All of Denmark was at his feet

John Sutherland

  • John Steinbeck: A Biography by Jay Parini
    Heinemann, 605 pp, £20.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 434 57492 9

According to an embittered Steinbeck, literary criticism is ‘a kind of ill-tempered party game in which nobody gets kissed’. Twenty-five years after his death he receives a big wet one in the shape of Jay Parini’s biography, which comes with much fanfare designed to rehabilitate him as one of America’s great writers. A handsome ‘Steinbeck award’ has been set up by the writer’s widow; a South Bank Show has been tied in; ‘a year-long marketing campaign by Mandarin promoting Steinbeck’s backlist’ has been launched.

Parini tackles head-on what he calls ‘the Steinbeck question’. Always an outstandingly popular writer (The Grapes of Wrath sells 50,000, year-in year-out, although it is now three Depressions out of date), Steinbeck gets scant respect from the critical establishment in his own country, which has consistently done him down. ‘When in an average year his fellow Nobel laureates, Faulkner and Hemingway, are each treated in perhaps 120 or 130 scholarly books and articles, why is Steinbeck the subject of only fifteen or twenty?’ That is the question.

Few self-respecting writers cite Steinbeck as an influence; even those critics who admit to once having had a soft spot for his work attribute it to the unformed tastes of adolescence. One grows out of him, like acne. The small band of writers who do admire Steinbeck tend to be people who inhabit the same uneasy midcult territory that he does, somewhere between literary respectability and bestsellerdom: John O’Hara, Nelson Algren, James Jones, John Hersey. Parini declares in a fighting Afterword that answers to the Steinbeck question ‘spring to mind’. Clearly the answer which springs highest and most persistently is intellectual snobbery. Steinbeck’s low status is ascribed to the conspiratorial malignity of ‘narrow academic critics and a handful of haughty journalists’, unable to accept that the home-spun writer from Salinas was an American genius. Spiro Agnew’s effete East Coast snobs ride again.

Parini has a point and he makes it forcefully. America’s treatment of Steinbeck was spiteful during the man’s life and remains graceless. The New York academic and higher-journalism axis was enraged by the writer’s receiving the Nobel Prize in 1962. Americans traditionally do well in this contest. But with the Literature award, there is always the lurking suspicion that the Committee may have given too much weight to its criterion favouring ‘literature of an idealistic nature’. There are laureates who are unequivocally deserving on straight literary criteria – O’Neill, Eliot, Faulkner, Hemingway, Singer, Bellow, Morrison. There are others – Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck and John Steinbeck – for whom non-literary factors seem to have been at work.

With Steinbeck one can guess what the factors were. Europeans have always had what Graham Greene called a ‘fetish’ about him. It was a lucky stroke that The Grapes of Wrath – with its broad sentimentality about endurance under intolerable pressure – was published in England in the month that war was declared. Scandinavians have a particularly soft spot for Steinbeck on account of The Moon is Down (1942) – a commissioned wartime propaganda novel, which celebrates heroic civilian resistance in Norway. (By contrast, Stockholm never forgave Greene – on the face of it a much worthier novelist – for his depiction of Swedish corruption in England Made Me.) When the American writer visited the country after the war it was to be greeted with a newspaper headline, ‘John Steinbeck, all of Denmark is at your feet.’ In Sweden he was told that The Moon is Down had ‘fired the confidence’ of Scandinavian freedom fighters ‘during the war’s darkest hours’. Gratitude was in order.

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