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Socialist Review, May 1994

Clare Fermont


Voice of the depression


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


John Steinbeck, a biography
Jay Parini
Heinemann £20.00

‘The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.’

What kind of man could write passages like this and then court US presidents and support America’s war in Vietnam?

John Steinbeck was born in 1902 to moderately prosperous parents. Their hopes for him were dashed when he repeatedly failed at university. He wanted to be a writer, so in 1922 he hit the road to pursue his vocation and earn his keep.

He found himself among the swelling army of unemployed, a ‘muddy river of “hobos” washing from ranch to ranch, from town to town, in search of wages’. In the evenings, after the grinding, blistering work, he would sit listening to their tales, always asking questions and probing for information.

Their stories formed the basis of Steinbeck’s famous Depression fiction: Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Long Valley (1938) and, finest of them all, what he called his ‘big book’ – The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – the story of the uprooted families of Oklahoma as they made their way to the festering refugee camps of the ‘Garden of Eden’, California.

These are wonderful books about ordinary people – their aspirations and disappointments, their selfishness and altruism, their disasters and triumphs. Steinbeck leaves none of his readers in any doubt about what the American dream meant for the masses in the 1930s.

‘Political’ fiction was booming. There was great demand – from the left and in literary circles – for ‘author-fighters’ and ‘worker-correspondents’. Writers like Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser and Richard Wright were all immensely popular. So was the John Reed Club, with its slogan: ‘Art Is a Class Weapon’.

Steinbeck rode on this wave, although he was hostile to Communism. He saw his books as a record of and protest against the injustices he saw – and as a warning to the establishment of the revolutionary violence that would erupt if they did not act.

The background to In Dubious Battle, for instance, is a bitter battle of migrant apple pickers for better pay. The novel was based on a strike by lettuce workers in 1936 near Steinbeck’s home in Salinas, California. That strike was defeated in an orgy of violence by the authorities.

Steinbeck’s sympathies are clearly with the workers, and his novel is a powerful testimony to the way people blossom during collective struggle. Yet Mac, the Communist organiser who stirs the workers into action, is presented as a heartless manipulator. In a key scene he delivers a baby in order to win the trust of one of the migrants’ leaders. He tells his protégé, ‘We’ve got to use whatever material comes to us. That was a lucky break. We simply had to take it. Course it was nice to help the girl, but hell, even if it killed her – we’ve got to use anything ...’

In Dubious Battle was slammed by the right and by the (Stalinist) left. But by this time Steinbeck was already an enormously popular writer. Each new book was bought and read by hundreds of thousands (for example, the first edition of The Wayward Bus, a rather odd allegorical tale published in 1947, sold 750,000 copies). Hollywood and Broadway clamoured for adaptations and scripts. And the money poured in.

Fame and fortune distanced Steinbeck from the people who had filled his early books. He lived in luxury and travelled in style. He wined and dined with the famous, and enjoyed the Hollywood glitter.

It filled him with dismay when the papers and the establishment labelled him a Red. He supported Roosevelt and the New Deal. He sought and won audiences with successive US presidents and was close friends with the liberal economist J.K. Galbraith. He did nothing to stop MacCarthy’s witch hunts and even opposed the release of Ezra Pound from imprisonment in a psychiatric hospital. He ended up best mates with President Lyndon Johnson, and a supporter of the war in Vietnam.

Much of his later fiction was mythological and obscure. Only East of Eden (1952) came anywhere near the standard set by The Grapes of Wrath.

The biography’s 600 hero worshipping pages are utterly readable despite being littered with unnecessary detail. The detail does, however, reveal the enormous volume of journalism that Steinbeck produced. His war correspondence during the Second World War is fascinating, as is his collaboration with the photographer Robert Capa and his research into the Mexican revolution while writing the film script of Viva Zapata!

Jay Parini attacks Steinbeck’s critics – and even blames them for the gradual removal of his works from the American education system. He misses the point. Steinbeck’s Depression novels capture the spirit of a period of immense upheaval and radicalism. They are angry books about a system that ought to be destroyed. That is why the American establishment would like them to disappear and why everyone else ought to read them.

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