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.