W.H. Auden and His Kind: Christopher Isherwood on The Grapes of Wrath in 1939

Image of Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden in 1939

Off to America: Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden

Shortly after emigrating to America in 1939 with the poet W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, the British author of Berlin Stories, wrote a review of The Grapes of Wrath for Kenyon Review, the new American literary magazine that—like John Steinbeck—quickly gained prestige and influence with readers and critics in the United States. Intimate friends since school days in England, Isherwood and Auden arrived in New York in January. Isherwood moved on to California, and in July confided this to his diary: “I forced myself to write—a review of The Grapes of Wrath and a short story called “I Am Waiting”—but there was no satisfaction in it.” Despite his mood, Isherwood’s review of The Grapes of Wrath was upbeat and positive; like the diaries, novels, and plays that he produced over five decades in America, his insights (and criticism) seem as fresh today as they were in 1939. What made Christopher Isherwood, an adoptive American, so receptive to John Steinbeck’s all-American novel when it was published? Temperamentally and socially the two men were opposites. Steinbeck preferred privacy and solitude to self-confession and self-promotion, the distinguishing features of Isherwood’s career as the main character in his books. Steinbeck’s people were middle-class, immigrant, and self-made; Isherwood came from landed gentry with deep roots in English history. But both men believed in the power of sympathy and synchronicity, and coincidence can be as important as difference in life, as in literature.

John Steinbeck, Christopher Isherwood, and Synchronicity

Both writers were born in the decade prior to World War I, when America—like England—was outgrowing Victorianism. Both were christened (and later confirmed) into the Anglican Church, an experience that effected their prose style, if not their souls. Each was an elder or only son in a family dominated by an ambitious mother: Isherwood’s father was a British infantry officer who was killed at Ypres in 1915, leaving behind a wife and two sons, an older brother who inherited the Isherwood fortune, and three younger siblings with Steinbeckian names—John, Esther, and Mary. From childhood, John Steinbeck and Christopher Isherwood were imaginative storytellers with a drive to write that drove them to drop out of college to follow their muse. By 1940 both had achieved success in their calling and hobnobbing with film-world celebrities and hangers-on in Hollywood. Despite holding opposite views about the value of autobiography, both worked well in various forms, writing novels, play-novelettes, travel books, and war correspondence that attracted a following. Each loved the warmth of the sun and the sound of the seaunlike W.H. Auden, who stayed behind in New York in 1939 when Isherwood left for Los Angeles, where Isherwood remained until he died in 1986. (He became an American citizen in 1946.) Oddly, though Hollywood was a village and they had mutual friends in the business, neither Isherwood’s dairies not Steinbeck’s biographers suggest that they ever met.

W.H. Auden and His Kind Weren’t John Steinbeck’s

Nature and nurture conspired to keep them apart. Like other members of W.H. Auden’s circle, Isherwood was openly gay from an early age. Steinbeck grew up in small-town Salinas, where deviance was closeted; the Isherwoods were cosmopolitan provincials with property in London (Isherwood’s Uncle Henry was homosexual, and a jurist ancestor signed King Charles’s death warrant). Unlike Steinbeck, who struggled at the start and stayed in America until established, Isherwood inherited position, connections, and cash that helped pave his way, traveling extensively in Europe before settling in America. His exploration of Berlin’s pre-Nazi gay underground provided material for the 1930s Berlin fiction later adapted for stage and screen as Cabaret. His early novels—All the Conspirators (1928), The Memorial (1932), Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935)—sold better than Steinbeck’s books—Cup of Gold, The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown—published in the same period. Above all, his relationships with other writers differed dramatically from those of Steinbeck. Isherwood was a born extrovert who wrote poetry and plays with W.H. Auden and nourished friendships with other famous authors, including Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann. Steinbeck took a disliking to Alfred Hitchcock, the quintessentially English snob who directed the war movie (Lifeboat) scripted by Steinbeck. Isherwood’s collaboration with the Austrian director Berthold Viertel was so gratifying that he wrote a novel (Prater Violet) about their friendship.

A Neglected Grapes of Wrath Review, Still Relevant Today

Christopher Isherwood had a reputation as a ready reviewer when he arrived in America with W.H. Auden, so the Grapes of Wrath assignment made sense. Although the piece he produced for The Kenyon Review is mentioned in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews (Cambridge University Press, 1996), that helpful anthology omits the full text, which seems a shame. Fortunately, it can be found in Exhumations (Simon and Schuster, 1966), a collection of Isherwood’s stories, articles, and verse that also includes reviews of authors (Stevenson, Wells, T.E. Lawrence) of interest to Steinbeck and Isherwood, two writers with more in common than their differences suggest. Here are four samples, still relevant, from the 1939 review of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath:

(1) On the Promise of Steinbeck’s California

“Meanwhile, the sharecroppers have to leave the Dust Bowl. They enter another great American cycle—the cycle of migration towards the West. They become actors in the classic tragedy of California. For Eldorado is tragic, like Palestine, like every other promised land.”

(2) On Participating in Steinbeck’s Story

“It is a mark of the greatest poets, novelists and dramatists that they all demand a high degree of co-operation from their audience. The form may be simple, and the language as plain as daylight, but the inner meaning, the latent content of a masterpiece, will not be perceived without a certain imaginative and emotional effort. . . . The novelist of genius, by presenting the particular instance, indicates the general truth [but] the final verdict, the ultimate synthesis, must be left to the reader; and each reader will modify it according to his needs. The aggregate of all these individual syntheses is the measure of the impact of a work of art upon the world.”

(3) On Didacticism in Fiction

“Mr. Steinbeck, in his eagerness for the cause of the sharecroppers and his indignation against the wrongs they suffer, has been guilty, throughout this book, of such personal, schoolmasterish intrusions upon the reader. Too often we feel him at our elbow, explaining, interpreting, interfering with our independent impressions. And there are moments at which Ma Joad and Casy—otherwise such substantial figures—seem to fade into mere mouthpieces, as the author’s voice comes through, like the other voice on the radio.”

(4) On Art vs. Life in Novels

“If you claim that your characters’ misfortunes are due to the existing system, the reader may retort that they are actually brought about by the author himself. Legally speaking, it was Mr. Steinbeck who murdered Casy and killed Grampa and Granma Joad. In other words, fiction is fiction. Its truths are parallel to, but not identical with, the truths of the real world.”

About William Ray

William Ray is a Steinbeck scholar living in Santa Clara, California. He received his PhD in English from the University of North Carolina.


  1. Bob DeMott says:

    Well done, Will!

    • Robert DeMott is the author of “Steinbeck’s Reading” (Garland Publishing, 1984), an essential source for Steinbeck scholars and students who are interested in the geography of Steinbeck’s literary universe.

  2. Herb Behrens says:

    As edited by Robert DeMott, there is also the ever popular, always interesting, Working Days. The journals of The Grapes of Wrath

    • After posting this piece I learned about another Steinbeck-Isherwood connection, one that is indirect but interesting. Isherwood’s biographer Peter Parker notes that during the young writer’s Berlin period his friend and flat-mate Jean Ross, the model for Sally Bowles, fell in love with a musician named Goetz von Eick who later emigrated to America and acted in movies, including Nunnally Johnson’s 1943 film of Steinbeck’s play-novel “The Moon Is Down,” in which (as “Peter van Eyck”) he was cast in the role of Lt. Tonder. Although Jewish, von Eick looked Aryan and played Germans in other movies as well, including “Desert Fox.” According to Parker, he was the cause of the abortion that Ross had during her time with Isherwood. He married in 1940 and died in 1969, a year after John Steinbeck.

      I was wrong about sales of Isherwood’s early books. “All the Conspirators,” published the year before “Cup of Gold,” sold just as poorly, and “The Memorial” also had disappointing sales, comparable to the books by Steinbeck published between 1929 and 1935, Steinbeck and Isherwood’s breakout year as commercial writers. Peter Parker: “The news came just in time. Isherwood was, as usual, chronically short of money . . . and his mother was about to exercise some parental authority, perhaps threatening to cut off his allowance, which she felt he was squandering on Walter [the teenage hustler Isherwood was keeping in Berlin].” No doubt Kathleen Isherwood, a socially ambitious conservative in whom Olive Steinbeck might have recognized a kindred spirit, would have felt differently if Walter had been a woman to whom Isherwood was engaged. Steinbeck’s father doubled the parental allowance that helped keep his son afloat when John married Carol in 1930.

      On the other hand, a passage in Parker’s life of Isherwood tends to confirm my assumptions about why Isherwood and Steinbeck weren’t destined to meet in Los Angeles, despite their overlapping time there. Parker quotes Isherwood’s friend Dorothy Smith, the English children’s writer, who wrote this about a conversation she had with Isherwood in Santa Monica in 1946, the year he became a naturalized citizen: “I asked if he wanted to provide himself with an American clique as a substitute for his lost English one . . . and he admitted that this was exactly what he did want. ‘I shall talk to them,’ he said with a very little St Christopher look and tone of voice. ‘Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Steinbeck–I shall talk to them all.’ The vision of Christopher approaching Hemingway with a sweet ‘Let’s be Friends’ would appal[l] me–if I believed it possible. I fear my picture of American authors is that they are mostly drunken ghosts. But Christopher longs for playmates to make up for lost ones.” Parker concludes, no doubt correctly, that “Smith’s view of American writers may have been a little harsh, but it is hard to imagine Isherwood finding real friends amongst such a group, all of whom (unlike his literary circle in London) were heterosexual.”

      Steinbeck and Isherwood were ships in the night again in New York, where they lived near one another in 1947-48 (Steinbeck with his wife Gwyn at 330 E. 51st St., Isherwood with his lover Bill Caskey at 201 E. 52nd St.). For much of this period both writers were engaged in travel and preoccupied with book projects: Steinbeck journeyed to Russia with the photographer Robert Capa in 1947 for the photo-text book published by Viking in 1948; Isherwood made an extended trip to South America with Caskey (also a photographer) on a similar mission for Random House, his American publisher. When Steinbeck and Isherwood were both at home, however, it’s easy to imagine them passing one another on the street, though Isherwood would probably have recorded it in his diary or correspondence if they met. Caskey and Isherwood returned to California, but Isherwood was back in New York for the November 1951 opening of “I Am a Camera,” the popular Broadway adaptation of his “Berlin Stories” in which Julie Harris played Sally Bowles. The premiere was the kind of event Steinbeck and his third wife, the stage manager Elaine Scott, would be expected to attend; months later Harris appeared opposite James Dean in the 1955 film adaptation of “East of Eden.” The movie opened in April. In October, Isherwood and his new partner, Don Bachardy, spent a weekend with Harris and her husband in New York before leaving for England. Bachardy, an artist who still lives in Los Angeles, was 30 years younger than Isherwood. If anyone knows whether Steinbeck and Isherwood ever met in California or New York it’s Bachardy or Parker.

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