Steinbeck sampler

The Portable Steinbeck is the best introduction or reintroduction to the writings of John Steinbeck (1902-68). The volume itself is introduced usefully by the son of his long-time editor, Pascal Covici Jr. The book includes fairly stand-alone section of his big California novels, In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden. I find the selections and the novels from which they were lifted overly rhetorical and prefer the tighter, shorter works. The Portable Steinbeck includes the full texts of Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony, along with three other stories from the one collection of Steinbeck short stories, The Long Valley, and three of the stories relating the appearance of a domineering Anglo family in The Pastures of Heaven.

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It also includes “About Ed Ricketts,” the introduction to The Log of the Sea of Cortez. Ricketts was the marine biologist/supplier of marine samples whom Steinbeck repeatedly idealized. He provided at least the root of characters in many of his works, most directly the “Doc” character in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, but also Slim in Of Mice and Men, Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, and Doc Burton in In Dubious Battle.

Earlier editions had part of The Moon is Down, and World War II reportage from Bombs Away and Once There Was a War. I regret that the chapter on why veterans of intense combat don’t talk about it was dropped, but approve of including the The Log of the Sea of Cortez selections, including the two-page story of The Pearl. Also, parts of Travels with Charley, including that volume’s finale about getting lost trying to get home to his Manhattan apartment, plus the Nobel Prize acceptance speech with its sweeping assertion that literature is and can only be about the perfectibility of man (that I find surprising given the focus on imperfect human institutions and characters in much of his work , the bemused reports of human foibles in his lighter work, and the explicitly anti-teleological philosophizing picked up from Ed Ricketts).

I especially enjoyed two otherwise uncollected stories. One about a family beset by gum that chewed itself and kept returning to the son’s mouth, a parody of Poe’s “Murders on the Rue Morgue” provides something of a sample of the genial reflections on Paris of The Short Reign of Pippin IV. “How Mr. Hogan robbed a bank” might inspire me to read the New England novel that preceded Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize, The Winter of Our Discontent. But the story is so perfect in itself that it’s hard to undertake reading the long book prefigured by and encapsulating it.

As those who have read my  series in two clumps —  of Steinbeck reviews know), I think that Steinbeck was often overly schematic, but also often wrote powerfully. Some of his lyricism convinces me, some of it seems forced to me. I am troubled by a recurrent misogyny in the worst tradition of interpreting the fall from paradise —the paradise in which there was only God and Adam and God’s creations — as Eve’s fault (Steinbeck combined the serpent with Eve into one menacing character and exculpated Adam—and not just in East of Eden, but in Of Mice and Men and, less directly, other works). This leitmotif is blessedly little in evidence in The Portable Steinbeck, except within Of Mice and Men. There is even a character (the teacher Miss Morgan from The Pastures of Heaven) who is neither a madonna nor a whore. Indeed, the cast of female characters also includes a shrewish wife now thankfully dead (in “The Harness”) and the dangerous stirring of female sexual desire (in “The Chrysanthemums”) and Mrs. Hogan, who is too non an entity to be classified madonna or whore.

I am confident that anyone who dislikes the contents of The Portable Steinbeck would not like other Steinbeck writings. I am less sure about the converse. Much of the best stuff is here, though the whimsical Steinbeck is under-represented. My own conclusions, after reading quite a lot of Steinbeck writing that I had not read in high school when I did a major paper on Steinbeck, are that (1) he was a powerful writer who can still stir readers (and would-be censors!), (2) some of what is most compelling in Steinbeck’s writing is likely to be lost on the teenage readers to whom he has been largely consigned (as in my high school term-paper-writing self), and (3) (like Hemingway) he wrote quite a bit of second-rate stuff, some of which is mildly entertaining. Both from noting the obsessions that recur in his writings and from having read a biography (by Jay Parini), I have concluded that, (4) like so many other writers (see The Wound and the Bow), he was a seriously maimed human being.

 

This was part of the Steinbeck centenary writeoff I organized on epinions.

©2002, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

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