The Steinbeck centenary + 15 writeoff homepage

I hosted Steinbeck writeoffs on epinions for his 99th and 100th birthday. I, alas, don’t have files for most of the 99th, but included four from the 100th with my own old and new discussions of Steinbeck books.

Following links to the three general ones, is a list in order of first publication by Steinbeck:

The Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California

The Portable Steinbeck

Movies based on Steinbeck writing

 

The Pastures of Heaven (1932)

The Red Pony (1933)

To a God Unknown (1933)

Tortilla Flat (1935)-Mridula

In Dubious Battle (1936)

Of Mice and Men (1937)

Sea of Cortez (1942, 1969)—Ed Grover

The Moon in Down (1942

The Wayward Bus (1947)—Alex Fraser

The Pearl (1947)—Ed Williamson

Burning Bright (1950)

East of Eden (1952)

Sweet Thursday (1954)

The Short Reign of Pippin IV (1957)

Once There Was a War (1958)

The Winter of Our Discontent (1961)

America and Americans (1966)

Journal of a Novel The East of Eden Letters (1969[1951]

Viva Zapata! (1975[1952])

King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976)—Peter Warn

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What Steinbeck hoped would be his “most important work”

Peter Warn contributed the following to the Steinbeck Centenary Writeoff I organized on epinions and has kindly given his permission for its revival here.

Pros: Clear version of influential, enjoyable tales. Insight into Steinbeck’s thinking.

Cons: Steinbeck didn’t finish it.

The Bottom Line: Steinbeck provides an engaging version of the Arthurian legends. His letters about the project provide fascinating insights into his obsession with stories that brightened his youth.

 

John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1962), but he died in 1968 before he could realize his destiny. The author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men left unfinished his version of Sir Thomas Malory’s compilation of the legends about King Arthur and his noble knights. It was this work that Steinbeck described in 1957 as “destined to be the largest and I hope the most important work I have ever undertaken.”

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The considerable chunk of that work that Steinbeck was able to complete, posthumously published as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, follows the familiar parts of the story of the Arthur from his being raised by Merlin to his using the power of Excalibur to unite England with the help of his noble knights. He tells the stories in modern English, while always suggesting a magical time long ago and far away. He also fleshes out much of the story that might now be less familiar, from varied quests by numerous knights to Lancelot’s adventures, which tend to be overshadowed by his betrayal of Arthur. Steinbeck’s tale ends just as Lancelot and Queen Guinevere are about to commit the adultery that will ruin Camelot. Because he was not able to complete it, Steinbeck’s delightful presentation of the legends ends with his tantalizing suggestion in a letter to his agent that what he was planning to write about Arthur would be “strange and different”.

Steinbeck sought to introduce the Arthurian legends to contemporary readers whom he worried might otherwise get their understanding of the myths from comic books. Arthur lives at the end of Steinbeck’s book, which is not an irony brought about by the author’s death. He sought to remind the world that the work most commonly called Le Morte D’Arthur is about much more. The original title for the Malory manuscripts Steinbeck interprets was The Birth, Life and Acts of King Arthur, of his Noble Knights of the Round Table, Their Marvelous Enquests and Adventures, the Achieving of the San Greal, and in the End Le Morte D’Arthur with the Dolorous Death and Departing Out of this World of All of Them.

Malory’s stories hold power over readers, even over readers who are familiar with them only through the varied works they have inspired, from the musical Camelot to the DC Comics version, Camelot 3000. The characters are like dinosaurs: larger-than-life figures who are gone but who captivate us because their lingering presence suggests worlds full of unknown wonders. Steinbeck’s graceful retellings capture the magic, chivalry and intrigue that give the stories their power.

Merlin knows that he and Arthur are destined to suffer betrayals by the women they love, but he knows too that they are powerless to escape their fates: “Every man who has ever lived holds tight to the belief that for him alone the laws of probability are canceled out by love. Even I, who know beyond doubt that my death will be caused by a silly girl, will not hesitate when that girl passes by. Therefore you will marry Guinevere. You do not want advice–only agreement.”

Although they cannot change their natures, the characters have keen understandings of them. Arthur’s half-sister Morgan Le Fay, for instance, comes close to seducing Lancelot because she knows what he wants:

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With power you can try on cities like hats, or smash them when you tire of them. Power attracts loyalty and requires none. The will to power keeps a baby suckling grimly long after he is fed, counsels a child to take his brother’s toy, reaps a gaggling harvest of concupiscent girls. What drives a knight through tortures to his prize or death? The power of fame. Why does a man heap up property he cannot use? Why does a conqueror take countries he will never see? What makes the hermit grovel in the black filth of a cell but the promise of power, or at least influence in heaven? And do the humble mad saints reject the power of intercession? What crime is there that does not become a virtue in the hands of power? And is not virtue itself a kind of power? Philanthropy, good deeds, charity, are they not mortgages on the currency of future power? It is the one possession that does not flag or become tedious, for there is never enough of it and an old man in whom the juices of all other desires are dried up will crawl on his tottering knees toward his grave still grabbing with frantic hands for power.

Much of Steinbeck’s story follows Lancelot, who comes across as a charming crank on whom the burden of being universally hailed “the greatest knight in Christendom” does not always rest easily. This Lancelot complains at length and with apparently unintended humor that women are always demanding that he perform some bit of gallantry for them. Even so, his honor demands that he ask every woman he encounters if there is something he can do for her.

The emphasis on Lancelot in what is supposed to be Arthur’s story seems odd, until one reaches Steinbeck’s letters about the project. His literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, and his editor, Case Horton, share much of Steinbeck’s correspondence about the project to which he devoted more than a decade of extensive research throughout Europe. These letters provide fascinating insights into Steinbeck’s thinking along the way, from his envying Malory for the time he could commit to his writing (Malory apparently spent much of his life in prison) to his admiring the progress Malory made as a writer. In one of his letters, Steinbeck suggests that Malory and he shared many of a novelist’s traits: “A novelist not only puts down a story but he is the story. He is each one of the characters in a greater or a less degree.” Malory, Steinbeck argues, saw himself in Lancelot.

The energy Steinbeck put into studying Malory’s writings and the varied histories and other sources that provided context for them suggests he identified with his characters as well. His writing is fueled by the energy that a knight would have needed as he sought the Grail. Death may have prevented Steinbeck from seeing his quest to its end, but he produced a work that drives readers’ imaginations on quests of their own.

_

SM comment: I was curious about this book that Steinbeck worked on for a long time. It sounds less dried up than I expected. A label on the gazebo from his Sag Harbor home says that he went to it to write day after day, writing nothing. It’s not like he had some other job or lack of income that kept him from writing. He had writer’s block, even if part of it can be attributed to the savagery of some New York critics in whose midst he chose to live (inexplicably to native or immigrant Californians!)

I hit similar statements about people wanting approval, not advice in Pippin IV and The Winter of Our Discontent, other late works of the master born a century ago today

Steinbeck’s epistolatory 1951 journal of writing East of Eden

To make it through the posthumously published (1969) Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters one must be very interested in how John Steinbeck spent 1951 and/or in what he regarded (from before he started writing it) as his magnum opus, East of Eden, which was published in September 1952 and became a blockbuster (601 pages) best-seller. A decade later, the Swedish Academy gave him the Nobel Prize in literature (a choice bemoaned by many American critics, a group that had long been hostile to Steinbeck’s writing).

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While he was writing the book in New York City and on Long Island, Steinbeck wrote daily letters to his longtime editor, Pascal Covici, to “warm up.” That is, when he wrote about the book, it was mostly about what he planned to write on a particular day, not reflections on what he had written. (There are some postscripts about the day’s work that he hoped Covici would understand and like. I don’t understand how they could have been kept—on facing pages— in a notebook, since each week’s work was dispatched to Covici.

I also don’t understand how it is possible to use up 60 (#2 3/8 round) pencils a day, writing roughly 1500 words of novel and another 500 of epistles to his editor. He discarded a pencil as soon has he could fell the metal below/around the eraser, but that still seems like a lot of pencil to use up.

These puzzlements are part of the basis for my suspicions that the book is pervasively dishonest. He did edit the manuscript for publication, and purportedly did not think of publication, though I find it hard to believe that a professional writer who had published 22 books gave no thought to publishing anything of such length that he wrote. I also find it difficult to believe his frequent protestations that he was writing the book for himself and did not care if it were ever published. Is this credible from someone writing daily reports to his editor? Or trying to anticipate criticisms?

I also find it difficult to credit the perky cheerfulness. His third marriage seems to have been as happy as his second one was unhappy, and it is plausible that his wife Elaine told him she liked every single bit he read to her, knowing that he needed approval and encouragement not criticism however “constructive.” The journal periodically shows he was very, very sensitive to criticism—of which he got a great deal, being a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

I have no interested in what the weather was like where he was between 12 February and 1 November 1951. There is, btw, nothing of his view of the ending or having reached the end of the bulky book on which he had worked most every workday, writing about six hours a day, for eight and a half months. It is followed in the published book by a draft dedication of the book that argued with sales personnel, proofreaders, editors, and critics. That was wisely replaced by a more conventional and less loquacious dedication to Covici (who had died in 1964, so did not make the decision to publish the unedited stream of letters to him).

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There is little notice of the outside world, other than the weather and who was staying (notably his two young sons, warped by their mother, Gwyn). He went to the final National League playoff game with Bobby Thompson’s dramatic homerun and to the first World Series games, a crosstown series in which the Yankees beat the Giants. The parade for the cashiered General Douglas MacArthur stirred some fury (Steinbeck though MacArthur should not just be court-martialed for insubordination, but tried for treason; it was widely supposed at the time that MacArthur was going to run for president).

Along with many, many, many banalities, there are occasional nuggets of explication of Steinbeck’s intent. The story(/ies) seem to have been thought out before he began, though I doubt they flowed as smoothly as he pretended. For one thing, his plan to alternate the tale of the fratricidal Trasks with the economically unsuccessful Hamiltons (based on his mother’s family) dropped away. The Hamiltons were supposed (ca. 12 Feb.) to be the universal neighbors of the universal family (the Trasks). I’m not sure that Lee, the Chinese servant who mostly raised Aron and Cal was present in Steinbeck’s mind at the outset, though when he started writing about him, he claimed it had been. There is no doubt that Steinbeck was interested in Chinese in California, however.

There is also no question that Steinbeck saw Cathy/Kate as a monster from before her first appearance (27 March):

Cathy is a hustler, perhaps born, perhaps caused by accident, but Cathy is by nature a whore. She is also by profession a whore. Why Adam Trask should have fallen in lover with her is anybody’s guess but I think it was because he himself was trained to operate best under a harsh master and simply transferred that to a tough mistress.

If one can be born with a twisted and deformed face or body, one can surely also come into the world with a malformed soul.

Her life is one of revenge on other people because of a vague feeling of her own lack.

Steinbeck wanted the book to read like a history rather than like a novel (I’m not sure what he meant by that, and he did no elaborate). On 10 May he wrote that “the story comes to me as though I were reading it but not in final form. Then I must take the story I have heard in my ears and set it down.”

The plan to vary the A-C (Abel Cain) theme was also there before he started writing about Aron and Cal:

In the first part the burden was with Adam who was the Abel… The book was seen though his eyes and through his emotions. Charles was a dark principle who remained dark… Now in Part 3 I am going to try to do just the opposite. Caleb is my Cain principle. I am going to put the burden of experience through his eyes and his emotions… And since every man has Cain in him, he will be fully well understood. Part 3 is Caleb’s part.

The title shifted from Salinas Valley to My Valley to Cain Mark (a really bad title!) to the eventual (12 June) East of Eden to where Cain was banished after slaying Abel. Though he had had a string of memorable titles (The Pastures of Heaven, To A God Unknown), Of Mice and Men, In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath) he claimed not to be a “title man.” There is no mention of his having already used “valley” in The Long Valley, though he expressed concern that The Valley would be confused with How Green Was My Valley.

There is nothing about any editing of the manuscript which in the journal’s telling flowed smoothly in predetermined order through his #2 3/8 pencils. And it is generally difficult to be sure what in the published novel was being written (was going to be written!) on the day of a particular journal entry. Only if the journal was printed on the same alternating pages as the manuscript could a reader correlate the two texts. I don’t advocate doing this, since so much of the material in the journal is not about the novel (not to mention being of little interest!). I found Journal of a Novel close to insufferable (believing so little was accurate about his feelings), and skimmed many paragraphs about aches and pains and visitors and weather (I was interested in the maladjustments of his own young son (born in 1944 and 1946), but these were not detailed out of concern that they would read the journal when they grew up.)

©stephen O. Murray

John Steinbeck’s East Coast novel

Pros: Strong characterization and social criticism

Cons: Terrible ending and could have used some pruning though it’s not very long

Bottom Line: Although overwritten and irritatingly ended, this 1961 novel about corruption and greed is of continuing relevance in Trumpland.

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Steinbeck’s last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, is set not in “Steinbeck country” (central California) but firmly in what was already in 1961 Cheever/Updike country, suburban Long Island where adultery and alcoholism loomed larger as topics for fiction than did social justice for the underclass. It’s immediately obvious to the reader that s/he is not in The Grapes of Wrath. It’s also obvious that Steinbeck could establish characters in an old whaling town. The first two chapter, written in the third person, are convincing and interest the reader in Ethan Allen Hawley, who was educated at Harvard, served in World War II as an army captain, and descends from a long-prominent family. However, his father burned through the family fortune with bad investments while Ethan was off saving the world, and Ethan works as a clerk in a grocery store the family once owned, but that is now owned by a disreputable alien (Sicilian) interloper.

Everyone wants Ethan to raise the family’s fortune before its residual status is completely lost. Everywhere Ethan looks, he sees that all that matters is money, and money is something of which he has little. Education, integrity, tradition (breeding) and other virtues such as loyalty he has, but not money. His saintly wife does not criticize him, but his grubby teenaged children do. The pert widow. Margie, is eager to encourage him as is the banker, whose family once owned a whaler with the Hawleys — and may have torched it for insurance money when whaling ceased to be profitable.

The pressure eventually becomes unbearable and the opportunities to abandon principles Ethan has failed to inculcate in his children are too tempting. (This time around, there’s no Eve figure to blame, in contrast to East of Eden, Of Mice and Men etc. In that most of the novel takes place during Holy Week, Judas and the thirty piece of silver seems more the biblical model. But there are examples of underhanded dealings all around in the era in which payola was being exposed, just as in Enrongate.)

The book seems somewhat overinflated to me, though less a padded version of Steinbeck’s splendid story “How Mr. Hogan robbed a bank” than I expected and thought until after the midpoint of the book. I was not particularly thrown by beginning both parts of the book with third-person narration shifting after a few chapters to Ethan’s perspective, though I can’t think of any good reason for the seeming indecision. And there are some overwritten passages.

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The male characters are mostly convincing, but Mary Hawley is more a celebration of an ideal mate (which Steinbeck seems to have found for himself with Elaine) than a credible character. She is completely trusting, infinitely patient, totally compliant — too perfect a subordinate even for a 1950s television series wife. She has no idea what her friend Margie is up to — either her designs on Ethan or the number of prominent citizens she has been servicing. Margie is a tough, smart woman who takes sexual iniative, which for Steinbeck and for the official culture of the 1950s made her a sl-u-t. I think of the madonna/wh-o-r-e dichotomy for women as being Latino, but it is evident again and again in the Anglo Californian John Steinbeck. Margie is one of the entertaining, wisecracking Steinbeck wh-o-r-es, whose knowingness provides the reader some relief from the tiresome goodness of the good women.

There are more than a few hopeless drunks in Steinbeck’s oeuvre, too. In Winter it is Danny, disgraced by being thrown out of the Naval Academy his third year. He an Ethan were bosom buddies during their youth, and Ethan wants to save Danny from drinking himself to death . . . until he decides he can’t.

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Probably Steinbeck thought Ethan was a tragic hero. He certainly gave him a melodramatic end that I find very unsatisfying. Until the last two pages, however, Winter seems an accomplished novel about the clash of materialism and traditions of honor on the right coast of America, better than Updike, not as good as Cheever’s Wapshot novels or Falconer. The book bore a blurb from Saul Bellow and was singled out by the Nobel Prize Committee as evidencing “an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American.” I find this very curious praise. Firstly, what do they know about “what is genuinely American”? I think they meant crassness, but Ethan is unable to rationalize jettisoning his values for “the main chance.” Secondly, “instinct”? They did not grant him artistry? And what is “an unbiased instinct” anyway?

Well, they (the Swedish Academy) awarded him the Nobel Prize, reassured by this fairly good book. The award was viciously attacked, as Steinbeck’s work frequently was. If they got it right for the wrong reason, isn’t that very Hayes Code Hollywood?

 

This was first posted as part of the Steinbeck Centenrary Writeoff I organized on epinions.

©2002, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Steinbeck’s Everyman play/novel

Crafting dialog that sounds like something people might say was not one of the strengths of Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck (1902-68), even though he earned a Pulitzer Prize for the stage version of Of Mice and Men. I think that Steinbeck was striving for something of the elevation of Elizabethan English (though, thankfully, not in iambic pentameter) in his parable/tragedy Burning Bright. In defending his work from 1950 theater critics (in “Critics, critics, burning bright”) he asserted that he had written the play in “a kind of universal language not geared to the individual actors or their supposed [!] crafts.” (With some very peculiar compound nouns, it sounds like it was incompletely translated from German or some Scandinavian language. E.g.,”laughterstarving”?!)

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In the play that he first titled “Everyman,” Steinbeck made an attempt to suggest the universality of the simple, agonized story of an infertile man desperate to continue his line and the wife who takes a desperate measure to provide him what he wants. The would-be patriarch is called Joe Saul. At first he is a circus acrobat, then a farmer, then a sea captain. He has a friend, Ed (“Friend Ed” in the dramatis personae in the written version, the character is always addressed as “Friend Ed” though this was mercifully excised in the 1959 filmed-for-television version), a secretly contemptuous, openly cocky assistant named Victor, and a second wife named Mordeen in all three settings.

Joe Saul is not willing to adopt—or to consider that the inability to reproduce is not that of his wives (Mordeen is the second). He is remarkably unsuspicious of Victor, who sniffs around Mordeen. Ed attempts to mediate, but mediation is difficult when no one will say what they want or have done.

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Although only running 90 minutes, I found the conversations between Joe and Ed unbearably stilted and started speeding through them. Although I think that more of the fault lies with Steinbeck’s unplayable lines than with Myron McCormack’s delivery, I don’t hold him blameless, especially since the other characters frequently manage to sound more or less like human beings not declaiming to be heard in the balconies.

Stage actors frequently have difficulties bringing declamation down to ordinary speech in closeups. The formidable Coleen Dewhurst (as Mordeen), who seems to me to have been made to play Josie in Eugene O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten,” managed and seemed to realize that she could act by means other than by declamation. (And she had only appeared in television dramas twice before “Burning Bright” was filmed.)

Dana Elcar, as Ed, was burdened with some Sage/Greek Chorus lines, and Donald Madden, as Victor, sometimes sounded artificial, too, but both the cheerfulness and the despair of Joe Saul rang false to me.

And I’m not at all convinced from dropping the (melo)drama into three settings demonstrates that it is “universal.” Every man is not like Joe Saul, either before or after his wife gives birth.

(BTW, Myron McCormack played Sergeant King in “No Time for Sergeants,” both on Broadway and on film, and was best known for his Tony Award-winning performance as Luther Billis in the original Broadway production of “South Pacific” (Ray Walston took the part on screen). And Dewhurst was the mother of Campbell Scott who was fathered by George C. Scott. And in her last years she had a recurring role as Murphy Brown’s mother.)

For a more compelling portrayal of overcoming disappointments, I would recommend Steinbeck’s The Red Pony (on the page or in the movie adaptation), Of Mice and Men (on the page or in either movie adaptation) or The Winter of Our Discontent. These works have characters rather than archetypes (to a greater degree so does the screenplay for “Viva Zapata”! that Steinbeck was writing at the same time as Burning Bright, though it and East of Eden verge on substituting archetypes for characters at times.

I am glad that the play was filmed primarily because it shows Coleen Dewhurst at the top of her power, something remembered by theater-goers but not recorded very much. (Fortunately, “Moon for the Misbegotten” was, in 1975, with the great O’Neill actor, Jason Robards, Jr. )

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

A gentle satire of 1950s smugness and perennial greed

Pros: Pleasant, unforced, and short

Cons: stereotyped bourgeois French wife

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John Steinbeck’s 1957 novel The Short Reign of Pippin IV is a genial fantasy in which 42 squabbling French political parties, none of which has any principles, are hopelessly deadlocked and decide to resurrect the monarchy and elevate an amateur astronomer who happens to be descended from Charlemagne, crown him, and force him to occupy the palace at Versailles with its 18th-century plumbing (almost entirely devoted to the fountains) and drafty permanent chill.

There is a certain amount of play with stereotypes of French domesticity, fashion, and contempt for government. There is Tod, an American boyfriend for the princess royale, Clotilde (who seems modeled on Françoise Sagan). Since Tod’s father is called “Chicken King of Petaluma,” Tod must be a prince and he is more than ready to advise Pippin about how American corporate kingdoms are ruled. He advises King Pippin to auction off titles of nobility and he also becomes partner with Pippin’s uncle, encouraging him to increase the scale of his business of selling art forgeries with a branch store in Hollywood. And the childhood friend of the new queen, a former nude dancer who is now Sister Hycanthine. Very rare in Steinbeck, is a female character who is neither a mother or a wh-or-e. She reminds me of the nun Melina Mercouri played later in “Nasty Habits” and gets the best line in the book: “I have known many people to ask for advice but very few who wanted it and none who followed it.”.

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Clearly, it is not just the French Steinbeck saw as unwilling to budge for incompetent self-serving politicians and special interests. The astronomer Pippin has resonances to the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, the “Doc” of so many Steinbeck books, and his rejection when he suggests reforms is similar to the derision that befell Adlai Stevenson for whom Steinbeck wrote speeches. (Steinbeck wrote the first draft of the novel before getting involved in the 1956 presidential campaign.)

Neither Pippin Heristal nor author John Steinbeck come across as bitter at the rejection of their sensible suggestions. More wistfully disappointed. It really is a very genial book, with humor less forced than in Sweet Thursday, the failed sort-of-a-novel that preceded it in Steinbeck’s publications. I picked it up to read while serving time in the jury assembly room. It is perfect for such an occasion as that or waiting around an airport. I only laughed out loud a few times, but it kept me smiling for the two and a half hours it took to read it.

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

©2002, 2017, Stephen O. Murray