The long retreat of John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck: A Biography
By Jay Parini
Heinemann, 1994. 614 pp., $45 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
When John Steinbeck observed one of the most cruelly victimised groups of the 1930s Depression — the Oklahoma Dust Bowl refugees — he was both "saddened and outraged" at their plight. "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this", he wrote angrily as he was preparing to write his epic novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Jay Parini, in his biography of Steinbeck, calls The Grapes of Wrath "one of the great angry books" of politically engaged fiction.
This magnificent novel represents the best of Steinbeck the novelist and person. His identification with the poor and needy, and his urge to rectify wrongs, were all sharply focused by the economic crisis which exposed the class fault lines of capitalism. "The edge of moral fervour" which permeated most of his earlier writings was pronounced.
The Grapes of Wrath won Steinbeck a legion of followers amongst ordinary people, including those who normally don't read novels, especially the cynical and complex novels which speak in the language of the literary elite.
The FBI, and conservative politicians and business groups, on the other hand, treated Steinbeck as a dangerous revolutionary. They were partly right. When the '30s asked "Which side are you on?", Steinbeck put his hand up for the victims. In addition to The Grapes of Wrath, he wrote a strike novel, In Dubious Battle, about an agricultural workers' strike in which he sympathises with the strikers and communist union organisers against "the banks, the courts, police and most of the respectable local citizenry".
After the '30s, however, Steinbeck started to go awry as the anti-socialist liberal individualist in him recovered its momentum.
Steinbeck was never attracted to socialism. He regarded socialism as "simply another form of religion and thus delusional", and his later writings contain a lot of inaccurate and tedious polemic against collectivism and socialism. His family saga novel, and screenplay for the movie, East of Eden (which starred James Dean), was "a hymn to individualism", writes Parini.
This individualism was only partly a reaction to the Stalinist hue that Marxism had acquired after the '20s. Steinbeck was sceptical as a matter of faith about all political and philosophical systems.
His aversion to collectivism was to bushwhack Steinbeck's better instincts. His compassion for ordinary battlers and the dispossessed was genuine. He wrote an anti-Nazi novel during the war and wrote a partisan screenplay for a film (which starred Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn) about the Mexican peasant rebel leader, Emiliano Zapata.
When another Steinbeck war novel about survivors of a submarine attack was turned into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, Steinbeck strongly criticised the film for containing "slurs against organised labor" and racist stereotyping of a black sailor. Hitchcock was "one of those incredible middle class snobs who really and truly despise working people", said Steinbeck in fine fury. Steinbeck opposed the McCarthyist witch-hunt, and he always detested the nuclear bomb.
All this was compromised, however, by Steinbeck's liberal Democratic politics. He would hear no evil about Democrat presidents Kennedy and Johnson. One of the key pillars of US imperialist foreign policy, Israel, was, for Steinbeck, "an incredible texture of human endurance and the tough inflexibility of human will power" — literary babble obscuring a brutal, militaristic, racist state which was founded on the dispossession of a million Palestinians. Parini notes the irony for the author of The Grapes of Wrath: "The Steinbeck of three decades earlier would surely have sniffed out the injustice".
The depths of Democratic liberalism were reached with the Vietnam War. Steinbeck supported it, dismissing the protesters for their "shrill squeaking" and, just before his death in 1968, doing action and human interest war reportage from Vietnam, which was uncritical of the nature and origins of the war.
This was a sad end for a great writer. Earlier, in 1939, he had written the emotionally powerful conclusion to The Grapes of Wrath when Rose offers her breast to a starving man, symbolising the development of a collective consciousness and unity of the oppressed. Thirty years later, this solidarity with the poor had disappeared aboard the helicopter gunships Steinbeck was reporting from over the jungles of Vietnam.
This slide from the socialist politics he was groping towards in the '30s had a detrimental effect on his writing. Pompous philosophising, melodrama and an introverted focus on individuals and families at the expense of a broader social canvas all marred Steinbeck's gifts for clear narrative and dialogue, for simple but powerful storytelling.
These are faults shared by Parini, who also has an excessive attention to detail — do we really want to know that Steinbeck preferred "Mongol 480 #2 pencils"? — and who also has a fixation on over-psychologising Steinbeck's character and art in terms of his childhood relationship to his parents.
Parini tries to present Steinbeck's life work as a unified whole of undiminished quality. He doesn't succeed. Steinbeck's later work is worth dipping a toe into, but it is not up to the full swim.
Literary assessment, as Marx's positive writings on the conservative Balzac show, is not about simply checking off an author's political credentials, but the 1930s socialist influence on Steinbeck's love of the common person gave a "smouldering sense of outrage" and artistic force to his novels then.
From there it was a retreat — political and literary — to a reactionary individualism, away from a vision of the collective making of humanity's future by the poor and oppressed, and the remaking of themselves in the process. That vision was what the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, and Steinbeck himself, had glimpsed and been inspired by.