By Anita Law
John Steinbeck is known by most as a great American novelist whose writing championed the white working class. Few realize that he was also a war journalist, a playwright, a propagandist, a medievalist, a filmmaker and a marine biology buff.
He was also a deeply experimental writer who spent his formative years honing his craft at Stanford.
One hundred and fifteen years after his birth in Salinas, California, Steinbeck’s life and work – the latter which has long languished on high school reading lists – is undergoing a revival. Stanford English Professor Gavin Jones has played a significant a role in spearheading Steinbeck’s re-examination. His efforts this year have culminated in an American Studies course dedicated to the author and a symposium called “Steinbeck and the Environment,” co-organized with Bay Area author Mary Ellen Hannibal.
For Jones, the time is ripe for renewed interest in Steinbeck, whose work has often been derided by critics as middlebrow in its pretentions and overly simplistic in its themes and messages. Closer, critical examination, however, reveals Steinbeck to be a man who wore many hats – a progressive freethinker who confronted social inequality; an experimental artist who traversed the boundaries among books, film and the stage; and a budding marine biologist whose ecological vision can help humans understand their place in the world today.
Jones also emphasizes the importance of place in appreciating Steinbeck’s writing. The author’s most famous works – among them The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and East of Eden – are set in partly real, partly imagined regions drawn from his upbringing in California. Topics such as climate and drought figure prominently in Steinbeck’s major works, shaping not just setting but also plot and character. “Just as Thomas Hardy had Wessex,” said Jones, referring to the celebrated 19th-century English writer, “Steinbeck had the Salinas Valley, the agricultural world.”
Tied up in this agricultural world were the struggles of migrant laborers as well as the displaced native peoples and their cultures. Student Madison Coots, who is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, took a personal interest in how “Steinbeck has depicted this geographic and cultural displacement, and how he has explored the tumult associated with the simultaneity of an American and Mexican identity in California.”
In a talk at “Steinbeck and the Environment,” Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, a tribe of Costanoan/Ohlone Indians in Sacramento County, described his love of Steinbeck, but also held Steinbeck accountable for his lack of representation of the variety of migrant labor experiences – most notably those of native and indigenous peoples: “Steinbeck wrote of farm work as a temporary way of life and yet, for so many of our members, this was our life for well over 150 years.”
Jones says that the concept for his course emerged from the internal diversity of Steinbeck’s work and endeavors. “I designed the course to reach out to students beyond English, even beyond the humanities,” Jones explains. “I’d like to think that Steinbeck’s work speaks to students from multiple backgrounds because his interests were so interdisciplinary.”
Less a celebration of Steinbeck than a critical examination, the course gives students the opportunity to study Steinbeck’s experiments with genre and form. Jones places these experiments in the broader artistic, scientific, social and philosophical context of the period. He teaches The Grapes of Wrath – often considered one of the great American novels – as less the product of painstaking crafting for posterity’s sake and more a frantic attempt to write history while it was unfolding. Finished in a hundred days, Grapes expressed Steinbeck’s desire to, in his own words, “Put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards responsible for [the deplorable condition of migrant laborers in Visalia].”
In a darkened lecture hall, Jones brought Grapes to life as students viewed slide projections that variously showed black-and-white documentary photographs of farm laborers, contemporary critical reviews of Grapes, snippets of government documents detailing conditions in the work camps and clips from John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation – all interspersed with passages from Grapes itself. Through these materials, students knit together a fuller picture of how and why Steinbeck wrote Grapes.
Jones also took students to study Steinbeck’s papers in the Stanford Archives. Poring over a selection of Steinbeck’s photographs, handwritten drafts (penned in the writer’s distinctive cramped scrawl), letters and first editions of his novels and screenplays, students gained a sense of the literary, social and intellectual exchanges that informed Steinbeck’s art.
Kenna Irene Little, a student in the course, said, “Professor Jones uncovers a sense of urgency in Steinbeck’s works, questions that should not be left unanswered. One Steinbeck story can contain layers of questions – political, psychological, interpretative, racial and gendered.” As a result, she finds reading Steinbeck’s work much more rewarding: “His words are richer when read with an understanding of photography, plant theory, geography, biology, philosophy and psychology.”
Steinbeck’s expertise in multiple disciplines, especially his engagement with the biological sciences, was what drew Hannibal to co-convene the symposium. She believes that Steinbeck’s holistic vision can help us to overcome disciplinary fragmentation and unite us in a common vision of the environment. She admires Steinbeck’s worldview, which “integrated science, philosophy, literature, art, music and direct personal experience.” He helps us, Hannibal claims, “understand our personal impacts at multiple scales.”
Along with the valley and its farming communities, the sea inspired many of Steinbeck’s works. His expedition with friend and marine biologist Ed Ricketts resulted in Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research – a book about their trip that has, according to Hannibal, inspired a long line of professional and amateur scientists to more closely observe coastal life and its ecology.
How do we bring this rich context to bear on Steinbeck as a great American novelist, a voice of the nation? “If we think American literature through Steinbeck,” Jones muses, “it would be a literature that is very much facing beyond the nation to Mexico, to some extent the Pacific Rim; it would be a multi-cultural literature, a West Coast literature. Through Steinbeck we would also see American literature through the lens of poverty and inequality on a global scale; through ecology and planetarity as well.”