John Steinbeck at 100: still a vital force for truth

The Argument

In his fiction, the human spirit lives on in transcendence.


February 24, 2002|By Joan Mellen | By Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

American writers may be divided into two categories, critic Philip Rahv wrote in the 1940s, "Paleface" or "Redskin." The "Palefaces," from Fenimore Cooper to Henry James, were cerebral, Anglicized, effete and tortured by ambiguity. The "Redskins" reveled in their Americanism. Led by Mark Twain, they were writers of the western hemisphere, "to the wigwam born." Rahv numbered among these boisterous Redskins John Steinbeck. The centennial of his birth comes next Wednesday.

Steinbeck, like other of his roaring "Redskin" brethren, turns out to have more popular staying power than the cultish "Palefaces." His novels, now being reissued by Penguin, are suffused with a love of country that renders Steinbeck unique. They offer the pleasure of reading about ordinary people residing in a particular place. Steinbeck's hard, muscular prose bespeaks the burden of surviving in the American landscape where his characters must contend with the harshness of nature and an unjust social structure.

Steinbeck's novels return the reader to a sense of the majesty of their birthplace. Even in the painful Of Mice And Men, Steinbeck offers the quality that has enabled his writing to endure: love of the physical surroundings and the mystique of their impact. The best examples are Steinbeck's tender descriptions of his California birthplace, where the warm Salinas River water "slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight."

This river is as beautiful in its cruelty. In East of Eden, part of Steinbeck: Novels 1942-1952 (Library of America, 980 pages, $35): "The river tore the edges of the farm lands and washed whole acres down; it toppled barns and houses into itself, to go floating and bobbing away ... ."

Steinbeck's respect for geography, for the enduring American landscape, is tempered by his probing insight into class and its relationship to power. He is not seduced by the myth of the "American dream," although his characters may be.

Steinbeck insists upon acute attention to those the society has written off, from the retarded Lennie in Of Mice and Men to the starving Okies of The Grapes of Wrath. The Monterey of Cannery Row is inhabited by vibrant people, whose life force Steinbeck celebrates: "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches," which includes "Everybody." His writing remains alive because, like that of his descendant Cormac McCarthy, he is unrelenting in his depiction of how hard life is on this hardscrabble continent.

The Grapes Of Wrath, an extraordinary book today no less than in 1939, risks home truths. Both Preacher Casy and Tom Joad speak for Steinbeck. Preacher Casy exclaims, "I love people so much I'm fit to bust," and his disciple Tom echoes Casy later in the novel: "a fella ain't got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one." Through Tom Joad, Steinbeck projects an image of the end of misery, once "all our folks got together an' yelled."

Steinbeck writes from a higher place than ideology. A natural born socialist, he dramatizes the process through which the outcast discover their own interests: Tom is appalled by "one fella with a million acres, while a hunderd thousan' good farmers is starvin'." Owners in The Grapes of Wrath, as are doctors in The Pearl, become natural born enemies of the poor.

In his fiction, the politics of social justice flows from an abiding common sense; it's also the "Redskin's" awareness that convictions must be followed by action. "I'll be ever'where you look," Tom promises. "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." Steinbeck does not condescend to characters unbuttressed by education. "You're bound to get idears if you go thinkin' about stuff," Tom Joad says. The reward of activism in Steinbeck may not always be justice, but it is inevitably self-respect.

Steinbeck's values emerge free of sentimentality. He opposes greed and the obsession with material things. Even the pure of heart may lose their bearings surrounded by these evils, like Kino, the pearl diver in The Pearl (Penguin Centennial Edition, 90 pages, $7).

The family is an ambiguous entity for Steinbeck, at its most fulfilled a microcosm of the socialist ideal, as in The Grapes of Wrath and The Pearl, at others an arena in which destructive impulses engulf its members. East of Eden chronicles those struggles between brothers and between fathers and sons, over generations. War takes root in the hearts of men. Some of Steinbeck's most memorable characters commit murder: Tom Joad, Kino, Cal in East of Eden commit unspeakable acts. Steinbeck forgives them, as he demands that Adam Trask do for his son at the close of East of Eden.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.