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  • A Political Companion to John Steinbeck ed. by Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh and Simon Stow
  • Molly Schiever (bio)
A Political Companion to John Steinbeck edited by Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh and Simon Stow Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014. 384 pp. Paper $28.00.

Published as part of the Political Companions to Great American Authors series, A Political Companion to John Steinbeck examines Steinbeck’s political beliefs and the reflection of these convictions in his writings. Unlike other Political Companions in the series, notes editor Simon Stow, this collection of fourteen essays also considers Steinbeck’s activism and his influence both during his lifetime and after. As Stow maintains, “Steinbeck was a staunch critic of capitalism but despised its state-centered alternatives; he championed community but feared the mob; he embraced his nation’s wars but mourned their cost; he celebrated American ingenuity but criticized the society it created; he advocated for humanitarian intervention but recognized its costs to indigenous peoples; he sought solace and insights in nature but lamented the cruelties it inflicted on humanity” (9).

In organizing the essays, Stow and his fellow editor, Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh, have divided their volume into four parts: Steinbeck as social critic, the cultural roots of his political vision, his place in American political culture, and, finally, the question of whether or not he was an ambivalent American.

Part I charges right into the fray with a provocative question about Steinbeck’s most famous work. “Revolutionary conservative or conservative revolutionary?” Zirakzadeh asks, arguing that the author of The Grapes of Wrath, while “relentlessly attacking the ideological defenses of laissez-faire industrialization and growing concentration of capital, reaffirms a nostalgic view of preindustrial America and contributes to negative stereotypes of industrial wage earners” (19). The book’s call for wholesale economic change, Zirakzadeh argues, rests on socially conservative grounds.

Part I’s second and third entries view Steinbeck as an integral part of the American protest literary tradition and consider the novelist Steinbeck as playwright. Zoe Trodd’s “Star Signals: John Steinbeck in the American Protest Literature Tradition” finds in The Grapes of Wrath three major elements of American protest literature’s politics of form: shock value, empathy, and symbolic action. Donna Kornhaber’s “The Novelist as Playwright: Adaptation, Politics, and the Plays of John Steinbeck” considers Steinbeck’s novella-play Of Mice and Men and his theatrical adaptations in The Moon Is Down and Burning [End Page 92] Bright. His theatrical efforts, she states, “constitute an attempt to harness the political power of the stage: to add an active political dimension to some of his most politically minded works” (78).

In the final essay in Part I, “Steinbeck and the Tragedy of Progress,” Adrienne Akins Warfield discusses The Pearl, in which Steinbeck considers the negative effects of modernization and knowledge divorced from human relationships and ethical concerns. She then contrasts the pearl diver’s story with that of The Forgotten Village, in which education is portrayed as a beneficent force.

Part II examines Steinbeck’s cultural roots and his expression of social criticism by means of traditional American myths and nature’s conflicts and complexities. In “Group Man and the Limits of Working-Class Politics,” Charles Williams discusses In Dubious Battle and delves into Steinbeck’s phalanx theory. Williams states that “rather than seeing his account of group man as removed from and in conflict with the political commitments revealed in In Dubious Battle, we ought to recognize that Steinbeck’s anxieties over the dangers of group man shaped his sympathies for workers and the downtrodden and that this orientation persists in his later writing” (121).

In “The Indifference of Nature and the Cruelty of Wealth,” Michael T. Gibbons focuses closely on The Grapes of Wrath, arguing that Steinbeck “saw the progressive refashioning of human life as rooted in a complex relation among individuals, nature, and the prevailing social and economic institutions” (147). Gibbons states that Steinbeck saw nature as “a set of forces that is largely indifferent to and often obstructs the possibilities of human and social life.”

Part II closes with “‘The Technique of Building Worlds’: Exodian Nation Formation in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath,” in which Roxanne...