Friday, May 4, 2012

Revisiting John Steinbeck

By Patrick J. Walsh
Those who know my love for the classics that I first encountered in my youth know that I am a pretty voracious re-reader. I tend to return to old favorites again and again, as though I were visiting old friends.

Lately I’ve been in a Steinbeck mood, so I’ve begun re-reading The Short Novels: Tortilla Flat / The Moon is Down / The Red Pony / Of Mice and Men / Cannery Row / The Pearl.

Accounts of my affection for these particular stories could fill several small volumes on their own. Suffice it to say that I heartily recommend John Steinbeck's work to anyone interested in understanding 20th century American literature and culture.

My favorite here is Of Mice and Men; I have read it more frequently than any of Steinbeck's books, and I was fortunate to see an excellent stage production in summer stock many years ago — a formative experience for me as a writer. The characters are brilliantly drawn, and the economy with which the author tells the story is truly breathtaking. If you've not read it before, the ending will leave you stunned, pondering the enormous power of the demands of love and brotherhood.

Steinbeck's characters are brilliantly drawn, and the
economy with which he tells the story is truly breathtaking...

Abandoned farm in the dust bowl, 1936.

Photo by Arthur Rothstein, from the Library of Congress
Prints & Photographs online catalog,
U.S. Farm Security Administration collection
The Moon is Down is also very serious business, and particularly of interest to anyone studying the dynamics of occupation and the subjugation of one people by another. My interest in virtually all things related to the World War II era fed my original fascination with this work, but on finishing it the first time, I came to see its story in the larger context of the relationships that occur between people who find themselves in untenable circumstances.

Although I probably do the author some disservice by doing so, I admit that I tend to think of Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row as being somehow related, when in fact they are quite distinct. There was a time when I particularly enjoyed studying Tortilla Flat for its parallels to the legend of King Arthur — a structure that Steinbeck consciously pursued and rightfully celebrated. Both of these feature strong characters and lovingly crafted narratives; even without any academic pretense involved, you will probably just love reading them.

The Red Pony always seems to me to be a work set apart from the others in this collection, which is not to say that it is any less emblematic of its author or divorced in any way from the overall progression of his work; it just seems like such a very different sort of story, told in a different manner from the others.

Maybe it seems so different because of the manner in which it came to be — it was first written and published in parts and then collected into the manuscript that we now know as the finished book. On the other hand, it may also be viewed as an example of Steinbeck's wonderful penchant for experimentation, and the confidence he had in his own ability to convey great stories on a wide variety of subjects, and likely, to a widely varied audience.

Finally there is The Pearl — a brilliantly evocative tale that conveys an enormous amount of wisdom in a disarmingly simple story. It is another of my favorite Steinbeck stories, and the kind of book whose characters and scene and setting will likely drift in and out of your field of vision for a long time after you've reached the final word and returned to the shelf.

And if you are like me, it will be a nearby shelf, and easy to reach, for the next time...

© Patrick J. Walsh

Other heroes well worth knowing:
• The Spirit of Baseball Past (Roberto Clemente)

For more literary adventuring:
• Encounter in Autumn (Beowulf)
• A Walk in the Park (John Donne)

A version of this post first appeared on my author page at Goodreads.


  1. I, like you, am a "voracious re-reader." I love that description! My literary tastes run a little differently than yours (Medieval, Arthurian Legend, fantasy) but it's wonderful to meet someone else who considers great books as old friends to visit and linger with.

    Even though I am not a big Steinbeck fan, Of Mice and Men is my favorite of his books. It is emotionally powerful, spot on in its authentic depiction of human beings and an excellent study of relationship. The ending, as you pointed out, is stunning. It also is disturbing, although arguably, from a realistic point of view, it is probably the inevitable conclusion.

    Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comments there and on Rachelle Gardner's blog.
    Blessings! C.B. (aka Christine Dorman)

  2. Thanks for your insight! Of Mice and Men is probably my favorite overall, too; but then, I really like most of Steinbeck's work, and of course it would be difficult to argue against Grapes of Wrath as his single most complete achievement.