Of the quartet of American male modernist writers born on the threshold of the twentieth century – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896), William Faulkner (1897), Ernest Hemingway (1899) and John Steinbeck (1902) – three would be awarded Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for literature (Fitzgerald would not). But despite his popularity with readers, critics have often considered Steinbeck middlebrow. Born too late to serve in the First World War, too impoverished to travel to Paris in the 1920s and, in thoses’ eyes, too western in sensibility, too critical, too sentimental, he has been shunted to the sides since his first novel , Cup of Goldwas reviewed in 1929. Something of an honorary modernist, then, Steinbeck seems unable to keep time with the rest of the quartet.
Reclaiming John Steinbeck aims in part to explain this situation. Gavin Jones is intrigued by Steinbeck, “twentieth-century American literature’s most experimental writer”. At the same time he is often frustrated by the author’s seeming reluctance to formulate coherent positions on race, gender and Western conquest: the notion of Steinbeckian “failures” comes up a lot.
Jones’s book is a brilliant study of the works Steinbeck wrote between 1932 and 1947, a significant slice of his four-decade career. In “Curious Experiments”, the first of Jones’s sharply realized “essayistic chapters”, he emphasizes Steinbeck’s hybridity – how his fiction draws on the realistic as well as the mythical and magical. But Jones pushes this idea further than have other critics. Steinbeck is a “homegrown magical realist”, he says: a writer “attracted to… forms that behave messily by keeping different interpretations alive simultaneously”. That messiness is the source of Steinbeck’s restless experimentation. He is a writer drawn to the fabular as well as to photographic precision, which Jones traces in an early story, “The Snake”, about the focused vision of a marine biologist, Dr Phillips. Jones “reclaims” Steinbeck by linking intricate Phillips’sly absorbed scientific vision, “preoccupied eyes” and “flawless technique” to contemporary photography, particularly Edward Weston’s sharply focused black-and-white images of peppers and seashells.
Subsequent chapters are tantalizing in their theoretical complexity. Reporting to early reviewers who complained that Steinbeck’s fiction reduced humans to the level of animals, Jones reconsiders that critique, drawing on critical animal studies and “plant mindedness” in his penetrating analyses of Steinbeck’s best-known stories, “The Chrysanthemums”, “The White Quail” and “The Red Pony”. Throughout the 1930s, Steinbeck recognized the intimate bonds between humans and the non-human world. His was a profoundly ecological stance that has only been fully appreciated in the past quarter-century.
Though consistently fascinating and original, this dense analysis sometimes blurs the readerly reception of Steinbeck’s books. Of Mice and Men is “formally fascinating in its failures”, Jones asserts in his application of modernist “weak theory”. While the novella “approaches the conditions of modernist discourse”, it retreats into sentimentality, naturalism and “other forms of aesthetic badness”. For readers who favor that book for its emotional wallop and elucidation of class divisions, gender erasure and discrimination isolation, Jones’s intellectual fireworks might seem less than illuminating here. When taking up the familiar theme of emergence in The Grapes of Wrath (the turtle planting a seed in the third chapter of the novel, for example), Jones concludes that in Steinbeck’s novel “we are always in the middle of emergence, never quite arriving at completion”. Some readers might argue that avoiding political and social solutions is exactly the point.
The final chapters consider Steinbeck’s fascination with Mexico, which began during his college days. While Jones is one of many critics to recognize the ecological perspective in the nonfiction classic Sea of Cortez (1941), he is the first to identify a “less noticeable but extremely important” theme: extinction. Steinbeck embarked on his voyage to Baja in March 1940, as war loomed; several references in Sea of Cortez note the human cost of seemingly perpetual conflict. Steinbeck and the marine biologist Ed Ricketts saw Japanese shrimp boats scooping up tons of animals, threatening the sea with depletion. Steinbeck, then, seems particularly prescient here. He is a writer who richly rewards a twenty-first-century rereading and “reclaiming”.
In frequently stretching beyond the boundaries of the critical commonplace, Jones justifies his book’s title. But his approach is in some ways frustrating. His text selection seems somewhat arbitrary: Cannery Row (1945) The Pearl (1947) mark “the end of the first half of Steinbeck’s career as a writer, a period defined by direct involvement with the history and the environment of the West”. Why isn’t East of Eden (1952) – an experimental, autobiographical and mythic novel that Steinbeck had planned to write since the early 1930s – part of that direct involvement? Or Sweet Thursday (1954), the rollicking sequel to Cannery Row? I wish Jones had given a convincing argument for ending his study with The Pearl.
Jones’s writing sometimes baffles, too: a reader must be as intellectually nimble as he is in order to trace and absorb all the theoretical positions that undergird this study (one paragraph cites six theorists). While Reclaiming John Steinbeck is not a book for the faint of heart, it is a book for anyone seriously wishing to engage with one of the twentieth century’s most beloved, perplexing and underappreciated writers.
Susan Shillinglaw is a Professor of English Emerita at San Jose State University. Her books include Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a marriage, A Journey into Steinbeck’s California and On Reading “The Grapes of Wrath”
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