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Curiously enough, in view of the critical tides of our times, the literary reputation of John Steinbeck seems to be undergoing a positive reassessment within academic circles. Of course, Steinbeck's popularity has never waned with the general reader, both here and abroad; most nonacademic students of his work probably would rank him with the "Big Three" of modern American fiction—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Although the academic stock of this triumverate is marked by mixed losses and gains, after all they are "D.W.M.s" (Dead White Males), [End Page 256] the Steinbeck market looks decidedly bullish. The reasons for this upturn are somewhat difficult to discern, as Steinbeck's work seems as little amenable to the new "political correctness" or the new critical arcana as it was to the old New Republic liberalism or the old New Criticism. Steinbeck's attitude toward the "Other," especially as manifested in nonmale and nonwhite characters, makes the sensitive reader as nervous as any of the masters in the old canon.
Perhaps the main reason for Steinbeck's re-establishment is simply an instance of the Emersonian law of compensation; his fiction was so critically underrated for so long that the pendulum had to swing back toward him once again. Steinbeck at his best really is a fine writer, an American master accessible to both learned and general readers, an interesting place to occupy in the continuing battle of the canons. More immediate reasons for his rising stock probably include the omniverous appetite of academic criticism; if Steinbeck does not lend himself to deconstruction, he does yield to biographical, psychological, social, and textual study. Jackson Benson's monumental biography, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, marked a turning point in Steinbeck studies in 1984. In short order the fiftieth anniversaries of Steinbeck's major fictions of the 1930s have produced a surge of interest, capped by at least a dozen books of all sorts in recognition of his single masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Interestingly enough, the four books reviewed here concern themselves with Steinbeck's most important and accessible work—the stories, short novels, and popular successes—for the most part from biographical, social, and textual perspectives. It is a pleasure to report that all four are themselves accessible, readable, and valuable in terms of critical insight.
Steinbeck's short stories are the subject of two recent books. R. S. Hughes' very competent introduction, John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction, appeared in 1989 as part of Twayne's interesting new series under the general editorship of Gordon Weaver. John H. Timmerman's new study plows the same ground but from different angles and to differing ends. The net effect of both books should be to re-emphasize a somewhat neglected aspect of the Steinbeck canon. Although most readers know only a handful of anthology favorites—"Chrysanthemums," "Flight," or "The Red Pony," for example—Steinbeck produced a large, varied, and successful body of short fiction. If the "chapters" of The Pasture of Heaven are treated as separate stories, as both Hughes and Timmerman effectively argue, Steinbeck wrote more than fifty stories. Of course, not all of these are minor masterpieces like the anthology favorites, but a surprising number are very good indeed. Both Hughes and Timmerman argue that the stories are important for more than their inherent quality, as both critics see the short fiction providing points of access to the longer, more complex works. Both then trace Steinbeck's story writing from tentative experiments in the unpublished stories of his youth, through the achievements of the 1930s which appeared in The Long Valley, to the eclectic...