From the Writers and Society series published in the August-September 1956 issue of Forum
John Steinbeck is a novelist who fits better than most into the category of "writers about society." He has fairly consistently, at least in the 'thirties, written of the poor, the outcasts and misfits in society, and of their sufferings. This is not to say that he belongs to that group of "social realists" of the 'thirties with their stilted, unfeeling proletarian plots that followed the party line. As F. J. Hoffman says in The Modern Novel in America, Steinbeck is one of those "whose work lifts them above the dead level of the proletarian formula novel."
Grapes of Wrath, which is perhaps his best known work, deals with a group of migrant fruit-pickers in the U.S.A. It tells of a farming family dispossessed of their land, who trek across America in an ancient, battered truck to find work picking fruit in California. When they arrive in the promised land, they find that bad food, appalling living conditions and brutality is the lot of the "Okies," as the migrants are called. They find that thousands upon thousands of the unemployed and dispossessed have come to California, like themselves attracted by handbills promising high wages. Not only are the unprotected and unorganised "Okies" beaten and cheated by the fruit growers, but they are hated by the local inhabitants, who see in them a threat to their livelihood and property.
The elder in the family, Tom, is released from prison on parole, and becomes embittered by the treatment that his family receives at the hands of the fruit growers, and, when his friend is murdered by strike-breakers, he kills one of them and becomes a renegade.
This novel attained great popularity when it was published (1939), and created quite a furore, and eventually the government had to take steps to provide for the "Okies" reasonable living quarters and some kind of protection against the fruit-growers. The message of the book, however, is still relevant, for the migrant workers are still the worst-paid and least organised section of the American working class. In spite of some rather laboured symbolism, and philosophical reflections of the fatalistic kind, this novel is a most moving and impressive study of the struggles of a section of the subject-class.
Steinbeck's sympathy for the oppressed appears in another novel, In Dubious Battle, which is a story of a strike among fruit-pickers in the Torgas Valley, and it could be said that Grapes of Wrath developed directly from this work, in spite of the differences in presentation. The story is largely an account of the reactions of the three principal characters to the strike—the experienced strike-leader, the novice, and a doctor who is in the role of an observer. The discussions that take place between the three men have a certain amount of interest, and the study of the reactions of the individuals concerned makes this an unusual novel that stands out among the many that the depression brought forth dealing with similar subject-matter. The strike leaders are Communists, but of a peculiar kind. Steinbeck himself wrote: "My information for this book came mostly from the Irish and Italian Communists whose training was in the field, not in the drawing room. They don't believe in ideologies and ideal tactics. They just do what they can under the circumstances."
In this book also, Steinbeck's somewhat confused philosophy appears (in this case from the mouth of the doctor), although it must be said in fairness to him that he is always interesting, and sometimes rings the bell, as when the tyro Jim suggests that the violence of the conflict is necessary and that one "ought to think only of the end; out of this struggle a good thing is going to grow," to which the doctor replies that "in his little experience, the end is never very different in its nature to the means."
The characters who seem particularly to appeal to Steinbeck are the tramps, the lazy, good-natured, unemployable natives of the poor quarters of the Californian coastal towns. Cannery Row (1945) and Tortilla Flat (1935) both deal with groups of this kind, the latter, improbable though it may seem, being based on the Arthurian legend. This book deals with a group of Mexicans and their leader, Danny, who are by normal capitalist standards, misfits. It is a somewhat episodic series of adventures of this group, and their struggle (if such a term can be used) to exist happily without working. Although no more than a folk-tale, the book is extremely successful in holding one's interest and providing entertainment, which is more than one can say for ninety per cent. of the output of modern fiction writers.
Cannery Row is a similar tale, also episodic in character, but this time about a group of white vagabonds. Both of these books, although lacking the sociological punch of the two earlier-mentioned books, are extremely readable accounts of what was, and probably still is, an aspect of American life. The Wayward Bus (1947) is also similar in character, and one of Steinbeck's last published works, Sweet Thursday, is a sequel to Cannery Row. The characters are, in the main, the same as in the earlier book, and the action takes place after the last war. The book is amusing enough, but hardly justifies the re-opening of a mine that Steinbeck had already fully worked out.
Of Mice and Men, another of Steinbeck's more well-known novels, is also about migrant workers, but this time it is a story of two individuals. One is a feeble-minded lumbering giant, and the other a short, tough man who has become the other's protector and guide. It is a short, well-constructed book, which packs into its pages a wealth of telling description and quite convincing action and dialogue.
Lennie, the giant, has murderous impulses, more from animal fear than from badness, and George, his protector, is constantly struggling to prevent Lennie from getting into trouble. The tragic climax is extremely taut and moving, and the novel as a whole is certainly one of Steinbeck's more successful ventures.
A later novel, The Moon is Down, (also published in play form) seems to be a regression from the values that Steinbeck appeared to uphold in his earlier work. This story of an occupied country (presumably Norway) during the last war, appears to have been written more with an eye on Hollywood than on social problems, and in fact the novel was turned into a play and film script almost without alteration. The point that it makes is that the human spirit cannot be broken, and that an occupying power will never be able to force the submission of a "free people." It certainly does not give an accurate picture of the occupied countries, but as it was a wartime production, this is hardly surprising. As with the majority of Western writers and intellectuals, the destruction of fascism presumably became the most pressing need in Steinbeck's eyes.
Steinbeck's earlier novels, such as Cup of Gold and The Pastures of Heaven, are not particularly interesting, as they contain all the faults of the later books, without any of their compensating merits. The short stories are somewhat better, but here too, one is confronted with the top-heavy philosophy and a preoccupation with plants, insects and animals.
Edmund Wilson, on The Boys in the Back Room, has levelled much constructive criticism at Steinbeck and his work, but he does him less than justice when he suggests that all of Steinbeck's characters are lacking in humanity, and that they are presented in a clinical detached way in the manner of white mice or insects in the dissecting room.
It is true that Steinbeck, who is a keen biologist, is engrossed in the minutiae of the animal and plant kingdoms, and is especially fascinated by the wanton slaughter that goes on in them. In the early pages of The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, there is a lengthy account of a turtle laboriously making its way across a field to the road. There are many examples of this kind of thing in Steinbeck, and apart from the symbolism, they add little or nothing to the plots or action of his stories, except when they are brought in as an incidental activity of biologically-minded characters (as with Doc, in Sweet Thursday).
The preoccupation with biology, however, is little more than a personal foible, and does not affect Steinbeck's presentation of his characters to any real extent. Tom Joad, Ma, Casey and the others in Grapes of Wrath could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as clinical studies, and in fact their humanity and suffering is so skillfully presented as to make them completely convincing. Edmund Wilson himself recognised one aspect of this when he wrote "there remains behind the journalism, the theatricalities, and the tricks of his other books, a mind which does seem first rate in its unpanicky scrutiny of life."
It could be said with some justification, that after his violence and fervour during the depression, Steinbeck has dried up, said nothing further of any importance, and is merely settling down to a financially stable existence producing light, harmless, Hollywood-intended works with little or no bearing upon society or its problems. It is somewhat early in Steinbeck's career to make such a judgment, however, and one can only hope that Steinbeck will turn his attention and skill to the many problems that America offers to the intelligent writer. Even if this does not happen, Steinbeck will have already earned a niche in the not overcrowded gallery of stimulating writers about society.