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  • The Social MindJohn Elof Boodin’s Influence on John Steinbeck’s Phalanx Writings, 1935–1942
  • Jeffrey Wayne Yeager (bio)

I. Steinbeck’s Knowledge of John Elof Boodin

After the commercial failure of his historical romance Cup of Gold and his California novel To a God Unknown, John Steinbeck faced a critical juncture in his career before he found success with his labor trilogy. Then, in the early 1930s, he turned toward new material. Drawing on conversations with Ed Ricketts, Joseph Campbell, and Richard and George Albee, among others, Steinbeck developed his “Argument of Phalanx”—loosely based on the Greek military arrangement of a body of troops that stand or move in close formation—as a social philosophy concerning man’s relations within groups. The problem of men uniting into hordes under a pseudo-Christian cause had previously manifested itself in American texts, ranging from the satire against lynching in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the mob attacking Wing Biddlebaum in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. While Steinbeck sometimes advocated his phalanx argument for dire circumstances, he largely used the theory to suggest that the group is able to achieve momentous social change through sheer power. This concept, especially during the Great Depression, fueled some of Steinbeck’s most powerful novels about workers struggling against the injustices of capitalism or refugees surviving military oppression.

Much has been written on the influences behind Steinbeck’s group-man theories, especially as they appear in The Grapes of Wrath.1 Missing from this discourse on the phalanx argument, however, has been the influence of UCLA philosopher John Elof Boodin. Jackson Benson left a trail on Boodin for scholars to follow in his comment that Richard Albee brought to Steinbeck an “enthusiasm for the philosophy of one of his professors, John Elof Boodin, a philosophy [End Page 31] that would make a deep impression on Steinbeck and his work” (267). Except for a few references, however, Boodin has primarily been relegated to footnotes (see Astro 48–53, 66–67), although Steinbeck had certainly read Boodin. In a letter to Robert DeMott on July 27, 1979, Albee wrote,

I first loaned John … some reprints of Boodin papers, and most importantly “The Existence of Social Minds.” He also read my own class notes and heard me zealously expound my brand-new knowledge. He read Boodin’s Cosmic Evolution, and I rather think he never returned it to me. He also read, later on with Ed Ricketts, Boodin’s biggest tome, A Realistic Universe.

In another letter on October 19, Albee wrote that Steinbeck and Boodin shared correspondence and that Boodin called Steinbeck his “‘writer friend up north’ from whom he had just heard, who was so complimentary, and who was so ‘modest’ that he ‘asks my permission to use some of my philosophy in his writing.’” In Log from the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck quotes Boodin’s A Realistic Universe: “Boodin remarks the essential nobility of philosophy and how it has fallen into disrepute. ‘Somehow,’ he says, ‘the laws of thoughts must be the laws of things if we are going to attempt a science of reality’” (962).

Although postmodernism has brought with it an emphasis on larger social forces that shape authorship, it may appear reductive to conduct an influence study on a writer such as Steinbeck, who drew inspiration from a myriad of sources. Nevertheless, scholarly attention has neglected Boodin’s direct relevance to Steinbeck. When read through the lens of Boodin’s ideal philosophical system in The Social Mind, Steinbeck’s group-man theory, “The Argument of Phalanx,” forces us to reexamine Doc Burton’s influence on the Party in In Dubious Battle, on the “questing mind and developed leadership” of Jim Casy, and on his disciple Tom Joad (Working Days 20). It also requires a reexamination of the people’s resistance in The Moon Is Down, taking into account readings and discussions of Boodin’s philosophical system.

II. Boodin’s Philosophy of the Social Mind

Unlike Josiah Royce, Emerson, and others, Boodin is now relatively obscure in philosophical circles. The dominant paradigm in early twentieth-century philosophy was not the idealistic, mind-driven systems of Kant and Hegel but rather pragmatism...


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