- Searching for Eden: John Steinbeck’s Ethical Career by John Timmerman
Mercer University Press, 2014, 179 pages, Cloth, $29.00
Looking Inward at the Soul: Steinbeck’s Ethical Journey in Search of Eden
To the ethical critic, moral character is always in formation, never fixed. Every choice we make in life is both a reflection of the self we are and a creation of the self we are becoming. . . . As long as we retain command of our intellectual faculties we remain permanently and potentially open to ethical influences (54).—Marshall Gregory
Marshall Gregory provides a cogent argument in which he first defines what ethical criticism is and then shows why it matters. Literature, or story, he believes, functions “as an important midwife,” helping to “usher us into the world.” And ethical criticism serves to show how literature exerts this influence, how it elicits reader responses, and how both influence and response are shaped and enlarged by the experience of reading literature. Thus, ethical criticism reveals what Gregory terms “the Janus face of literary experience. While one countenance looks outward at society,” he explains,
the other countenance looks inward at our own souls. . . . Ethical criticism can help us understand how the two countenances eventually merge into the public and private entity we call an ethos. . . . All of us are trying to discover what we might have been, and in our efforts we use experience both from first-hand life and from second-hand fictions. These fictions are frequently so powerful, so beautiful, so jolting, so vivid, so intimate, so challenging, so repeated, and so long-lasting in their effects that they sometimes exert a gradually transformative effect: they enter into and partly form the habits of our heart and thus help us see not only who we are but what we might become.(60–61)
Susceptible to ethical influence, then, human beings are always in the process of becoming, but that process, Gregory insists, “is something we do, not something we are” (61, emphasis added). [End Page 217]
Entering this fairly recent field of ethical criticism, John Timmerman’s Searching for Eden: John Steinbeck’s Ethical Career for the first time traces Steinbeck’s ethical journey from 1930 to 1965, observing the writers “process of becoming” and his writerly ethos that develops over time.1 Honed by involvement in and close observation of major events of his time—the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement—Steinbeck moved away from an emphasis primarily on “Social Justice,” Timmerman observes, to include a sense of “Ideal Justice” that demanded “an ideal ethic” (3). In the 1930s, this focus on “Social Justice” was a sometimes bitter expose of “the needs of social outcasts and the lack of response to their need by what Steinbeck referred to in Cannery Row as the tyranny of’ civilization.’” In the 1940s (perhaps brought on at least in part by events surrounding World War II in 1939 to 1945), however, “Steinbeck’s own metaphysical appraisal of the world underwent upheaval. Ethical wrongs became evil, and humanity itself seemed starved for some crumb of beneficence.” Timmerman continues, “The Arthurian Danny and the Boys from Tortilla Flat dissolve into the broken Siege of Mack in Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s darkening vision through the 1940s alleviated only slowly with the decade’s passing” (2–3).
From around 1950 to the end of his life, however, Steinbeck embraced “an ideal ethics” that, as Bob DeMott observes, moved increasingly away “from a communal vision of life toward an engagement with universal human values rooted in traditional notions of creative choice, individual consciousness and inherited legacy” (qtd. in Timmerman 3). Timmerman differentiates between social ethics and “an ideal ethics”: The one are “constructed on naturalistic premises, are pragmatic, and are democratic,” whereas the other “arise from transcendent norms, deal with ideal values, and seek the best guides from past culture and mythology” (3). Steinbeck’s ethical stance, therefore, shifts from a journalistic expose of human suffering to a philosophical awareness of evil and the need for “a code of right action” to defeat it or at the...