Friday, February 09, 2007
Steinbeck: Due for Reconsideration?
Here is a book I'm really looking forward to reading, although I would do so with the slightest bit of trepidation. John Steinbeck was the first author I ever loved, and the book of his I cherished above all was his last one: The Winter of Our Discontent. I was 14 when I read it and so far as I recall there was nothing in the story that had anything to do with me, except that I liked the main character, a kind of tragic figure named Ethan who stood for all that was ethical and upright in a world going the opposite way. I wrote a paper on it for an English class, and not long after that I was knocking back one Steinbeck after the next: Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, The Red Pony, and of course The Grapes of the Wrath. (I can get very sentimental at the memory of sitting with that book for hours on end.)
And that, after awhile, was that. I read Grapes again in college and Tortilla Flat some years later, but I generally avoided Steinbeck, because I wasn't too sure that my adult self would like him that much. Critical opinion since his death has never been very kind; he tends to look like the odd man out in American fiction from the Depression to mid-century, where the stage belongs mainly to the strong, distinct voices of Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the latter possibly being Steinbeck's model. (Steinbeck, Harold Bloom said some years ago, "couldn't get Hemingway's music out of his head.") Steinbeck plays Gorky to their Tolstoy, Gogol and Chekhov.
I'd love to discover this well-worn opinion is dead wrong.