- John Steinbeck's Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken
The contribution of this book to Steinbeck studies is slight. The title is misleading, as three of the novels and most of the short stories are not discussed. The operative principle of selection is not clear. And one wonders what there could be left to discuss after a first chapter entitled "Steinbeck as Literary Artist." The author relies somewhat heavily on previous studies of Steinbeck, quoting extensively, but rarely improving upon them or departing significantly from them. Furthermore, the book is uneven in its use of secondary materials, giving much biographical and background information for some novels and none for others—on no apparent principle. The book is not unified by some distinct thesis or critical method. It would seem that what is needed least at this time is still another general rehashing of the work making the same general points, supported by the same usual quotations. Furthermore, sometimes the "analysis" is mere description or plot summary.
All this is not to say the book is without value. To its merit, it does not present new, startling, distinctive, but untenable propositions about the works. The extensive attempt to justify Steinbeck's opinion (during its composition) that East of Eden was the culmination of his career, containing everything he had learned about his craft, is thoughtful, and the use of Paradise Lost interesting, although unconvincing to this (on this point) perhaps prejudiced reviewer. Interesting also are Timmerman's use of Steinbeck's preoccupation with Malory as background to The Winter of Our Discontent and the inclusion of Tortilla Flat in the "trilogy" completed by Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, allowing some license in the use [End Page 322] of that term. Perhaps necessary and certainly useful is this book's repetition with some elaboration that the salient feature of Steinbeck's decline in his later years is the failure of language.
In the last chapter, Timmerman addresses himself to the puzzling question of the literary establishment's failure and even refusal (the critical reaction to the Nobel Prize) to accord Steinbeck the high place in American literature that Steinbeck scholars believe he deserves, and he puts his finger on the essential point: "His writing career is marked, more than anything else, by versatility and an impressively broad range of themes, attitudes, techniques, characters, and stories." Of the techniques, I would stress prose style as the most important in this regard. Even in literary products we Americans want standardization. From the surface, there seem to be less continuity and familiar terrain in his work (as Edmund Wilson very early noted, and misunderstood) than in that of his distinguished contemporaries—Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and any number of lesser figures. Reading Timmerman's book, I again wondered where lies the failure of Steinbeck critics (myself included) to make a better case.