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Thoughts on John Steinbeck’s Spirituality

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“Thoughts on John Steinbeck’s Spirituality”
by Dr. Susan Shillinglaw, San Jose State University

Elaine Steinbeck, the author’s third wife, maintained that "there was always a spiritual quality to John…he did not feel that he had to go to church on Sunday, he didn't. But when he went, he acted like an active church goer" (Interview 1999). Rejecting any dogmatic ideology, Steinbeck was nonetheless a deeply spiritual man. That sensibility is evident throughout his work. In each book, nature is emblematic—evident both in descriptive passages and in characters’ deep appreciation of the natural world. Furthermore, Steinbeck characters who fully understand the joy and agony of being human are resilient, insightful, admirable. Throughout his work he conveyed an unflagging compassion for the loneliness and exhilaration of the human condition. These qualities suggest what I mean by Steinbeck’s spiritual sensibilities, an acutely honed sense of connection to humanity writ large. And those sensibilities are given full throated meaning in Cannery Row.

As a young man, John Steinbeck resisted packaged doctrine. The Wrath of John Steinbeck, a monograph by a Stanford classmate, records an emblematic episode in Steinbeck's early life. Robert Bennett relates the story of 19 year old John's visit to his mother's church in Berkeley. That Sunday the minister preached that "the soul is a creature that wants food in order to its satisfaction as truly as the body!" To which the young and restless visitor responded: "Yes, you all look satisfied here, while outside the world begs for a crust of bread or a chance to earn it. Feed the body and the soul will take care of itself!" This was, noted Bennett, "a challenge from St. John" that caused his mother to be "visibly disturbed" and the minister to invite John to the pulpit: "Young man, if you think you can preach a better sermon that I, come on up here and let us hear you!" "John didn't flutter an eyelid," recalled Bennett, "but returned with quiet wrath, 'I don't think much of preaching …Go on… you're getting paid for it."
Undoubtedly this was not the most graceful moment of Steinbeck’s adolescence, but the episode says much about Steinbeck’s fictional terrain. First, his fiction is grounded in resistance to much mainstream ideology—be it religious, political, or social. Second, his spiritual sensibilities to be found not in established religion but in nature. The lovely, tangled, and fragile world of nature is always his window to the intangible. His embrace was holistic, meaning that to appreciate the fullness of place and experience one must see with precision and with deep understanding—that last was a word Steinbeck used repeatedly and insistently.

To see nature with great clarity was important to Steinbeck. To see beyond the physical to an underlying pattern and larger significance was equally essential. He wrote this in 1948:

There are good things to see in the tidepools and there are exciting and interesting thoughts to be generated from the seeing. Every new eye applied to the peep hole which looks out at the world may fish in some new beauty and some new pattern, and the world of the human mind must be enriched by such fishing. ("Preface,"Between Pacific Tides)

Steinbeck asks his readers to shift perspective, much as Emerson suggests that his readers understand that Nature yields more than simple beauty. "[A] man looking at reality brings his own limitations to the world," Steinbeck writes in Sea of Cortez. "If he has strength and energy of mind the tide pool stretches both ways, digs back to electrons and leaps space into the universe and fights out of the moment into non-conceptual time. Then ecology has a synonym which is ALL" (99). This all-encompassing vision embraces, first, the unity humans, nature and a spiritual whole.

            So what does all this tell readers about Cannery Row? It’s a book steeped in place and spirit, the two intertwined. "Our Father who art in nature," concludes Chapter 3 of Cannery Row.  Friend and mentor Ed Ricketts called this kind of spiritual yearning "breaking through,” and by that he meant that nature sometimes yielded spirit. The notion of "breaking through" explains what Steinbeck means by the vision of the Chinaman's eyes in Cannery Row; or Doc's discovery of the drowned girl in the tide pool; or Henri the painter's dream. All are moments of transcendence--a flicker of spirit, be it spirit found in desolation (the landscape of the Chinaman’s eyes) or in blasted beauty (the drowned girl and the poem by Li Po which ends the book). Restless and curious, Steinbeck never ceased probing the connective threads of the elusive human spirit.