John Steinbeck’s Powerful Ambivalence: Book Review

Image from cover of A Political Companion to John SteinbeckJohn Steinbeck remained a force in American cultural life for three decades after his so-called years of greatness between 1936 and 1939—a remarkably productive period marked by the publication of In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Long Valley (1938), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). On the 75th anniversary of Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, the reasons for its continuing popularity—despite the dismissive evaluations of critics—are worthy of reconsideration.

‘Critics do not like to be confounded in their attempts to compartmentalize,’ Simon Stowe reminds us in ‘The Dangerous Ambivalence of John Steinbeck,’ his introduction to A Political Companion to John Steinbeck.

“Critics do not like to be confounded in their attempts to compartmentalize,” Simon Stowe reminds us in “The Dangerous Ambivalence of John Steinbeck,” his introduction to A Political Companion to John Steinbeck (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2013), co-edited with Ernesto Zirakzadeh. Stowe shows how Steinbeck’s ambivalence about America, government, community, and individualism confounds Steinbeck’s critics and helps explain the disconnect between Steinbeck’s readers and many academics. Other contributors illuminate other areas of interest with equal vigor.

From The Grapes of Wrath to World War II and Beyond

During World War II, John Steinbeck was subjected to federal background investigations, even as he worked to advance the nation’s cause, writing the much-maligned yet influential novel and play The Moon Is Down (1942)—not explicitly, yet quite obviously about the Nazi invasion of Norway—and Bombs Away (1942, the positive account of a U.S. Air Force bomber team. He traveled to England in June of 1943, then on to North Africa, Sicily, and the Italian mainland to report on the war on the ground for the New York Herald Tribune. He also wrote a pair of works set in Mexico—The Forgotten Village (1941) and The Pearl (1947)—that addressed the ethical complications surrounding the intersections of modern medicine and indigenous folk cultures, followed by Cannery Row (1945), a divergent work that might be considered the first novel of the coming American counterculture.

Cannery Row . . .  might be considered the first novel of the coming American counterculture.

While less productive in the 1950s, Steinbeck completed one of his most successful and enduring novels, East of Eden (1952), reflecting the generational conflicts that came to mark the post-war period, as well as Sweet Thursday (1954), the critically undervalued sequel to Cannery Row. In addition, the 1950s saw the publication of John Steinbeck’s screenplay for Elia Kazan’s acclaimed film Viva Zapata! (1952) and Once There Was a War, the writer’s collected World War II dispatches (1958).

In 1966, John Steinbeck reaffirmed his deep attachment to his country in his last book, America and the Americans.

John Steinbeck began the 1960s with what would be his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), followed by his endearing and enduring narrative Travels with Charley (1962)—an attempt to reconcile his growing sense of alienation from his culture—and the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded in 1962 over the lamentable protestations of his critics. In 1966, he reaffirmed his deep attachment to his country in his last book, America and the Americans, essays on various aspects of national life and character. In 1966-67 he toured Vietnam, where one of his sons was serving in the U.S. Army. As in World War II, the newspaper dispatches he sent home supported his country and its policies, although he later changed his position regarding his friend Lyndon Johnson’s increasingly unpopular war in Southeast Asia.

Steinbeck and Politics from Great Depression to Cold War

In short, John Steinbeck’s writing of four decades serves as a remarkable guide through the controversies and complications that characterized American politics and culture in the middle third of the 20th century.  If it is appropriate to consider the nation in the middle third of the 19th century under the rubric of Walt Whitman’s America, as David Reynolds’ 1995 book of the name has done, and to label the last third of that century Mark Twain’s America as Bernard DeVoto did in his earlier book, then it seems no less reasonable to view the years from the Great Depression to the Great Society through the lens of John Steinbeck’s acute vision, as Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh and Simon Stow do in A Political Companion to John Steinbeck. A strong addition to the excellent series of volumes called Political Companions to Great American Authors—one that includes Henry Adams, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—the anthology attempts a fuller consideration of Steinbeck’s centrality to at least the first part of American life and politics in the mid-20th century.

John Steinbeck’s writing of four decades serves as a remarkable guide through the controversies and complications that characterized American politics and culture in the middle third of the 20th century.

Not surprisingly, Steinbeck’s work in the 1930s and 1940s gets most of the attention of the book’s many contributors. This includes co-editor Zirakzadeh’s provocative discussion of Steinbeck as a “revolutionary conservative or a conservative revolutionary”; Donna Kornhaber’s treatment of politics and Steinbeck’s playwriting; Adrienne Akins Warfeld’s examination of Steinbeck’s Mexican works from the 1940s; Charles Williams’ insightful exploration of Steinbeck’s “group man” theory in In Dubious Battle; the volume’s standout essay by James Swensen on Dorothea Lange’s photographs and the work of the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Agricultural Organization; Zirakzadeh’s treatment of The Grapes of Wrath as novel, film, and inspiration for the music of Bruce Springsteen; and Mimi R. Gladstein and James H. Meredith’s “Patriotic Ironies,” an account of John Steinbeck’s wartime service. Other essays examine Steinbeck’s legacy in the songs of Springsteen, Travels with Charley and America and Americans (together), and The Winter of Our Discontent.

John Steinbeck’s Enduring Relevance, Despite the Critics

In addition to the absence of any extended treatment of Cannery Row, the second half of Steinbeck’s career in general gets short shrift. There is no significant coverage of East of Eden, nor of Steinbeck’s powerful defense of the playwright Arthur Miller in 1957 against the charges of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the political context of Cold War paranoia in which HUAC operated. Partisan politics are also largely absent from the essays, although as evident from his correspondence John Steinbeck held strong political opinions, beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s. Steinbeck’s dispatches from the Vietnam War (recently republished by the University of Virginia Press) are ignored, and greater attention to the 1950s and 1960s would have made the anthology more complete. With notable exceptions, senior Steinbeck scholars such as Robert DeMott and Susan Shillinglaw are absent from the roster of contributors: Kevin Hearle’s deep perspective on the politics of race and place would have augmented the volume but is missing.

John Steinbeck held strong political opinions, beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s.

Despite the gaps, however, A Political Companion to John Steinbeck achieves the goal of its editors and contributors to illuminate the complexities of John Steinbeck’s political thought and underscore the enduring contribution of his work to American political thought. Well-edited and integrated, the essays explore nuances and complications of Steinbeck’s personal political thought while providing an effective response to the generations of critics who have found his work excessively heroic, sentimental, moralistic, or didactic—or too popular to be taken seriously. Whatever the tensions in John Steinbeck’s writing at a particular moment—between group man and the individual, traditionalism and liberalism, communism and capitalism, alienation from and affirmation of America—contradictions and ambiguities are distinctive characteristics of his art and ambivalence frequently defines his thinking. These traits help account for his continuing relevance.

Whatever the tensions in John Steinbeck’s writing at a particular moment . . . contradictions and ambiguities are distinctive characteristics of his art and ambivalence frequently defines his thinking. These traits help account for his continuing relevance.

John Steinbeck may not be honored everywhere in the academy 75 years after The Grapes of Wrath, but he remains popular with readers worldwide. His dedication to the advancement of human welfare and the nurturing of human relations through art may seem too low-brow to arbiters of the current literary canon, and political extremists on both right and left continue to attack his work, from In Dubious Battle to The Grapes of Wrath and beyond. But a significant segment of the reading public still feels deeply connected to his fiction. More than any other writer of his day, Steinbeck captured and conveyed the striving of average Americans during the Great Depression, World War II, and two subsequent wars—one cold, the other hot. By placing Steinbeck’s powerful, productive ambivalence center stage, A Political Companion to John Steinbeck nudges us toward a fuller appreciation of the writer and his work in a year in which we celebrate The Grapes of Wrath, his masterpiece.

A different version of this review appeared in The b2 Review.

David Wrobel About David Wrobel

David Wrobel holds the Merrick Chair in Western American History at the University of Oklahoma. His most recent book, Global West, American Frontier: Travel, Empire and Exceptionalism, from Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013), received the Wrangler Heritage Award for Nonfiction. He is currently working on two book projects: “The West and America: A Regional History, 1900-2000,” for the Cambridge Essential Histories series, and “John Steinbeck’s America: A Cultural History of the Nation, 1930-1968.”

Comments

  1. Roy Bentley says:

    I felt this review took me forward to a fuller sense of why Steinbeck remains so interesting, why his works endure and continue to cause us to reexamine what we hope to mean by the word American.

    Thank you, David Wrobel.

    Roy

    • Ron: Thanks so much for your kind comment. As Susan Shillinglaw’s wonderful new book “On Reading the Grapes of Wrath” emphasizes, Steinbeck’s work serves as a vital guide for navigating the challenges of the present, as well as for understanding those of the past.

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