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Why Read John Steinbeck

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“Why Read John Steinbeck”
by Dr. Susan Shillinglaw, San Jose State University

John Steinbeck brings together the human heart and the land.

That phrase, written by environmentalist and writer Barry Lopez, has resonance for today’s readers of John Steinbeck. Lopez urges us to consider two primal landscapes: external landscapes - our relations to the land, to oaks, to the whir of night frogs - and interior landscapes, often shaped by the places where we live. John Steinbeck’s work brings together both these landscapes in extraordinary ways, ways that may deeply affect those of us living at the cusp of a new century.

Steinbeck loved the burnished Salinas hills and the churning Pacific. Like some of America’s greatest writers - Thoreau, Faulkner, Cather - Steinbeck made his childhood haunts vividly real. In book after book, he charted his course in the letters or journals he wrote as "warm ups" to the day’s writing. Steinbeck wanted his prose to recapture a child’s vision "of colors more clear than they are to adults, of tastes more sharp…I want to put down the way ’afternoon felt’ and of the feeling about a bird that sang in a tree in the evening."

He asks that readers pay respectful attention to an external landscape. He invites us to look: "Orange and speckled and fluted nudibranchs slide gracefully over the rocks, their skirts waving like the dresses of Spanish dancers." Passages of stark beauty are found in every Steinbeck novel, sentences that record the rapt attention he paid to the natural world.

And then he asks that we shift perspective. American literature is full of conquest narratives - John Smith as Virginia cavalier, Natty Bumppo as pathfinder, Ernest Hemingway as marksman. But for John Steinbeck, nature is not a commodity, animals not for slaughter. For his is not a man-centered but a holistic universe, with humans seen as simply another species bound intimately to the places where they live, breed, drink, love, suffer, and catch frogs.

In Steinbeck’s California novels, characters inhabit communities and are connected with one another: Sam Hamilton with Adam Trask, "Doc" Ricketts with Mack and the boys, the Joads with all migrants. And all of these characters are shaped by the places they live - Soledad, Tortilla Flat, a bone-dry King City Ranch - or to the roads they travel - Route 66, Highway 1 to the Carmel Valley. Steinbeck’s is a vision of ecological cooperation, of the human’s interdependence with nature and one another.

As important to Steinbeck is the internal landscape, often one shaped by isolation, loneliness, failure. I always ask my students to look carefully at the first paragraphs of Steinbeck’s novels, where the external and characters’ internal landscapes coalesce, Of Mice and Men in particular. The "strong and rocky" Gabilan Mountains are in the distance. George and Lennie take shelter in a glade that has nurtured tramps, boys, and deer. That scene evokes their lowly status - throughout the book these lonely men seek shelter from the "strong" in the bunkhouse or the barn. Steinbeck understood such desolate interiors. But his is never the language of despair but of empathy. George and Lennie are great friends-of each other, of each reader.

Steinbeck reaches out a fictional hand. Emotional bonds are forged between book and reader. Pauline Pearson, who spent countless hours interviewing Steinbeck’s Salinas associates for the Steinbeck Library’s oral history project, told me once: "John Steinbeck saved me. I was suffering, and in his work I found solace." Solace and laughter and commitment are what many readers discover in Steinbeck’s work. "In every bit of honest writing in the world," he wrote in the late 1930s, "there is a base theme. Try to understand men."

So why do these Steinbeck landscapes, external and internal, matter to us in a new century? We live in an imperiled world. Many New York and California chefs have agreed to take the endangered swordfish off menus. Mining rugged interiors poses a new threat to the environment. Steinbeck’s voice, curiously contemporary thirty and fifty and sixty years later, urges us to take heed, to appreciate that external world and our bonds to it.

And Steinbeck’s ghostly voice of understanding and solace endures, inspires. In his album "The Ghost of Tom Joad," Bruce Springsteen pays tribute to the power of those interior landscapes - characters whose lives are often desolate, besieged, unacknowledged. "I’ll be ever ’where," promises Tom Joad, "I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad…"

Other reasons, equally compelling, insure that John Steinbeck’s voice will not diminish. A distinguished scholar of American literature, John Seelye, repeatedly intones: "Steinbeck is a great read." Stories are readily understood. Characters engage, inspire, enrage. My students love East of Eden best of all his novels; ’It’s like a soap opera," one said this spring. "Cathy’s a kick." Good and evil face off in this book and others. They live. Recently, a class spent 50 minutes discussing whether George needed Lennie as much as Lennie needed George.

Readers return to books that are, like close friends, reliable, accessible. entertaining, and - let Steinbeck never again be pilloried by the old complaint that he’s a writer only for adolescent readers - challenging and perplexing. The Japanese have a vigorous Steinbeck Society, over 150 strong. Why are his books so popular there? For many international readers, Steinbeck’s work captures the elusive American psyche: bonds to land, the need for a place. Many of Steinbeck’s stories are archetypal - restless migrants moving west to begin anew.

Some Steinbeck characters are, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, unflinching American visionaries - Jim Casy, Joseph Wayne, Adam Trask. Others are ordinary people, workers, migrants, a few homeless - the Americans celebrated in Walt Whitman’s "Song of Myself."

At the 1997 Fourth International Steinbeck Congress held in San Jose and Monterey, Asian and other participants read papers that noted Steinbeck’s affinity for Buddhist or Taoist ideals - acceptance of what is, not grappling for solutions. Indeed, few twentieth-century American writers seem as relevant, as representative.

Finally, reading Steinbeck may provoke essential dialogue about ethnicity. Early on he wrestled with the issue of California’s diversity. At Stanford University in 1924, he published his first story, "Fingers of Cloud," about the marriage of a white girl and a Filipino worker, Pedro. It’s an emblematic tale, for much of his work is about cultural tensions. He ended his career with America and Americans, writing about America’s racial crisis. Over a third of his work is set in Mexico or about Mexicans. He loved Mexico: "There’s an illogic there I need," he wrote at a low point in the 1940s.

Some of my students have trouble reading Tortilla Flat, that knotty book that both engages and, for some, repels because it’s about drunken, lazy paisanos. Stereotypes, they complain. But in class we discuss those problems head on: Is Pirate stereotypical? Does Steinbeck mean these paisanos to represent all Mexicans? Are Danny and Pilon demeaned by drink or is that jug the catalyst for something far more significant, some bond linking these paisanos - a bond that, for Steinbeck, eludes more socially prominent individuals? Steinbeck wrote: "…they want the thing wine does. They are not drunkards at all. They like the love and fights that come with wine, rather than the wine itself." They love life.

Steinbeck endures because he does not permit readers to complacently dig in, like the hermit crab. He embraces the fullness of life. With compassion, tolerance, and humility, he surveys landscapes: of place, of spirit, of a nation.