Book(s) of the Week: John Steinbeck
I’ve decided to end the year on a bit of a Steinbeck kick. When I first moved to California in 2009, I intended to read through Steinbeck’s body of work. There is a new biography due out in 2019 and its been a decade; also, I sense that my time in California is drawing to a close. In other words, its time to get around to my Steinbeck goal.
I used two websites to compile my reading list. The first is a pretty bare-bones chronological bibliography and the second is a curated thematic list that Susan Shillinglaw published in 2014 in Publishers Weekly. I made the following list and intended to work chronologically through it. I managed to get through the ones that are bold:
To A God Unknown (1933)
Tortilla Flat (1935)
Of Mice and Men (1937)
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
Sea of Cortez (1941)
Cannery Row (1945)
East of Eden (1952)
Winter of Our Discontent (1961)
Travels With Charley (1962)
Book 40: To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck
I begin with one of Steinbeck’s early novels, To a God Unknown (1933). God Unknown is the story of the Wayne family. John Wayne is the father to four sons: Joseph, Thomas, Burton, and Benjy. Together they all live on John Wayne’s ranch somewhere in the Northeast (New Hampshire?—I can't remember). Thomas and Burton have wives, and when Benjy decides to get married, Joseph decides that the ranch is too small to support all of the families, so he moves to California to homestead the “Nuestra Señora Valley”. His father asks him to stay until he dies; but Joseph is eager. In a moment reminiscent of Isaac and Jacob, John gives Joseph his blessing and Joseph goes out to make his fortune.
Joseph establishes his homestead on a property that has a giant old tree. He builds his house under the tree to the protest of his laborers. The tree represents something mystical to him. When he receives word that his father died, he imagines his father’s spirit soaring to California and residing in the tree. One of his laborers, Juanito, stays on with him and becomes as close as a son to him. Juanito tells him all the old Indian stories about the land. In particular, Juanito tells him about the Indian legends about a magical spring on Joseph’s property hidden deep in a forest. Joseph begins to be deeply connected to the land and sees everything that is good in the productivity of the land and the animals and people living on the land. The tree becomes his altar. He regularly leaves sacrifices of cut meat or blood on the trees limbs and goes there to commune with his father.
After his father’s death, he invites his brothers out. They homestead the adjacent properties and together have a large contiguous piece of land that becomes the Wayne ranch. Benjy, the youngest brother, is an irresponsible drunkard who goes about the town seducing young women. He eventually goes to far and it becomes his undoing. Burton and his wife are deeply committed Christians who disappear weeks on end to go to tent revivals. Meanwhile, Thomas and his wife Rama, are probably the closest to understanding Joseph’s life and his commitment to the land. Joseph eventually marries a young school teacher from the town. For Joseph, the marriage is one that is probably more functional; he is deeply committed to productivity and wants to procreate to share in the productivity of the livestock and the land. Burton eventually leaves the ranch to set up a shop in town with his wife; before he leaves, he poisons the tree because he finds Joseph’s connection to the tree and the land to be pagan and fears the effects it will have on the family.
With the tree dead, Joseph feels as though he has lost his sense of connection. He takes his wife to the Indian spring one day and in a bizarre and mysterious accident she slips on a wet mossy stone, hits her head and dies, leaving him a widow with a small child.
The land is dry. A drought has come and there is no food for the livestock. Joseph believes that it will turn around; he is obsessively focused on weather and water levels. His tree is gone, so in desperation he turns to the Catholic priest, exasperatedly yelling at the priest “pray for rain, father! pray for rain.” In the end, he offers his own life as a sacrifice for the preservation of the land.
At the heart of God Unknown is an exploration of the connection that humans have with land and a criticism of the disconnect that occurs in industrialization. Before there was Wendell Berry, there was John Steinbeck. Some of Steinbeck’s criticisms throughout his body of work implicate Christianity for sitting by and allowing the land to become exploited by some and to starve out others. That Joseph is sent out by his father with a blessing but that he does not return to his brothers in prosperity (but instead draws them into a life that ultimately brings ruin) is sort of a counter-story to the Israel story. Or again, when he turns last to the priest, Father Angelo, and begs for a prayer for rain only to be told that the Priest’s job is to pray for souls, we see the failure of the church to care for the land.
Book 41: Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
I read this book before I did any googling. I am not surprised to learn that people (rightly) criticize the portrayal of “Paisanos” in Tortilla Flat; but, I do wonder to what extent we should consider that fact. Naively, this is a book about lower-income friends and veterans of WWI banding together to make a way in life. At a time when money is scarce and racial dynamics prevent the Paisanos from social mobility, Tortilla Flats tells the story of a gang of scoundrels who come together as selfish individuals looking to take advantage of each other and become a real group of friends who develop character and virtues, helping each other to make their way in the world. In the end, however, the group falls apart and each man returns to putting his own interests first and making his own way in the world.
Retrospectively, people have rightly noted that the Paisanos, and the Mexican-American community in the early 20th century are represented in a one0sided fashion with an outsider’s eye. In an age when the importance of representation and allowing for distinct cultures to be the story-tellers of their own stories, Tortilla Flats cannot help but feel a little out of place. Even so, whether Steinbeck intended it or not, there is a relevant plot line here; namely, the extent to which these Paisanos are simultaneously social pariahs and war heroes is an uncomfortable part of American society in every generation. Immigrants and people on the margins find themselves in military service only to return to their homes and families to return to social invisibility.
Book 42: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Of course, Of Mice and Men is probably Steinbeck’s most-read work, on account of its brevity. The story of two migrant workers working coastal California’s ranches is one that is told with some detachment. The narrator presents this tragic story without offering much in the way of moral guidance to the reader. George is a middle aged, short man who travels around California looking for work with Lenny, an unusually large man who is mentally disabled. Their relationship is unusual for a few reasons. First, as some of the other characters note, it is unusually for ranch hands to travel around in pairs. Usually, it is every man for himself. Second, many characters find it hard to believe that George travels with Lenny without an ulterior motive. Lenny clearly causes trouble for George and prevents George from pursuing his own interests. For this reason, it seems to many people that George must be taking advantage of Lenny, stealing his wages, or the like. Instead, we learn that George made a promise to take care of Lenny when a relative died and left Lenny alone. To the end, George is faithful to his word.
Lenny is incredibly powerful, and yet, he is “harmless.” He’s not really harmless; he breaks a rancher named Curly’s hand when Curly picks a fight with him. We sympathize with Lenny because Curly is the aggressor. Nevertheless, Lenny’s strength becomes his undoing. Lenny is attracted to soft things; he likes to pet furry animals and touch the fabric of women’s dresses. This has the accidental effect of causing Lenny to kill a puppy that he accidentally over-powers and to scare a woman whose dress he touches. The final result is that Lenny accidentally kills a woman because he wants to touch her soft hair and when she screams, he gets scared and silences her.
George, who tries to keep Lenny out of trouble, ultimately finds himself confronted with a tough decision: Lenny is hiding and a posse of ranchers are out to get him. When they find him, they will be cruel and deliberate in their retribution. Earlier, George watched another old ranch hand make the difficult decision to shoot his old dog to put him out of his misery. Steinbeck now places George in the same situation, making the decision that it is better for Lenny to die a quick and painless death at the hands of a friend than a slow and painful death in the hands of people who do not understand him and hate him.
Again, Steinbeck’s approach is to present the facts of the story without moral judgment. Is this euthanasia? And if so, is it an acceptable outcome? Certainly, it seems likely that Lenny will be killed one way or another. Is George acting as Lenny’s friend, or is George beset by self-interest and finally ready to walk away from his obligation? These are questions that are left unresolved in the work. The work ends with many of the characters hopes and dreams snuffed out. Their dreams die with Lenny’s unintended murder and his subsequent death at George’s hand.
Book 43: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Underpaid migrant workers mistreated and unwelcome? Accusations of communism thrown at anyone who tries to unionize and fight for a living wage? How could these themes possibly be relevant today?!
Indeed, it was a particularly fascinating time for me to be re-reading Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. We follow the Joad family as they make a difficult decision to leave Oklahoma behind, with empty promises of prosperity in California. When they arrive, they discover that they are unwelcome and a.part of a large undervalued labor supply. Steinbeck particularly focuses on the dehumanization that the migrant “Okies” experience from the Californians. They are both necessary to the economy and yet undesirable residents.
Grapes also takes place at the beginning of the motor vehicle revolution, making this a fascinating read about early car culture in America. Cars made it possible for the Okies to migrate in such large numbers. We follow the Joad’s along Route 66, stopping at all the same places that I stopped at when I moved to California … Flagstaff, Kingman, Needles, Barstow.
The biblical imagery is strong in this work. The lapsed preacher Casy’s self-sacrifice of first his freedom and ultimately his life are clearly symbolic of Christ. That Casy ultimately dies as a champion of the labor movement perhaps says something about Steinbeck’s own understanding of Christ’s life and teachings. The whole migration of the Okie’s reads almost like the Israelites in Egypt: Joseph’s brothers originally come to Egypt to flee famine and find security; generations later, the Israelites are slave labor. The Joad’s make a similar cross-desert migration west only to discover that they are cheap and unwanted labor.
Book 44: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The final book I managed to read in my Steinbeck blitz was his crowning achievement: East of Eden. I jumped forward in my list when I knew I was out of time. I had seen the James Dean movie but never read the book.
In East of Eden we learn the story of the Trask and Hamilton families. Adam and Charles Trask are step-brothers, growing up in Connecticut. Adam and Charles appear to be representatives of Abel and Cain respectively. In particular, in his late teens, Charles gets angry because their father, Cyrus, preferred a birthday gift he received from Adam to a more expensive and thoughtful one that Charles gave him. Charles tries to kill Adam. Adam escapes with his life and his father ships him off to the military to fight the Indians. There, we learn that Adam is a peaceful person who avoids killing at all costs and hates his time in the Army. Meanwhile, Charles stays home to attend to the farm where an injury leaves a scar on his forehead (the mark of Cain).
One day, after Adam returns and settles in Connecticut, a young prostitute named Cathy appears at their door beaten within an inch of their life. They nurse her back to health and Adam decides to marry her and move to California with his inheritance and start over. Cathy, we learn is a devious and dangerous woman who is only thinking of herself. She also develops a scar on her forehead after her beating. Charles and Cathy share a similar darkness. Charles understands this and warns his brother not to follow through with his plans.
When Adam and Cathy arrive in California she is pregnant. After a failed attempt to abort the child, Cathy settles into married life and makes plans to leave Adam as soon as the child is born. Adam purchases a farm and begins to settle in with plans to prosper. He hires Sam Hamilton to dig him some wells and this is how the Trasks and Hamiltons become friends.
The Hamilton family is actually John Steinbeck’s family. John’s mother is Ollie Hamilton, one of nine of Sam and Lizza Hamilton’s children. The real Sam Hamilton is Steinbeck’s grandfather, and Steinbeck himself is the narrator of our story, telling us the story as it was handed down in his family.
Sam and Lizza are Irish immigrants who settled into California on a piece of property that is no good for farming. Sam makes a living digging wells, fixing tools, and doing other random things. Everyone loves him because he has the Irish gift of gab. But he is a wise soul and becomes Adam’s mentor and friend.
When Cathy gives birth, Sam is there to midwife and she gives birth to twin boys. Shortly thereafter, she packs her things and leaves. When Adam tries to stop her, she shoots him in the shoulder with a pistol. She then goes to Salinas and takes a job in a cathouse, where she subsequently becomes the madam. Adam is morose and goes into about 10 years of despair. Previously, Adam had hired a Chinese man named Lee to be his servant. At this point, Lee steps in and raises the boys, tends to the property and manages the finances.
Lee, sensing that Adam is spiraling out of control, invites Sam into Adam’s life. Sam helps Adam name the boys. Sam, tending to the Bible, says it would be appropriate for Adam to name his boys the same names as the Biblical Adam (Abel and Cain), but sensing that would be tempting fate, they decide to name them Aron and Caleb, after the Israelites who inherit the promised land.
The boys grow up and live into the “Cain and Abel” narrative that their father established with his brother Charles. They are rivals for their father’s affection and they cannot overcome their familial sin. At this point, I”m wondering if Adam and Charles are also Abel and Cain respectively, which is clearly the allusion drawn with the gift and the narrative. But Adam’s name suggests more. Cyrus is clearly a god figure to the boys and he falls from his god-like status in Adam’s estimation. So this is perhaps Adam and God, making Charles—as a rival for God’s affection—Satan, who is jealous of God’s affection for humans? Or, is it simply that Steinbeck is allowing the Abel and Cain narrative to repeat itself to greater effect in the second generation?
Another interesting feature is the Lee character. He is the child of migrant Chinese workers who came to America to work on the railroads. He is very well-educated (attended Berkeley) but he finds that he is invisible if he acts himself. So, instead, he plays up his Chinese-ness by speaking “pigeon” and acting ignorant. This way, he finds, white people are more comfortable around him and not suspicious. Lee and Sam Hamilton become fast friends, with Sam quickly discovering Lee’s intelligence. This leads to many conversations about philosophy, poetry, and the like. Steinbeck is doing something interesting here with racism and the role the Chinese played in settling the west. At one point, when Sam asks him if he’s ever thought about going back to China, he reminds Sam that he was born in America and is no more Chinese than Sam is. This is a very early exploration of what it means to be “Asian-American” and I am interested to know how it was received at the time and whether it holds up today. I wonder what scholars in that area think of the matter.