Nineteen eighty-nine, the fiftieth anniversary of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, was marked by many literary events in homage to both the writer and his single great work. Among them were several scholarly symposia, a number of features in the popular media, and the publication of a half-dozen books. Most appropriate among the books is a Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of The Grapes of Wrath from Viking with a new introduction by Studs Terkel; both the handsome volume and the workman-like introduction bring the reader directly back to the novel itself. Because a half century has not diminished the power of Steinbeck's classic as either social document or as American epic, it still more than repays rereading.
In addition, a number of critical works also appeared in 1989. For the most part these are collections of articles, essays, and interviews already published elsewhere. More important are two new books from distinguished Steinbeck scholars Jackson J. Benson and Robert DeMott. The volumes pair nicely, both as studies of Steinbeck and of the process of making books. Benson's Looking For Steinbeck's Ghost describes the fifteen-year effort that produced his authorized and authoritative biography, The Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, whereas DeMott's Working Days: The Journals of "The Grapes of Wrath" presents for the first time in print Steinbeck's complete working journals for his best known novel.
In some senses, Looking for Steinbeck's Ghost proves a more accessible work than Benson's mammoth 1984 biography, as it succinctly considers Steinbeck's popular and critical reputation. The new book also explains the several defects present in Benson's definitive work. Although the biographer is even more defensive here, almost to the point of paranoia in terms of the critical and scholarly establishment that trashed Steinbeck's achievement, he is also more focused. His fifteen years of chasing Steinbeck's ghost (he began his project the year after the writer's death in 1968) was crammed into the biography to the detriment of cogent critical analysis. [End Page 753]
After an autobiographical introduction explaining his involvement with Steinbeck's life, Benson structures this new book around that life, creating a neat mini-biography that moves more easily than his larger effort. He is also able to examine the critical issues of the works; for example, in Chapter Five, "Biographer As Detective," where he develops an important source for The Grapes of Wrath in the observations of Tom Collins, manager of a federal migrant camp. In fact, he comes to a clearer and better conclusion about the Steinbeck canon than he does in the biography:
My own position was that he had written one masterpiece (The Grapes of Wrath), several other exceptional works that would be read for some time into the future (In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Long Valley, The Log from the "Sea of Cortez, " Cannery Row, and The Pearl), some books that weren't memorable (To a God Unknown, The Wayward Bus, Sweet Thursday, and The Moon Is Down, Burning Bright, and The Short Reign of Pippin IV), and a book I couldn't make up my mind about, East of Eden.
Other than his waffling on East of Eden (1952), certainly one of the worst novels ever written by a serious novelist, Benson's conclusions seem eminently sensible.
Looking For Steinbeck's Ghost has other interesting aspects as well. Most notably, it is also the narrative of Benson's biographical project with many interesting insights into that process. Certainly few would essay a biography after reading about the daunting circumstances of the work. Benson's greatest difficulties came from Steinbeck's family, the three wives and two sons who survived him. John Steinbeck was in many ways a strange and introverted man, one...