restricted access "To Do Some Good and No Harm": The Literary Journalism of John Steinbeck
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"To Do Some Good and No Harm":
The Literary Journalism of John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck based much of his fiction on actual events and experimented with several genres of nonfiction, including personal essays, travel writing, and political and social commentary. His interest in journalism, however, is often treated as ancillary to his writing of fiction, which is regarded as his real work and true calling. Steinbeck scholars allude to journalism when discussing Steinbeck's development as a writer or when chronicling and categorizing his work, but to date they have not investigated Steinbeck's role as a literary journalist with the same analytical zeal they bring to the study of his fiction. "The truth is that Steinbeck was really a journalist at heart," Gore Vidal said in 1993 interview with Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini. "All of his best work was journalism in that it was inspired by daily events, by current circumstances. He didn't 'invent' things. He 'found' them" (Steinbeck 274).

Although important and often quoted, Vidal's statement refers primarily to Steinbeck's fiction that is "inspired by daily events," or, in other words, fiction that is drawn from the same reservoir as traditional journalism. This study, on the other hand, identifies Steinbeck as a literary journalist, pays tribute to the journalism that led to The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and explores the importance of Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962) as an example of Steinbeck's skill as a writer of extended nonfiction. The study is divided into three parts: 1) an overview of the tenets of literary journalism most applicable to Steinbeck's work, a chronicle of Steinbeck's time as a journalist, and a list of several publications that suggest his ability to move comfortably [End Page 41] across the arguably indistict lines between fiction and nonfiction; 2) a discussion of Travels with Charley as an undervalued example of literary journalism; and 3) a tribute to Steinbeck's artistry in The Grapes of Wrath, which transforms historical figures and events into their mythical representations.

Because Travels with Charley is understood to be nonfiction and illustrates clearly several accepted tenets of literary journalism, I will introduce it first, even though it was published more than twenty years after The Grapes of Wrath. In doing so, I am not suggesting that Travels with Charley deserves more critical acclaim than The Grapes of Wrath, which blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction and remains a notable example of Steinbeck's ability to write a celebrated fictional work that depends upon people he knew and events he lived.

Steinbeck as a Literary Journalist

Since Steinbeck's biographers and critics are often trained in literary criticism and not professional journalism, much of their scholarship tends to focus upon the historical distinctions between news and feature writing, upon traditional notions of truth-telling in American journalism practice, and upon Steinbeck's reliance on realism as a kind of reconstructed journalism. In the introduction to America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, for example, editors Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson write, "Steinbeck's journalism is the record of a man who wanted to get it right, who wanted to see clearly and accurately, without superciliousness—and without ever claiming that his was the definitive, or even a fully accurate, view. He always tried for the human perspective, as much as possible without prejudice" (xvii).

While the themes introduced by scholars such as Shillinglaw, Benson, and others, and the recently published collections of Steinbeck's nonfiction are all essential, it remains imperative to examine Steinbeck's contribution to literary journalism as well. To that end, this study relies upon Travels with Charley in Search of America and The Grapes of Wrath to illustrate several tenets of literary journalism, including an unapologetic first-person point of view, advocacy for the deeper truth that underlies events, immersion in the lives of subjects, and the use of actual sources with (admittedly) recreated dialogue. [End Page 42]

"Honesty Has a Way of Creeping in Even When It Was Not intended."

—John Steinbeck

It is important to remember that Steinbeck did not simply experiment with journalistic techniques; he also worked as a serious...