Are British Newspapers Brighter? The Guardian Shines on Tortilla Flat

Image of John Steinbeck from Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty.

Word that readers of England’s Guardian newspaper chose Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row as books of the month for April pleased Steinbeck fans in and outside Great Britain. Steinbeck was an on-and-off-again journalist, and England became his temporary home twice—in 1943, when he was an American war correspondent in London, and in 1959, when he and his wife Elaine spent blissful months in a Somerset cottage that dated from Norman times. The Guardian’s current book-of-the-month blog also brings to mind Steinbeck’s critique of American war reporting from London as lazy, unintelligent, and banal. British newspapers vary in quality, but the best are brilliant in a literary way, and it’s hard to imagine an American paper giving Tortilla Flat the sustained, incisive treatment found in the Guardian blog. But American and British newspapers have one thing in common that Steinbeck, who could be cynical, would probably find unsurprising. The bad ones have caught tabloid fever, and the good ones have taken to asking for contributions to help them stay alive. Check out the Guardian newspaper’s blog on Tortilla Flat for evidence of British brilliance—and the lengths to which impecunity is driving intelligent journalism in Great Britain and the United States.

Guardian newspaper photograph of John Steinbeck from Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty.

The Guardian Tweets Great Britain’s Love for Steinbeck

Image of The Guardian newspaper's truth logo

Book lovers who read The Guardian, the long-lived daily newspaper in Great Britain with an international reach and reputation, picked two distinctively American novels by John Steinbeck—Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row—as this month’s selections for the paper’s reading group. “While Steinbeck himself was a popular choice as an author to help us celebrate the human spirit, winning many nominations for other books,” explained the book editor of The Guardian in a tweet to the group, “this feels like a good result, not least because both novels have their own special kind of glow and warmth.” John and Elaine Steinbeck—avid internationalists who had their pick of pleasant places—spent their happiest year in Great Britain, and literate Brits continue to return the love. “[Steinbeck’s] books still sell in their millions,” The Guardian added. “Here in the UK, Of Mice and Men is a staple of school exams, while The Grapes of Wrath remains a favourite around the world. Almost half a century after Steinbeck’s death, his reputation seems as solid and secure as any writer of his era.” Quite so.

John Steinbeck Saw “Fake News” Coming When Donald Trump Was Still In Diapers

Image of "fake news' invasion

Did John Steinbeck discover “fake news” seven decades before President Donald Trump? Based on what he wrote about the mainstream media of his day in A Russian Journal, the author of The Grapes of Wrath came pretty close.

Cover image from John Steinbeck's 1948 book A Russian JournalA Russian Journal is Steinbeck’s first-person journalistic account of the trip he took with photographer Robert Capa in 1947 to the war-battered Soviet Union. In Chapter 1, before he sets off for Russia, Steinbeck describes why he and Capa mistrusted the way the news in America was being gathered, edited, and disseminated by the dominant print and electronic media of their day. It has a familiar ring:

We were depressed, not so much by the news but by the handling of it. For news is no longer news, at least that part of it which draws the most attention. News has become a matter of punditry. A man sitting at a desk in Washington or New York reads the cables and rearranges them to fit his own mental pattern and his by-line. What we often read as news now is not news at all but the opinion of one of half a dozen pundits as to what that news means.

Steinbeck didn’t call it “fake news.” And he was complaining about bias in the media from a partisan New York liberal Democrat’s point of view. But anyone whose politics are not located in the dead center of the political spectrum today can feel his pain.

Claims of political bias or slanted news coverage from the left and right were nothing new when A Russian Journal was published in 1948, and they’ve been with us ever since. Conservatives have complained about the liberal East Coast media for half a century. In the babble of our Talk Radio/Cable News/Digital Age the mainstream media is criticized 24/7 from a thousand sane and insane places. No faction is happy with the spin of the news. In 2016 a Bernie supporter or a lifelong Nation magazine subscriber was just as likely to be unhappy with CNN’s coverage of the election as a member of the Tea Party.

Composite image of John Steinbeck on journalism

The Mainstream Media’s Loss was Literature’s Gain

Though the young John Steinbeck was sacked as a New York City newspaper reporter because he couldn’t stop using his literary skills to improve on the facts, he was basically a journalist. A literary journalist. He had a love-hate for the journalism profession and its practitioners. He envied the ability of reporters to parachute into a strange place and quickly come up with the basic facts for a news story. But he also knew from experience that no journalist or writer—no matter how great—ever gets the whole story or captures more than just a glint of what really happened in a bank robbery, a presidential campaign, or a world war. He wrote this in A Russian Journal:

Capa came back with about four thousand negatives, and I with several hundred pages of notes. We have wondered how to set this trip down and, after much discussion, have decided to write it as it happened, day by day, experience by experience, and sight by sight, without departmentalizing. We shall write what we saw and heard. I know that this is contrary to a large part of modern journalism, but for that very reason it might be a relief. . . . This is just what happened to us. It is not the Russian story, but simply a Russian story.

Cover image from John Steinbeck's 1962 book Travels with CharleySteinbeck’s journalism was super-subjective–sometimes to a fault. Russian Journal was his story about the backward, unfree, monstrous USSR he glimpsed in 1947, just as Travels with Charley was his subjective story about the 1960 America he saw on his iconic 10,000-mile road trip. Both books started out as works of nonfiction–as ambitious acts of serious, albeit personal, journalism. In Charley the many fictions Steinbeck slipped into his story about America overwhelmed the “true” facts, and after 50 years its publishers had to admit that it was so fictionalized Charley could not be considered a credible account of how he traveled or whom he really met.

A Russian Journal has suffered no such loss of credibility. It’s a great work of subjective journalism—a rare glimpse into a dark and alien world by a keen observer. Anyone teaching college students how to report and write in a precise, interesting, and powerful way would be smart to have them study how well Steinbeck did it—his way, and under trying circumstances .

What The New York Times, The Charlotte Observer, and Christianity Today Had to Say About John Steinbeck

Image of the New York Times newsroom in 1942

Three recent newspaper stories served as reminders that John Steinbeck remains relevant to readers, and useful to editors, experts, and leaders who make policy in his name. Of Mice and Men dominated the August 22 New York Times report on a Texas death penalty case working its way to the Supreme Court. The Grapes of Wrath appeared in the headline of a report on Syrian refugees published the same day in Christianity Today. The 1939 novel was used by a college professor with conservative ideas about government in an August 20 editorial for The Charlotte Observer. The New York Times and Christianity Today articles reflected Steinbeck’s values. The editorial in The Charlotte Observer showed why he took a dim view of academics.

The New York Times and Christianity Today articles reflected Steinbeck’s values. The editorial in The Charlotte Observer showed why he took a dim view of academics.

The New York Times piece by Adam Liptak explored the legality and ethics of the so-called Lennie standard, named for the character Lennie Small and used to decide when a person of limited intelligence should or shouldn’t be executed for murder. (Barbara A. Heavilin, who writes frequently about John Steinbeck, explains the immorality of this misreading of Steinbeck”s novel in a related blog post.)  Jeremy Weber’s Christianity Today report on refugees in the Bekaa Valley—“Grapes of Wrath: Refugees Face Steinbeck Scenario in Lebanon’s Napa Valley”—compared conditions there with California during the Great Depression. In his editorial for The Charlotte Observer“Addressing the problems of the modern-day Joads“—Professor Clark G. Ross misrepresented Steinbeck’s intentions in The Grapes of Wrath, just as those justifying the death penalty do in misreading Of Mice and Men.

Why The Charlotte Observer Got John Steinbeck Wrong

Professor Ross describes teaching The Grapes of Wrath to a group of students who are studying the Depression for the first time. His detached view of the Joads as a “fundamentally Christian, not over-educated family” dependent on government support for survival suggests that the wrong lesson was learned about the present. While faulting both Republicans and Democrats for failing workers losing their jobs to foreign labor, he claims that politicians can’t save these “modern-day Joads” anyway, because government isn’t the solution to social problems. Steinbeck thought it was and Weedpatch, the federal camp where the Joads get help, was his proof. Unconvinced by Steinbeck’s example, Ross characterizes Steinbeck’s vision as  “centered on a benevolent government within a communist society, one that would provide employment and shelter, as well as self-governance.” The commie charge isn’t new.

Steinbeck thought government was the solution to social problems. Weedpatch, the federal camp where the Joads get help in The Grapes of Wrath, was his proof.

Conservative critics raised the specter of communism to discredit Steinbeck and his novel when it was published more than 75 years ago. Critics in California denied that Okies like the Joads even existed, or if they did were as numerous as Steinbeck claimed, and they failed to feel the Joads’ or Steinbeck’s pain. Professor Ross expresses sympathy, but it’s distant and distorted by doctrine. Like that of Joad Deniers at the time, his claim that Steinbeck’s version of good government can’t succeed requires a belief that government can’t be the solution because it’s the problem. “History has proven,” he says of Steinbeck’s dream, “that such public provision of goods and services really cannot work.” Arvin, the migrant camp known as Weedpatch, proved the opposite.

How John Steinbeck Did Research and Described Experts

“History has proven” is a sad tautology, and economics remains a dismal science. That’s why Steinbeck’s joyful art is useful in putting a human face on social and economic abstractions, as The New York Times and Christianity Today did last week. Steinbeck put a human face on every subject when he wrote, and the effort often hurt. He lost his first newspaper job because he got bogged down in the human side of the stories his editor assigned. He researched The Grapes of Wrath in person, by doing, reporting on Dustbowl refugees in the field for the San Francisco Examiner, staying at Arvin to learn how it worked, making mercy runs to migrants stranded by floods in the Central Valley. Of Mice and Men was similarly inspired by actual people and events; as Barbara Heavilin notes, Lennie Small was based on a real person.

Economics remains a dismal science. That’s why Steinbeck’s joyful art is useful in putting a human face on social and economic abstractions.

Years after writing these books Steinbeck had a chance meeting on a train with a boyhood friend from Salinas. By then the author was back in the journalism business, producing a syndicated newspaper column that allowed him personal privilege, which he used, to speak his mind. Tongue in cheek, he tacked the meeting onto a tall-tale column about religion, describing his old friend, now grown, as a “professor of anthropology . . . or some such vermin.” Vermin seems a strong word to describe an expert, even if the friend was in on the joke. On the other hand, the misinterpretation of Steinbeck’s meaning by authorities in Texas, and by an academic in North Carolina, suggests why he used it.

Muhammad Ali and John Steinbeck, Together, in This Week’s Hollywood Reporter

Image of Muhammad Ali: "I am the Greatest"

John Steinbeck boxed when he was in college, but he disagreed with Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer of a later time, about America’s intervention in Vietnam when that war became controversial. At their peak the two figures were alike, however. As fans will be reminded when they read this week’s Hollywood Reporter, each man was the greatest in his field, and both displayed courage under fire for convictions that made others angry. The online edition of the magazine leads with an item about John Legend and Andra Day’s new arrangement of “The Greatest Love of All,” a song originally written for The Greatest, the 1977 movie about Muhammad Ali. The next piece on the page looks back even further, to the heyday of the Garden of Allah, the Hollywood hotel with the famous pool where actors, writers, and musicians went to hook up and get wet in the 1930s and 40s: “George S. Kaufman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker all flocked to the Garden for its permissive (read: alcohol-soaked) atmosphere and smart, starry clientele.” This association of Muhammad Ali and John Steinbeck may be accidental, but Steve Hauk, the writer of fiction based on John Steinbeck’s life, recalls meeting Ali for real in a telling true-life story—“The Day I Met Muhammad Ali”—published here for the first time.

Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway Lead John Steinbeck in Search for Single-Author Websites

Screen shot of the official Mark Twain website

If author websites are any indicator of continued popularity in American literature, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway are the current winners. According to my count of websites devoted to 82 American authors represented in panel titles at this week’s meeting of the American Literature Association, just a handful of writers come close to Hemingway or Twain in the number of author websites with their name in the URL. Happily, John Steinbeck is among them. Like Mark Twain (at six sites), Ernest Hemingway (nine), and John Steinbeck (four), William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac are the subject of at least four sites each, including one or more blog sites connecting their life and work to contemporary issues.

Just a handful of writers come close to Hemingway or Twain in the number of author websites with their name in the URL. Happily, John Steinbeck is among them.

By my count, 65 writers in this year’s American Literature Association lineup are the subject of single-author websites of one kind or another. Most are societies, study centers, or collections devoted to the author’s writing. Some are houses or museums associated with the author’s life, and 28 are blog sites that foster popularity by recording reader passion and encouraging public conversation about the author’s ideas. Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Kerouac have sites representing each category, but with four separate blog sites devoted to his life and writing, Ernest Hemingway holds the record for blog volume about an American author. Uniquely (but unsurprisingly) among the American authors I checked, Mark Twain is also the subject of a website representing the interests of an author’s estate.

With four separate blog sites devoted to his life and writing, Ernest Hemingway holds the record for blog volume about an American author.

But if blogging also equals attention span in American literature, at least a quarter of the writers on the American Literature Association marquee continue to have meaning in the lives of readers. Besides Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Kerouac, the list of American authors with an active blog site in their name includes Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Bishop, E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Dreiser, Margaret Fuller, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Olson, Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, and August Wilson. Another, Thornton Wilder, is the subject of a blog site started by family members—an idea for John Steinbeck that is, due to circumstances, unlikely to see the light of day.

Phoenix, Arizona Toasts Of Mice and Men with a Ward 8

Image of a Ward 8 cocktail paired with Of Mice and Men

The new production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men by the Arizona Theatre Company got more than a 10-out-of-10 review from The State Press, the Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona newspaper published by students at Arizona State University. “Books & Booze: ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck,” this week’s column by Carson Abernathy, pairs Steinbeck’s Depression-era work with a Gilded Age cocktail called Ward 8, composed of whiskey, lemon juice, orange juice, and grenadine. Abernathy’s novel concept for making modern fiction palatable to college readers is appealing: he ties the book in question to a drink from the past and rates the writing for style, characterization, cohesiveness, and relevance. (Lolita and The Sun Also Rises were similarly paired and reviewed in recent columns.) We think Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Nabokov would drink to Abernathy’s bright idea.

Photo for The State Press by Johanna Huckeba.

Contemporary Reviews of New Books by John Steinbeck from Cambridge University Press

John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews book coverWord-of-mouth book recommendations by passionate readers have been creating converts to Steinbeck since The Grapes of Wrath. Reviews of new books mattered, and readers were influenced by critiques of new books in daily papers, Sunday supplements, and national magazines. Steinbeck was fortunate in having influential friends who reviewed new books for major dailies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. He wasn’t lucky everywhere, however, and he came to despise critics of new books as no-talents who couldn’t write their own. What turned Steinbeck against critics? The Cambridge University Press anthology of contemporary reviews of new books by Steinbeck, the majority by journalists, provides a book-by-book record of brilliance, sophistry, sophistication, and stupidity among critics of Steinbeck.

But note four points before you buy the Cambridge University Press anthology of contemporary reviews of new books by one of the 20th century’s most controversial authors:

1. It’s expensive.
2. It’s a collection of journalistic writing, not academic literary criticism.
3. It’s jargon-free and easy to read—a corollary of point #2.
4. It’s well-organized and prefaced by a helpful, well-written introduction.

Point #1 is an economic fact of modern life for publishers like Cambridge University.

Amazon’s paperback price for the volume is $68; $185 for the hardback version. At 2.23 pounds and 562 pages, the book may be a bargain for libraries like those at Cambridge University, but it’s stiff for independent scholars engaged in literary criticism about Steinbeck. Books like this one are now printed on demand: Despite its Cambridge University Press title page, the back-page colophon on my copy reads “Made in San Bernardino, CA, 10 September 2013.”  My guess is that producing a copy like mine costs Cambridge University less than the postage required to mail it to a buyer. As with soaring college tuition fees everywhere, the charge for new books by academic presses seems increasingly self-defeating and disconnected from reality. Caveat emptor.

Point #2 about literary criticism is a distinction with a real difference.

Literary criticism as a subdivision of the humanities (some say social sciences) is a systematic, comprehensive, and objective endeavor, withholding judgments about quality while interpreting, classifying, and illuminating works by authors in the context of history, psychology, and their relationship to other writers. Literary criticism as a euphemism for book-page journalistic reviewing is quite the opposite. Unlike practitioners of academic literary criticism, popular reviewers of new books make subjective judgments of quality based on personal, sometimes peculiar and often unspoken criteria. Like science, literary criticism as a subject depends on evidence, relationship, and analysis, not on the literary equivalent of personal creationism. Contemporary reviews of Steinbeck’s new books provide a dramatic example of this principle at work in journalism from the 1930s to the 1960s. Typically, critics who disapproved of Steinbeck’s language, lifestyle, or opinions described him as a bad writer. No wonder he hated them! I happened to learn literary criticism in college through the works of the Toronto academician Northrop Frye, a former minister who made the inspired observation that aesthetic judgments by critics about new books are more often than not moral judgments in disguise. Steinbeck suffered more than his share.

Point #3 reverses the relative value of professional journalists and practitioners of literary criticism as writers who are required to be readable.

Northop Frye was a facile writer, in part because as a preacher he had a weekly obligation to make himself clear to the voluntary audience in the pews. Journalists face the same challenge: daily deadlines, limits on length and vocabulary, and an obligation to avoid confusing, boring, or losing readers who are free to vote with their feet. Even bad reviewers of Steinbeck’s new books usually wrote well. In contrast, trying to comprehend a work of academic literary criticism published by, say, the Cambridge University Press can be a chore. I think that’s why contemporary reviews of new books by Steinbeck seem so entertaining when read by academic students of Steinbeck today—particularly when (like Mary McCarthy) they made spiteful but memorable comments about his work. As much for perverse enjoyment as for edifying information, the Cambridge University anthology is worth its weight. Carpe diem!

Point #4 reflects an exception to the bad academic writing rule that commends this collection more than most.

Literary criticism about Steinbeck seems—to me, anyway—more readable than contemporary academic writing about other authors. The editors’ introduction to the Cambridge University Press anthology suggests why this may be so. I’m personally familiar with the literary criticism of Susan Shillinglaw—one of the volume’s editors—and I’ve yet to encounter an unintelligible word or an inelegant sentence anywhere in her body of writing about Steinbeck. Her clarity of style matches that of her subject. It is evident in the historical survey of Steinbeck reviews that she and her colleagues provide in their introduction to the Cambridge University Press collection they co-edited.

Susan’s splendid article on Steinbeck’s religious roots—“John Steinbeck’s ‘Spiritual Streak’”—appeared in a journal called Literature and Belief published by Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature. One of the journal’s editors at BYU was Jesse S. Crisler, Susan’s fellow editor—along with Joseph R. McElrath, Jr.—for the Cambridge University collection. Perhaps the BYU relationship led to this project, perhaps the other way around. In either case, putting Susan Shillinglaw on the editorial team was a good move. Not unlike Northrop Frye, who produced literary criticism with pulpit clarity, Susan writes literary criticism as a journalist, to be understood rather than to obfuscate. Steinbeck’s opinion of his critics in the press notwithstanding, that’s a compliment.