- Steinbeck in Academe: “A Matter of Learning”
If life was a process, then that process for man, as far as Steinbeck was concerned, was largely a matter of learning.—Jackson J. Benson
An Indianapolis television program entitled The Westfield Insurance Brain Game features high school students competing as part of a four-member school team that answers questions requiring them to recall details gleaned from all academic disciplines. These young scholars are impressive—with the breadth of their knowledge often suggesting a depth of understanding that the game cannot measure. On occasion, questions or answers refer to John Steinbeck. Once a student responded, “Grapes of Wrath” to a question about a Dickens novel. And it was sorely disappointing that no one buzzed in with the correct answer to the question, “What 1962 Steinbeck book chronicled the journal of the author and his dog?”
This Brain Game recently featured John Steinbeck as the topic for a “Face Off,” during which one student from each team responded to a series of four related questions. Only one of the four questions was answered correctly—the one on Of Mice and Men. Disappointingly, it seems that these bright young junior and senior high school students have not been exposed to the works of Steinbeck. As a study by Mary M. Brown shows, disappointingly, too, the academic canon of colleges and universities likewise provides little opportunity to study his works—especially those in the East.1
It is consoling, however, to think that students on The Brain Game may simply have been disconcerted because of the one-on-one competition in front of cameras. After all, an inability to recall that the setting of The Red Pony is California may not mean that a person has not read the book at all. Also, it is [End Page V] encouraging that the producers of the show believe Steinbeck questions to be fair and appropriate for a general academic competition. After all, producers of this scholastic game seem to ask as many questions about Steinbeck as they do about Hawthorne, Poe, Dickinson, Whitman, Twain, Faulkner, or Hemingway. This inclusion indicates that Steinbeck and his works are still seen as an important part of the ongoing conversation about America and its literature—indicating as well that he is a writer students need to read. For that reason, one of the goals of Steinbeck Review is to encourage the study of Steinbeck in public schools and universities by publishing exemplary scholarship from a wide range of perspectives—from pedagogy, to criticism, to eclectic reflections on this author’s life, works, and continuing influence. We believe that this published conversation provides a center for Steinbeck education and understanding. As Benson so well notes, for Steinbeck, life is “a process” that is “largely a matter of learning” (251). We hope to contribute to that learning.
With this goal in mind, this issue continues the serial posthumous publication of Roy Simmonds’s The Composition, Publication, and Reception of John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus, with Biographical Background with its sixth and penultimate chapter, “It was a paste-up job and I should never have let it go out the way it did.” Continuing an insightful perusal of the integral relationship between a writer’s life and his work, this chapter reviews the disparate criticism of Steinbeck’s book while simultaneously chronicling the author’s complicated relationship with his second wife, Gwyn. Readers who have enjoyed Simmonds’s book over the past few years will appreciate the detail and depth of this chapter and look forward to its conclusion in Fall 2013’s Steinbeck Review.
Scott Abbott and Lyn Bennett’s “Literary Barbed Wire: Reifying the Metaphor” follows with a significant study of the motif of barbed wire in four texts: Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Brian Evenson’s “Contagion,” and Jeff Mann’s “The History of Barbed Wire.” The authors deftly tie these four works together by considering barbed wire “as a means of protection and of coercion, as an object of religious veneration, and as an enforcer and/or enabler of identity.” Stressing the need...