- Beyond Boundaries: Rereading John Steinbeck
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Marking the centennial of John Steinbeck's birth, 2002 was highlighted by a nationwide celebration hosted by public libraries and academic institutions. In the summer of 2003, Steinbeck's popularity reached new heights when Oprah Winfrey used East of Eden to resurrect her then moribund book club. Most significantly, a new volume of Steinbeck research was published that should become the model for twenty-first century scholarship.
Beyond Boundaries: Rereading John Steinbeck contains selected studies presented at the 1997 Fourth International Steinbeck Conference. Susan Shillinglaw and Kevin Hearle have chosen contributions that demonstrate how Steinbeck's work breaks traditional boundaries, and this carefully edited anthology not only encourages a sweeping re-evaluation of the Steinbeck canon but also presents many lucid studies that fully articulate Steinbeck's accomplishments and innovations.
Shillinglaw and Hearle chose twenty-three essays arranged in four categories: "Beyond Boundaries," "Steinbeck as World Citizen," "Rereading Steinbeck's Women," and "Steinbeck's Science and Ethics." Each essay is prefaced with a brief summary, which is especially helpful for those who see the book as an essential resource. A helpful section of "Notes," an extensive bibliography, and an index conclude the volume.
The first section, "Beyond Boundaries," begins with an essay by John Seelye, "Steinbeck and Sentimentality," a response to a 1989 keynote speech at San Jose State by Leslie Fiedler, "Looking Back after 50 Years." Fiedler accuses Steinbeck of sentimentality, and Seelye meets that charge head-on by comparing and contrasting, as does Fiedler, The Grapes of Wrath and Uncle Tom's Cabin. While Uncle Tom's Cabin is undoubtedly a sentimental novel, Seelye shows that in Grapes "Steinbeck turns the sentimental mode back on itself, a movement of which the dead baby, the flood, and the final scene with the starving, anonymous man are signifiers" (21). Seelye [End Page 149] confronts Fiedler's contention that Grapes is "maudlin, sentimental, and overblown" (12). For Seelye, Steinbeck uses "the sentimental mode, which is to hold it out to us in a promising form and then, like Lennie with a wee mousie, crush it" (27). The editorial decision to open Beyond Boundaries with Seelye's study makes it a touchstone analysis for the anthology.
The second study, by Gavin Cologne-Brookes, traces Bruce Springsteen's debt to Steinbeck's writing in "The Ghost of Tom Joad: Steinbeck's Legacy in the Songs of Bruce Springsteen." Even though Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad" was a response to John Ford's movie rather than Steinbeck's novel, Cologne-Brookes illustrates how Grapes was a major influence in raising America's awareness of its social inequities. The essay effectively shows the range of Steinbeck's influence on a variety of art forms, as well as his American social conscience.
Christina Sheehan Gold further develops the manner in which Steinbeck's works affected social consciousness. In "Changing Perceptions of Homelessness: John Steinbeck, Carey McWilliams, and California during the 1930s," Gold shows that both Steinbeck and McWilliams were responsible for establishing "a tradition of homeless advocacy and empathy that would remain firmly entrenched in the American consciousness" (65).
The fourth essay is a short but significant study of Steinbeck's use of the narrator as a character with whom the author can identify. In "Steinbeck's 'Self-characters' as 1930s Underdogs," Warren French quotes a letter Steinbeck wrote to Elizabeth Otis explaining the use of a spokesman within a novel, one he calls a "self-character." Steinbeck claimed that such a spokesperson could be found in all his novels and in the novels "of everyone I can remember" (66). In his earliest books, the self-characters are underdogs whose world remains consistently bleak. A change took place with The Grapes of Wrath, "from the pessimistic conclusion of the underdogs' trilogy to the inspiring feeling that troubled situations can be improved" (73). This change in Steinbeck, French believes, "ended a decade of...