similarities in Nathaniel West. Ernest Hemingway's cultural changes in Spain, the existential world of his characters, and the industrialization of William Faulkner's South parallel Steinbeck's social dynamics. In all, pastoral worlds disappear. Both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Faulkner share Steinbeck's recognition of the power of myth; Hemingway, like Steinbeck, recognizes unfulfilled religious needs. In Hemingway's style Steinbeck found a model for his own. Yet the classics are also influential: Milton on In Dubious Battle, the Arthurian legends on Indians and his nonconformists, Winesburg on the early short stories, "Everyman" on The Wayward Bus among others. And everywhere are the Bible and The Golden Bough.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. To teach "Flight," I would direct students: To define the stereotype of an Indian and to locate supporting details. To locate cultural artifacts Pepe abandons in his regression backward to a primeval state. To ask what are the duties of Pepe's peers and the consequences. To explain the significance of the landscape starting with Pepe's home. To define manhood as Pepe understood it and explain whether his concept changed. To discuss what is pursuing Pepe--an abstraction?
2. Any of the above questions will do. And what is the role of the mother? Or ask questions about illusion, the definition of myth and symbol, the use of biological or animal imagery and its purpose.
See pertinent sections of Jackson Benson's biography. A collection of essays I'm editing on the above issues will soon be published by Edwin Mellen Press. R. Astro's book has good material on Steinbeck and philosophy and science.
Two Steinbeck Study Guides edited by T. Hayashi have good general information on Steinbeck's writings. P. Lisca's updated Wide World of John Steinbeck remains a valuable study. For short story analysis see J. Hughes, John Steinbeck, A Study of the Short Fiction, 1989; J. Timmerman, The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck's Short Stories, University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.