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Most American of Us All

Illustration by Greg Spalkenka

I FEEL PROTECTIVE TOWARD THIS DEAD writer, who doesn't need my protection at all. A friend of mine has been teaching American literature for a long time in a certain California university. Year after year, she assigns The Grapes of Wrath, and her students love it. Very likely on account of that selfsame popularity, the critics say that Steinbeck writes, if I remember correctly, "novels with training wheels."

When a scientist embarks on a series of experiments to test a new hypothesis, it is likely that most of his experiments will "fail," reality being more complicated than even the most tortuous hypothesis. Science corrects, revises, goes on. In this respect, writing is more like science than the other arts (except, of course, for musical composition), because we can replace one word with another as many times as we like, even resurrecting denied choices, whereas I have only so many chances to paint over my bad oil painting before it turns into a sticky brick. Nonetheless, once any work of art is sent out into the world, revision ends. Writers such as James Branch Cabell, who corrected their novels after publication, are decidedly not the rule. So what would be the prudent thing to do, if The Grapes of Wrath didn't come out quite perfect? We find The Grapes of Wrath set this time among the Puerto Rican population of New York City. Had Steinbeck accepted this counsel, he might have created something quite powerful. Who knows? Maybe he could have been another Zola, constructing an entire series of novels about dispossessed or underpossessing Americans. Instead, he chose to devote himself to loopy failures such as The Winter of Our Discontent and the never-to-be-finished translation from ancient English to archaic English of Malory's tale of King Arthur, and I love him for it.

People simplify Steinbeck into a populist, a pseudo­common man who idealized the common man, a socialist like Jack London. For an instant corrective to that notion, read his short story "The Vigilante," about a fellow who helps to lynch a "nigger fiend." Steinbeck sets this tale in the hours after the murder, chronicling the changes in the vigilante's heart from emptiness to cocky pride. At the end he comes home to his bitter, shut-down wife, who gazes into his face in astonishment and decides that he must have been with another woman. "By God, she was right," thinks the vigilante, admiring himself in the mirror. "That's just exactly how I do feel." And the story ends. One quasi-socialist thread does spin itself through "The Vigilante" as it does through all of Steinbeck's work: the receptivity of human beings to each other, and specifically of the one to the many. It is the bloodthirstiness of the lynch mob, and later on the admiration of the bartender, and the look in his wife's eyes, that in turn tell the vigilante how to feel. Thus we are to one another, for good and for evil.

Steinbeck's astonishing novel In Dubious Battle, which narrates the course of a fruit pickers' strike in California's Central Valley, and which like all his best writing is unbelievably real down to the last detail (the mud between the tents, the look and smell of dinner-mush, the ugly dialogues between the apple pickers and the checkers who dock their pay, the practicalities of sanitation), magnifies the vigilante's susceptibility into something larger, less evil, if still problematic, and more long-lasting: the way in which workers can be manipulated for political ends. Just as he did with the vigilante, Steinbeck dares to show the human nastiness of the strikers. "When we get down to business," says one "sullen boy," "I'm gonna get me a nice big rock and I'm gonna sock that bastard." But while he is doing this, Steinbeck does two more things: He makes it powerfully clear to us why the strikers strike, putting much of himself into their cause; and he savages the vanguardist puppeteers who so often infest political movements. Their motto: "The worse it is, the more effect it'll have."

In fact, were Steinbeck's writing to be simplified into anything at all, the motif would be distrust of authority. In 1947 he visited the Soviet Union, and in his account of that journey he says that while Russians, or at least the Russian spokespeople whom he was allowed to meet, tend to support their government and believe that what it does is good, Americans prefer to begin with the profoundest suspicion of government and its coercive powers. Of course this is not true at all. Steinbeck was one of the most un-American Americans of his time.

We might say that Faulkner and Hemingway were not exactly mainstream either, the former spinning out honeysuckled tales of incest, miscegenation and doom, the latter getting involved with Spanish Loyalists (Communists to you, bub); but in both of those writers, the lonely narcissism that characterizes us Americans ultimately obscures social statement. Steinbeck, on the other hand, had things to say. He wanted all of us to be angry and sorry about the plight of the Okies, and his own outrage is what makes The Grapes of Wrath a great book. He wanted to tell us that the people in the Soviet Union were not the monsters that our Cold Warriors insisted they were, and because the apparatchiks distorted and limited what he could see, his Russian Journal is dated and slight, but true enough to annoy both the Russians and Americans. (Let's call it a failure.) When he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent, he was worried about American materialism and hypocrisy. The defects of this novel remind me of socialist realism. This is a book with a message, and because that message is sometimes too stark, and other times camouflaged to the point of eccentric mysticism, it makes the story itself waver and warp. Well, fine; so he did have messages; he didn't necessarily want to build for the ages; maybe he hoped to actually accomplish something in his own time, in which case I love him for that, too.

THE STEINBECK BOOK I ADMIRE MOST IS EAST of Eden. For a decade now the character of Kate, whom some critics find unconvincing, has haunted my head; she's horrific, she's pathetic, she's steady and successful and lonely; she is perfectly what she is. The retelling of the Cain and Abel story is brilliant, the landscape descriptions lovely and lush, the plotting as careful and convincing as the best of George Eliot. And of course there's a message, a flaw, personified by a Chinese servant who tells us, sometimes at great length, what to think. But Lee has never annoyed me. He speechifies intelligently, at time wittily, and sometimes compassionately. Do I care that nobody I've ever met talks like that? He is sincere because Steinbeck is sincere. And this is what I love about Steinbeck most of all, his sincerity.

He once wrote about his friend Ed Ricketts that the man loved what was true and hated what wasn't. If Steinbeck sometimes mistook sentimentality for truth ("The Vigilante" shows this wasn't always the case), and if in this anti-sentimental era (political rhetoric excluded as usual) we happen to see him as even more sentimental than he was -- the way we see, for instance, the Victorians -- well, there are worse vices than sentimentality; its opposite for example. He was worried and at times bitter, but he was never cynical. One aspect of his credo that is considered sentimental nowadays is his glorification of individual choice. If I don't like, say, what America "stands for," and if I express that dislike, I may find that certain other Americans dislike me. It happened to Steinbeck, too. The many bannings of The Grapes of Wrath constitute its badge of honor. This book upset people. It actually had something to say. It was angry, it was unashamedly sexual, and it was un-American. Being un-American, Steinbeck was the most American of us all.