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The South Atlantic Quarterly 103.1 (2004) 111-131
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Steinbeck and the Great Depression
My encounters with John Steinbeck's work began, like most people's, when I was quite young, with accessible short novels such as The Pearl, The Red Pony, and Cannery Row. There was something elemental about them, a rich, sensuous simplicity that also leads many readers to leave Steinbeck behind as an enthusiasm to be outgrown. Luckily, I was never assigned one of his novels to read in high school or college; his more ambitious books were not ruined for me by bad teaching or premature exposure. But for me Steinbeck remained little more than a strong regional writer who had created an indelible impression of a small corner of California, especially the Salinas Valley where he was born and the Monterey peninsula, with its canneries and colorful paisanos, which had enchanted me as a young reader. But it was only when I grew fascinated with the effects of the Great Depression on American culture that another side of Steinbeck's work took hold of me: the books of reportage and protest that earned him an indispensable place in the social conscience of the Depression. Along with the work of the photographers of the Farm Security Administration, such as Dorothea Lange and Walker [End Page 111] Evans, and documentary filmmakers like Pare Lorentz, who inspired him and helped him see, Steinbeck became one of the key witnesses to those years of social trauma and suffering. With the exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, and perhaps Richard Wright in Native Son, no protest writer had a greater influence on how Americans looked at their own country. The plight and migration of the Joads—as conceived by Steinbeck and filmed indelibly by John Ford—the Dust Bowl, the loss of a family home, the trek in search of work, the awful conditions for migrant farm labor, the struggle to keep the family together, became a metaphor for the Depression as a whole. This portrayal aroused sympathy and indignation that transcended literature and became part of our social history, as if Steinbeck had been reporting on a real family, which in a sense he was.
Unfortunately, his success as a protest writer undermined his literary standing, especially after the war, when such commitment came to be seen as limiting and simplistic. The Nobel Prize for Literature usually elicits a brief burst of national pride, but when Steinbeck received the award in 1962, the New York Times Book Review published a vigorous dissent by Arthur Mizener under the heading, "Does a Moral Vision of the Thirties Deserve a Nobel Prize?"—one of several attacks which, along with the prize itself, made it more difficult for him write another work of fiction before he died in 1968. From the early critiques by Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, and Alfred Kazin, Steinbeck had never been a favorite of the intellectuals or even of his fellow writers. It is no surprise that the Times attack was written by F.�Scott Fitzgerald's first biographer, since Fitzgerald himself, though unfailingly generous toward most writers, was annoyed by Steinbeck's success, dismissing him in his letters as little more than a plagiarist who borrowed freely from his betters, including Frank Norris and D.�H. Lawrence. Fitzgerald had his reasons: Steinbeck was the kind of socially committed writer who had displaced him in the 1930s and made his own work seem like a back number. Fitzgerald's uncharacteristic rage at Steinbeck was a lament for his own waning career.
Fitzgerald, in some personal despair, could hardly know that this current would one day flow in the opposite direction: the modernists, the more personal or more experimental writers of the thirties, whose work was then neglected in favor of social realism, would ultimately win out. The novels of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Nathanael West, and Henry Roth would be canonized as American classics, while Steinbeck and Richard Wright would be [End Page 112] the only social novelists of the thirties whose work...