John Steinbeck’s Fiction Revisited by Warren French, and After the Grapes of Wrath: Essays on John Steinbeck in Honor of Tetsumaro Hayashi ed. by Donald V. Coers, Paul D. Ruffin, and Robert J. DeMott, and John Steinbeck: A Biography by Jay Parini, and Parallel Expeditions: Charles Darwin and the Art of John Steinbeck by Brian E. Railsback (review)
- Western American Literature
- The Western Literature Association
- Volume 32, Number 2, Summer 1997
- pp. 161-171
- Additional Information
Essay Reviews 161 John Steinbeck’s Fiction Revisited. By Warren French. (New York: Twayne, 1994. 164 pages, $21.95.) After the Grapes ofWrath: Essays on John Steinbeck in Honor ofTetsumaro Hayashi. Edited by Donald V. Coers, Paul D. Ruffin, and Robert J. DeMott. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995. 303 pages, $29.95.) John Steinbeck: A Biography. By Jay Parini. (New York: Henry Holt, 1995. 536 pages, $30.00.) Parallel Expeditions: Charles Darwin and the Art of John Steinbeck. By Brian E. Railsback. (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1995. 156 pages, $24.95.) It’s been almost thirty years since John Steinbeck’s death, yet evalua tions of his career are today as varied as they were during his lifetime. Four major books published in the last three years might have addressed the rele vance of Steinbeck for twenty-first century readers, but in their failure to do so the authors have revealed more about themselves than their subject, more about Steinbeck’s battle with the critics than his struggle with the muse. The common themes of these recent books tend to echo a 1993 volume, The Steinbeck Question. For that book, editor Donald Noble selected essays which would analyze why John Steinbeck had never been fully accepted by the critics, the reason that after The Grapes of Wrath none of Steinbeck’s subsequent works gained comparable critical acclaim, or whether it was true that Ricketts’s death in 1948 was the cause of “Steinbeck’s decline as a writer”? Whatever the wording, such questions increasingly dominate Steinbeck studies by both academic and popular critics. Of these four more recent books, the Twayne volume by Warren French is the most surprising. As the first president of the John Steinbeck Society in the late ’60s, French—with Tetsumaro Hayashi, Robert DeMott, and a few others—provided a focus and an outlet for growing interest in Steinbeck scholarship. Through innovative conferences and a new journal, the Steinbeck Quarterly, the Society grew into an international organiza tion. French had written a Twayne volume, John Steinbeck, in 1961. Now thirty-three years later, French “revisits” Steinbeck’s career in another Twayne volume, but it’s not one that might have been anticipated, one which would suggest a full retrospective a few years before a new century. French has chosen to limit his study to fiction, a departure from his 1961 approach, despite the recent popularity of Steinbeck’s non-fiction. 162 Western American Literature The work is heavily reliant on the 1961 study and on Jackson Benson’s The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (1984). In “The Making and Unmaking of a Novelist,” the first chapter, French turns his attention to the negative critical evaluations of Steinbeck, such as Harold Bloom question ing why it was that “nothing after The Grapes ofWrath bears rereading [nor has] . . . anything after Cannery Row added to his reputation.” French’s first two chapters each present thematic analyses. Unfortunately, in the second chapter, “John Steinbeck and Modernism,” he appears to equate Modernism with nineteenth-century literary Naturalism, and he passes over Cannery Row “as an escapist novel that Steinbeck tried to cancel with an ill-advised sequel.” Chapter three, titled “Two False Starts,” begins with what seems to be annotations of all the major novels and short stories, starting with Cup of Gold, but the editing is weak and French is primarily interested in showing Steinbeck’s numerous false starts in his writing career. He says, the “work was confused rather than clarified by his greater attraction to Ed Ricketts’s eccentric philosophizing. . . .” Fiction Revisited is “revisionist criticism,” and it’s not so much that French wants to dislodge other critics’ narrowness or mistaken interpreta tions as that he wants to recant some of his own. In his original study of Tortilla Flat, he says he tried to find “excuses” for the novel’s weaknesses, and he now believes he “should have said that this was an indication that there was less to the novel than meets the eye. . . .” French questions the crit ical judgments that led to praise of several Steinbeck stories in The Long Valley, he says that many of the pieces are dated, and he generally...