John Steinbeck: An Appreciation

Books, Literature

I read John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony in the eighth grade and didn’t think much of it. I was more interested in Vonnegut and Kerouac and Kafka and HS Thompson at the time, all of whom seemed more substantial and just plain cooler. The boyhood adventures recounted in The Red Pony seemed hokey to me, and perhaps because of the title, I came to conflate Steinbeck’s novella with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Where the Red Fern Grows (ed. note: as gentle reader jd points out in the comments below, this is an error on Biblioklept’s part: it was actually Wilson Rawls who wrote Where the Red Fern Grows, Rawlings wrote The Yearling), which we also read that year, and which I also thought was interminably silly. Somehow, I managed to make it through both high school and college never reading anything by Steinbeck, and on the way, I also somehow managed to pick up the idea that he was an inferior or unimportant writer, unequal to Twain or Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Salinger, and certainly more boring than my beloved PK Dick and William Burroughs.

Fortunately, this ignorance was corrected the first year I started teaching high school. A more experienced teacher recommended that I read Of Mice and Men with my ninth graders. I probably wrinkled my nose at the idea (prejudiced as I was), but desperate to find a text that would engage them (as she swore up and down Of Mice and Men would), I gave it a shot.

The story of the child-like Lennie and his brother-keeper George hooked me from the first few paragraphs, and I, along with the students, became entranced, hooked on the book, unable to wait for the next day to read more. The next semester a new group of ninth graders and I worked our way through the book; a little more savvy now, I utilized Gary Sinise’s reading on audio book, possibly the best audio version of a book I’ve ever heard. He also directed and starred in a film version, with John Malkovich’s portrayal of mentally handicapped Lennie translating with realistic warmth and pathos. Sinise’s movie version is nearly perfect. By the fourth time I went through OMAM with the kids, I had introduced all kinds of different approaches to the text: gender readings, readings that focused on the disabled body, readings that troped against the book of Genesis and so on. I found that no matter how many times I read the text, I was never bored, and I always found something new in Steinbeck’s spare language. And it was–and is–Steinbeck’s measured and controlled prose that so impressed (impresses) me. Like Hemingway, Steinbeck eliminates everything extraneous, loading each word and sentence with significance; unlike Hemingway, Steinbeck’s writing shows a keen sensitivity toward persons besides macho white males.

I don’t teach ninth grade anymore, but I always slip a few Steinbeck readings into my AP Language and Composition course. Over the past few years, I’ve read a good deal of The Portable Steinbeck; if you want to boast a decent library of great American literature, this book is essential. Not only does it contain the whole of Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony, it also has carefully-chosen chapters from The Grapes of Wrath that manage to stand on their own (a testament to both editor Pascal Covici, Jr. as well as Steinbeck’s writing). Plus, look at that cover–very cool (I have a class set of these, and one student added a speech bubble to Steinbeck’s image with the text: “I’m a pimp”)

stein.jpg

What prompted this post? Well, I have one tenth-grade section right now–World Literature–and I usually introduce some of the themes I like to cover over the course of the year–colonialism, cultural clash, etc. (we’ll read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart next)–with Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl, a beautiful and sad book that is often overlooked as a lesser work, childhood fare like The Red Pony (admittedly a lesser work). This morning, starting a new reading (sixth? seventh?) with a group of young kids all engaged in a story they didn’t think they wanted to read, I realized that I wanted to say this: Steinbeck is great. Steinbeck is great and that’s something I had to find out from a bunch of kids. Steinbeck is great and I almost didn’t know it because my prejudice prompted me overlook him. Steinbeck is great and I want you to read him. Go for it. You can find a used copy of Of Mice and Men anywhere. It’s about a hundred pages long. If you read a chapter a night, you’ll be done in less than a week. Take the Biblioklept challenge. If you don’t like it, let me know.

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14 thoughts on “John Steinbeck: An Appreciation

  1. Great post! I love Steinbeck and somehow had never read Of Mice and Men until about a week ago…I, too, thought of it as one of his lesser works, for whatever reason. God, was I wrong. Have you read Cannery Row?

    Sidenote: Where the Red Fern Grows is by Wilson Rawls, not Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. And it probably would have been more appropriate for a 5th or 6th grade class, so maybe that’s why you weren’t into it. I love that book though…you should check back into it if you’ve only read it that once.

  2. Ha ha ha! Oh my God–I feel like such a fool–you’re totally right! Rawlings–Rawls, deers and dogs, yearlings….no wonder I got mixed up. Thanks for correcting me. I probably read Red Fern at an earlier point and The Yearling in the eighth grade. Maybe they both deserve a second chance (after all, my whole post was advocating a second chance for Steinbeck).
    I have read Cannery Row; it’s gentle and humorous and also overlooked. I’ve also read Steinbeck’s adaptation of the Arthur tales, which I really liked. Have you seen the film adaptation of Of Mice and Men (the Sinise one?) You might dig it.

  3. I have not seen the film adaptation yet, although I just added it to the top of my Netflix.

    Now I have to hit the library and get a copy of The Yearling because I somehow always got around reading it, despite being a native Floridian who loves YA lit. Whoops.

  4. Let us know how The Yearling turns out…I only remember the repeated phrase: “suck the pizen [ed. note: poison] out,” probably from the film.
    A friend of mine just ate at The Yearling restaurant (maybe it’s called Cross Creek? not sure) near Ocala; he reported the vittles to be mighty tasty. Like the Hard Rock Cafe of Florida writing.

  5. Hemingway writes well about everyone. For Whom the Bell Tolls is a near-perfect book and that old Spanish lady one of his greatest characters. I obscenity in the milk of your suggestion.

  6. Uh…go back and re-read Hemingway: I like some of his short stories, but a lot of his work is pretty sexist and vaguely racist. Take The Sun Also Rises, a book that appears to be a romantic tragedy on the surface: the main character (can’t remember his name) loses his lover and lovechild: tragic right? Well, this is just Hemingway’s idea of perfect romance: the woman and child die, leaving the man free to pursue further adventures, unconstrained. I can knock Hemingway all day, Dave.

  7. well, that’s pretty politically correct answer that seems to explain why one of our greatest writers isn’t being taught in schools or universities.
    even if what you say is true, he managed to write to a universal audience through himself.
    The Sun Also Rises is about a man who has somehow become impotent because of an injury he sustained in a war. He somehow feels as though the woman he wants will never be satisfied by him, and he watches her take her pleasure all over Europe. She wants him, though, and he either doesn’t realize it or refuses to see her love for him.
    It’s a fantastic novel. I don’t see why this criticism of Hemingway has gained so much traction. Has Toni Morrison, for instance, ever really left her basic gameplan? Melville? Has Cormac McCarthy, who you praised so easily, placed a woman in an important place in one of his last 6 or 7 novels?

    Even if Hemingway was sexist or racist, does it honestly matter? Take a writer like Celine. An unapologetic Nazi who wrote brilliant, sad, beautiful novels. Artists are artists and they should be judged by what they create.

    Hemingway changed English prose for the better for all time. No one argues that his books aren’t brilliant, cause they’d get laughed at. You can not like the man for whatever reason, but you can’t question his genius.

  8. Dave, why can’t I question a supposedly brilliant writer’s “genius”? You can laugh at me if you want, but I find a large chunk of his work to be pretty unbearable, silly even. I think that it’s a fantastic thing that Hemingway–long overrated–is being edged out in favor of previously marginalized writers (Z. N. Hurston, for example).
    I do agree with you that an artist’s intentions or biography has no place in the criticism of that artist’s work; perhaps I wasn’t careful enough in my phrasing of my criticism of Hemingway. And, for the record, I really loved Hemingway for years and years, and I still love a number of his stories and novels (and yes, The Sun Also Rises is a petty good novel). But I think that his work tends to uphold a romanticized ideology of white male imperialism, and that he disguises this by presenting his characters as apparent outsiders.
    Additionally, Hemingway does not even approach a master like Melville, or a writer like Morrison who is working from Melville’s grand rhetorical tradition, although it doesn’t matter. I think that Hemingway belongs to a tradition of well-written popular fiction, and his stories of adventure reflect this
    For the record, if you go back and read my reviews of “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men,” I have some significant criticisms of both of those books.
    And I hate to end like with such a hackneyed sentiment, but all this stuff is subjective: I will probably never be convinced that Faulkner, for example, is anything but a drunk Southerner who aped James Joyce with grotesque and confusing results, yet there is a large contingent of very smart people who I greatly admire who consider him to be a genius. That doesn’t mean that I think those people’s opinions are invalid; I simply disagree with them.

  9. I never said your opinion was invalid. I just think that like rock bands, writers are in vogue and then nobody likes them at all. not enough people read enough to be able to quantify this a la Pitchfork, but I think in a general sense I’m right.

    Hemingway is a product of his time, and it seems to me that he is currently paying the price for being one of the most honest writers we’ve ever had. He depicted life as he saw it as a man like he lived it (sorry that’s such an ugly sentence), and people have colored such honesty as racist or sexist as we try to make everyone feel as though they’ve always belonged. I think it’s sad that we’ve elevated lesser talents simply because the new academic frontier shies away from the reality that sexism and racism pervaded the last century, even though it doesn’t seem as though Hemingway added anything to the ugly reality.

    Was it his duty as a major artist to speak out against something he might not have actually seen as a problem?

  10. I never suggested that Hemingway had any duty to “speak out” against anything or be a social writer; I agree that he was an “honest” writer. I happen to find his character’s epiphanies often shallow and selfish, which wouldn’t bother me so much except the gnawing inkling that Hemingway believes that he’s made a Grand Statement.
    Do you really believe that “the new academic frontier shies away from the reality that sexism pervaded the last century”?
    I think that academia has recovered some of the previously marginalized writers (are these the “lesser talents” that you spoke of?) of the 20th century whose writing negotiated gender and racial issues in ways that were not as limited as F.Scott Fitzgerald’s limited approach. I feel like all canonized literature is the literature of the outsider (those who don’t belong), and although Hemingway’s lit approximates this gesture of being othered, it ultimately reaffirms a stabilized identity that is powerful and afforded choice and freedom (the keys to belongingness).
    In your phrase “we try to make everyone feel as if they’ve always belonged” who is the “we”? Who is “everyone,” and why haven’t they always belonged, and what didn’t they belong to? Is the “we” academia? White male hegemony? I’m inferring that you’re suggesting that there is a certain type or class that historically haven’t “always belonged” in America.
    I think that Hemingway’s reputation has suffered more as a result of his commodified image (think of the Hemingway furniture collection) or the fact that, unfortunately, everything he ever wrote was published.
    Finally, I loved Hemingway when I was younger, but I reread him a few years ago and was left with a bad taste in my mouth. I still use a couple of his short stories in my classes though and I do it ungrudgingly because I think the stories are good, and I think that despite my personal opinion of him, he’s a great American writer and he belongs in the canon–along with some other voices that are finding their way in now, despite your dismay.

  11. My dismay? I’m all for inclusion. Maybe epiphanies like “war is bad,” “love is hard,” “getting old makes me sad” are “selfish and shallow” but very few writers can write stories, novels, whatever that so gracefully and effortlessly illuminate these truths without wallowing in cliche or humorless self-absorption.

    I’m all for teaching kids that other excellent voices exist all over the world. Achebe, Soyinka, Borges, Kawabata, whomever would not be dismissed simply because their writing reflected their era and its prejudices, but I think a distinctive American voice is endangered because of all the preconceived notions that surround his legacy.

    Really, this is about as much as I can say on the subject because I really don’t know anything about this subject at all. For whatever reason, I think the guy is getting shafted.

    Would kids be better off reading a Farewell to Arms or about that douchebag Holden Caulfield? Salinger’s other stuff is pretty atrocious, too.

  12. I have read the pearl, of mice and men, and east of eden in a week (yes, I am in my holidays). Now I am reading the winter of our discontent.
    I find it thrilling, his best I’ve read so far (together with maybe the grapes of wrath, but that’s maybe ten years ago).

    so, if you;ve liked of mice and men, try the winter of our discontent…..

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