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outstandingly popular writer (The Grapes of Wrath sells 50,000, year-in year-out, although it is now three Depressions out of date), Steinbeck gets scant respect from the critical establishment in his own country, which has consistently done him down.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.

When it was announced in October 1962 that Steinbeck had won the Prize, the New York Times ran a breathtakingly impertinent editorial declaring that the Swedes’ choice ‘raises questions about the mechanics of selection and how close the Nobel committee is to the main currents of American writing ... we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer, perhaps a poet or critic or historian – whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age.’ Steinbeck duly made his acceptance address a counter-attack on ‘an emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches’ while ‘scalds’ like himself entertained the happy congregation outside. He was, he asserted, the people’s choice. The Times followed up the next day with a hatchet job by Arthur Mizener, entitled ‘Does a Moral Vision of the Thirties Deserve a Nobel Prize?’

It was, Parini concludes, ‘a sorry moment for American literary culture’. A friend of the author’s declared himself outraged that ‘Americans weren’t rooting for the home team.’ But, for New York, Steinbeck wasn’t the home team. ‘Stupidly,’ as Parini puts it, ‘most American periodicals joined in against Steinbeck.’ There is a contradiction here. If ‘most’ American commentators joined in to condemn the award, Steinbeck’s persecution can hardly be laid at the door of ‘a handful of haughty journalists’. Nor is it entirely convincing to assert as Parini does that ‘Hemingway was luckier’ in not getting the same treatment. He was (rightly or wrongly) judged a better writer and a more appropriate choice by his compatriots. But it is hard to read these sections of the biography and not share Parini’s anger. The unrelenting attacks took their toll, despite Steinbeck’s dignified public stoicism. He gave up socially engaged fiction after The Grapes of Wrath, turning to whimsical studies of the Californian proletariat. And, after the mauling which Winter of Discontent received in 1961, he gave up fiction altogether, concentrating in his last years on journalism (for which he won more prizes).

Parini’s basic strategy is that of the Blue Band Margarine advertisements – to associate his product as often as he can with the very famous. If, in a letter, Steinbeck notes in passing, ‘I have no personal nor definitive emotions of my own’, the biographer attaches a lengthy disquisition on Eliot’s ‘ground-breaking essay “Tradition and the Original Talent” ’. Parini describes East of Eden as a ‘loose baggy monster’ and promptly glosses his term with the parenthesis that this is ‘the phrase that Henry James used in describing War and Peace’. It is conceded that Steinbeck does not always write well, but ‘Like Tolstoy, who also had little regard for style per se, he preferred literature that took a firm moral line and conveyed a message.’ Dyslexia is similarly indulged; ‘Like Scott Fitzgerald, his contemporary, Steinbeck could neither spell nor punctuate.’ When Steinbeck drops out of Stanford, Parini observes that ‘Like so many gifted writers – F. Scott Fitzgerald, W. H. Auden and Robert Frost among the most prominent of them – Steinbeck could not accommodate himself to the academic grid and grind.’ Were Parini to describe Steinbeck pissing, doubtless we should be told that Shakespeare and Milton were also in the habit of passing water three or four times a day. The cumulative effect of these initially startling collocations wears down prejudice by a kind of attrition, as do the inordinately long and respectful exegeses of all Steinbeck’s major and minor texts. As one does with a certain kind of talkative friend, one finally stops protesting at Parini’s claims, if only to shut him up.

The most striking feature to emerge is Steinbeck’s lifelong habit of following leaders and modelling himself on others. Even the natal moment at which he became a writer has a second-hand feel to it. At the age of 11 he was introduced ‘to Malory’s version of the Arthurian legend by Aunt Molly, his mother’s bookish sister, when he was visiting her in the summer of 1912. He later recalled sitting under a tree, “dazzled and swept up” by these powerful tales, which made a permanent impression on the young boy.’ This account (as given by Steinbeck in later life) directly echoes Walter Scott’s reminiscence in his autobiography of how his bookish Aunt Jenny gave him a copy of Percy’s Reliques: ‘I remember well the spot where I read these volumes for the first time. It was beneath a huge Platanus tree ... The summer day sped onward so fast, that notwithstanding the sharp appetite of 13, I forgot the hour of dinner, was sought for with anxiety, and was still found entranced in my intellectual banquet.’

In late adolescence Steinbeck evidently came under the spell of Martin Eden. Imitating Jack London, he dropped out of college (Stanford in Steinbeck’s case, Berkeley in London’s), went on the road as a hobo and made a rather fitful stab at running away to sea. Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold (1929, based on the adventures of the Elizabethan buccaneer, Henry Morgan) was an acknowledged homage to James Branch Cabell’s florid historical romances. In 1929 Steinbeck was introduced to Hemingway’s work by his future wife, Carol Henning, who gave him a copy of ‘The Killers’. It was to be as formative as Malory and led to what Parini calls ‘his new method of writing fiction, one that reduced a single idea to a single sentence instead of letting the idea fill out a whole chapter in the manner of James Branch Cabell, whose star was fading. The modernist revolution had caught up with John Steinbeck.’ Put another way, he became ‘the poor man’s Hemingway’.

There is only one recorded encounter between the writers, in New York in the early Forties. John Hersey, who evidently set it up, records that the occasion was ‘a disaster’. Steinbeck had given John O’Hara a blackthorn stick. Hemingway grabbed the stick from O’Hara ‘and broke it over his own head and threw the pieces to the ground, claiming it was a fake of some kind’. Drink was probably responsible, but one is tempted to allegorise the episode as Hemingway disowning Steinbeck’s ersatz version of ‘his’ style. It was Steinbeck, not the blackthorn, who was the ‘fake of some kind’. That, apparently, is how Steinbeck read it. According to Hersey, ‘Steinbeck never liked Hemingway after that – not as a man.’

In 1930, Steinbeck met the most influential figure in the formation of his writer’s philosophy, Edward Ricketts. A maverick marine zoologist, Ricketts was adopted by Steinbeck as his guru; he passed down to his disciple the biological materialism that was to run through all the subsequent writing (its most memorable expression is Rose of Sharon’s suckling the starving stranger at the end of The Grapes of Wrath). Parini sums up Ricketts’s principal doctrine, rather too simply perhaps, as the insight that ‘man is a double thing – a group animal and at the same time an individual.’ Ricketts also convinced Steinbeck of the necessity of ‘non-teleological thinking’, or the ‘is philosophy’ (‘Whatever is, is right.’) When not instructing, Ricketts was a drinking buddy and – Parini hints – there may even have been something ‘homoerotic’ between the men.

Shortly after, Steinbeck’s path crossed with that of the mythographer Joseph Campbell (who, decades later, was to achieve stardom with the Eighties television series, ‘The Power of Myth’). Campbell introduced Steinbeck to Jung, and is responsible for the highly wrought symbolism of works like The Pearl. In the seigneurial tradition of the West Coast guru, Campbell apparently cuckolded his disciple. Steinbeck lost a wife (his first of three), but gained a valuable literary technique. Campbell’s influence is evident in what is the most quoted of Steinbeck’s tags: ‘The new eye is being opened here in the west – the new seeing. It is probable that no one will know it for two hundred years. It will be confused, analysed, analogised, criticised, and none of our fine critics will know what is happening.’ Steinbeck evidently expected to have to wait until the 21st century before the New York Times would give him his due.

Pastures of Heaven (1932) followed an immersion in Winesburg, Ohio (‘one of Steinbeck’s favourite books’ at the time, as Parini tells us). Anderson did for Steinbeck’s narrative structure what Hemingway had done for his language, introducing a ‘new looseness’ into his linked collections of short stories. Steinbeck’s first sales success, Of Mice and Men (1937), elicited accusations of downright plagiarism from Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote indignantly to Edmund Wilson:

I’d like to put you on to something about Steinbeck. He is a rather cagey cribber. Most of us begin as imitators but it is something else for a man of his years and reputation to steal a whole scene as he did in Mice and Men. I’m sending you a marked copy of Norris’s McTeague to show you what I mean. His debt to The Octopus is also enormous and his balls, when he uses them, are usually clipped from Lawrence’s Kangaroo.

Steinbeck’s engaged fiction of the Thirties, as Parini records, owes much to the social conscience of his first wife: ‘the smouldering sense of outrage which gives Of mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath their quiet dignity and moral force is partly a testament to Carol’s impact.’ Stylistically, The Grapes of Wrath drew (as Edmund Wilson noted) on the documentary films of Pare Lorentz and the ‘newsreel’ sections of Dos Passos’s USA trilogy (which came out the year before). Woundingly, even Steinbeck’s former high school teacher, Miss Cupp, gave it as her opinion that The Grapes of Wrath was not an ‘authentic’ book. Her old pupil was simply (as he had years ago in the classroom) latching on to other people’s ways of writing. Like Hemingway, she detected something ‘fake’.

During the war, Steinbeck put his pen at the service of his country. The Moon is Down was originally written for a branch of the OSS, the Foreign Information Service, and is (as Paul Fussell notes in Writing in Wartime) ‘virtually indistinguishable from the emissions of the Office of War Information’. Bombs Away was written for the Army Air Corps. In the scoundrel time, after the war, Steinbeck went along with the inquisitions of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, partly because of his ‘friendship’ with the name-naming Elia Kazan (the director with whom he worked on Viva Zapata). At the end of his life, Steinbeck wrote gung-ho, pro-White House pieces from and about Vietnam because ‘he felt strongly connected to Lyndon Johnson, who had befriended him and his wife.’ As Johnson said of Harold Wilson, he had Steinbeck’s pecker in his pocket. The fact is, at different times, Hemingway, Ricketts, Campbell, Kazan, the OSS, and many others seem to have had Steinbeck’s pecker in their pockets. Where, one might ask, was the real Steinbeck?

Jay Parini fails in his attempt to promote Steinbeck to the top division. Nonetheless, this biography is an affecting and sensitive portrait of an unhappy, chronically uncertain and very gifted American. Parini has been resourceful in discovering intimate evidence (particularly about Steinbeck’s relations to the women in his life) in the form of testimony from family members, friends, and hitherto unpublished letters and memoranda. He penetrates more shrewdly than any of his predecessors into the writer’s personality. The tortured complications of that personality are pictured (but not explained) in a vignette in Arthur Miller’s Timebends. The two men had met for the first time at a lunch where, to Miller’s surprise, Steinbeck had insisted on paying the bill for everyone present:

I walked with Steinbeck up Sixth Avenue towards his apartment. Something almost frenetic betrayed his anxiety and discontent with himself. His drinking wife had recently fallen off a balcony in their apartment, and he bore the special conflict of the celebrated – the desire to confide and the distrust of all confidants. He seemed an ungainly small-town fellow out of his element, grabbing the check like a provincial – a New York writer would not have thought to pay for ten people he had not invited for dinner, it smacked more of inner uncertainty than confident noblesse. It was cold but he wore no overcoat and enjoyed breasting the sharp wind as we walked toward the park. He seemed a shackled giant of a man fit for sun, water, and earth and not sidewalks and smart people ... That the author of prose so definite and painterly could be so personally unsure was beyond my experience.