The Magazine

The Outsider

John Steinbeck at 100.

Apr 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 30 • By BILL CROKE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

WHAT IS John Steinbeck's place in American literary history? This year marks the centenary of his birth--the fortieth anniversary of his contentious 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature--and still we're not sure what to do with him. Certainly, his three great contemporaries overshadow him. Ernest Hemingway had the twentieth century's most distinctive voice, and Steinbeck could never compete with it. Neither could he match F. Scott Fitzgerald's gleaming prose or William Faulkner's insights into character. In the next rank of twentieth-century American novelists are names like Thomas Wolfe, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis, but Steinbeck doesn't quite seem to belong with them, either--nor at the next rank down, with writers like John Dos Passos. He was often no better than they were; occasionally he was a great deal worse--as anyone who's read his "Sweet Thursday" (1954) knows. And yet, we forget, for all his mainstream success, how different Steinbeck was. His real place is among the outsiders--somewhere below Willa Cather and above Jack London in the set of untraditional authors who imposed themselves and their concerns on the American consciousness by the sheer force of their ambition, their will, and their story-telling ability. Coming of age in remote Northern California, Steinbeck was wholly untouched by modernism. He was separated not only geographically but culturally from the other noteworthy writers of his generation. Too young to serve in World War I, he traveled to Europe for the first time only in the late 1930s. At the time of his birth in Salinas on February 27, 1902, California was just fifty years past statehood, an ethnic stew of white professionals, businessmen and landowners, Hispanic farm workers, and the hustling Chinese immigrants who dominated the service economy. Steinbeck had a comfortable middle-class childhood in Salinas ("Lettuceberg," he later contemptuously called it).

His father was a failed store owner who went on to be the Monterey County treasurer. His mother, a former school teacher, encouraged her son and his two older sisters in the classics of Victorian reading: the Bible, Shakespeare, John Bunyan, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson--with Twain and London to follow. Steinbeck especially devoured Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur." He later said "a passionate love for the English language opened to me from this one book." In high school he was big and restive and sometimes a disciplinary problem--this was a defensive response to what one of his biographers, Thomas Kiernan, called his "jug-eared homeliness." This time also saw his first juvenile literary efforts, short stories penned late at night in the attic, and sent anonymously with no return address to national magazine editors. ENROLLING AT STANFORD in 1920, he began a sketchy academic career of five years with no degree taken--periodically skipping semesters to work as a farm laborer in the Salinas Valley. In 1925, he dropped out and took a ship to New York to chase his literary dreams. At a stop in Havana he spent most of his money on a drunken spree and arrived in New York in midwinter with three dollars in his pocket. A Stanford friend got him a job as a laborer at the newly rising Madison Square Garden, where he pushed wheelbarrows full of wet concrete up wooden ramps for twelve hours a day. A brief stint as a newspaper stringer for the New York American saw him fired for lack of reportorial skills, and, disillusioned, he returned to California. HE SPENT the next two years as a caretaker at a mountain estate near Lake Tahoe, where he wrote his first publishable work and met his first wife, Carol Henning. The novels of this period--"Cup of Gold" (1929), "The Pastures of Heaven" (1932), and "To a God Unknown" (1933)--were badly flawed, and all of them sold poorly. With "Tortilla Flat" in 1935, however, he finally found success by putting together his first-hand knowledge of rural California with the dire economic realities of the 1930s to form a large tableau from which to work. "Tortilla Flat" was also the first of Steinbeck's books to be published by Pascal "Pat" Covici, an early enthusiast who rescued the writer from a bad contract and printed his books through the late 1930s. The novels and stories Steinbeck published from 1935 to 1938--"In Dubious Battle," "The Red Pony," "Of Mice and Men," "The Long Valley"--are some of his best and point steadily in theme to "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939). Notwithstanding the success of all Steinbeck's titles in the late 1930s, Covici's firm went bankrupt in 1939. Landing a job as an editor at Viking, Covici took Steinbeck with him--and "The Grapes of Wrath" burst upon the nation. "The Grapes of Wrath" began with a series Steinbeck did in 1936 for the San Francisco News on the plight of migrant farm workers. Further investigation in the squatters' camps of the San Joaquin Valley appalled him.