BOOK REVIEW/Ryder W. Miller

Steinbeck’s Hard Truths are Still Timely

The Short Novels of John Steinbeck by John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, paperback, 2009)

John Steinbeck (1902-1968), recently getting short shrift because of his political agenda and dubious politics in such work as How Fiction Works by James Wood and other who wonder about his “dubious” politics, is worthy of reconsideration and the admiration of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Recently re-released, The Short Novels of John Steinbeck (this edition without an introduction), conjures of the Central California region of yore, but depicted here with pathos, dysfunction, disillusionment, and sometimes humor. There is some comic relief and hope to keep the reader from passing on to read something else less depressing. Steinbeck however does not shy away from the hard truths, many of them economic. One cannot help but notice the tarnishing of The American Dream, The California Dream, and the Agrarian Dream.

Though considered an American Modern Realist with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner, Steinbeck could also join the ranks of the literary muckrakers, like Upton Sinclair (Oil, The Jungle), with such novels as In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath. One can commemorate these lesser-known works which still have relevance to recession readers.

The Short Novels of John Steinbeck does not contain his most political work, but one can also gain from it his political ideology generated by The Great Depression and the social demise of his time.

In Tortilla Flat, one will find the tale of the “paisanos” of Monterey who live like rascals, but are well intentioned despite their propensity to drink. Here are winos out of work, but with profound values and ideologies. They make do despite the failing economic situation and avoid the exploitation of the cannery companies. Fun and hopeful, but one can see here a society which not everyone can function in economically.

In The Red Pony, young Jody grows up in the shadows of the Galiban Mountains with its tales and history of expansionist encroachment upon the native peoples of the West. One finds here the telling of the colonialist tale of the California West, a heritage Jody chooses not to fully accept.

In Of Mice and Men, George and Lennie try to fit into the tough agricultural business in California, but they have their own personal issues to deal with. They do dream of a place of their own, their own “stake”, but they are caught in the agricultural system which may not make that dream possible. They are instead migrant laborers at the whims of those who hire them. One cannot help but remember them walking down the road towards an uncertain and hopeless future.

The Moon Is Down is a war novel that inspired resistance to the Nazis in the Northern European countries during World War II. Steinbeck was part of the war efforts to safeguard America and Europe he would also criticize. One should know he also criticized the Soviet Union during his life. This work does not seek to explore class issues, instead the personal reactions to war experienced by both the invaders and the conquered. Steinbeck provides bombast and hope to the invaded.

Cannery Row, one of Steinbeck’s funniest novels, and classic for those who live in California, was written to entertain the troops. Like Tortilla Flat, there are characters who cannot make ends meet. Doc, the successful marine biologist and marine scientific supplies seller, is one of the few business people presented, but like the rest he survives and is appreciated because of his generosity. The less fortunate are depicted as somewhat unscrupulous at times, but they not ingrates.

From The Pearl one can see the hidden hand of corporate antitrust. Mexican Kino finds the Pearl of the World, an oddly large-shaped pearl of superstitious omen, but he cannot get the price he wants because the pearl purchasers are in collusion. It turns out that there was only one real buyer, not three, in his village. Outraged, he plans to skip over the middle man and bring the pearl to the capital to sell himself. Others who have tried have not returned. The Pearl does bring him bad luck and danger, explored here in Kino’s superstitious beliefs. Others wish to have the wealth that the pearl represents, but it does not go well for Kino and his family. One can ascertain here the workings of the destitute who wish to possess what Kino was given. Though told morally, one cannot help but notice the economic trappings of this poverty stricken area.

It is nice to see these hard truths told again by such a master storyteller. Though critical of the country at times, not everybody is born into the same amount of luck or economic situation. Not everybody knows how to survive tough economic times, but some can learn from these lesser known works. Steinbeck’s writing is a celebration of the First Amendment.

Ryder W. Miller is the co-author of San Francisco: A Natural History (Arcadia). He lives in California.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2010

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