Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Irving Howe

Books in Review

Steinbeck Goes to Norway

(June 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 5, June 1942, p. 160.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Moon Is Down
by John Steinbeck
Viking Press, New York. $2.00

Cheapness and bad taste are repulsive regardless of their literary application. But when they are characteristic of a book which deals with a theme so close to the sensitivities and passions of contemporary life – the struggle in underground Europe against the Nazi conquerors – there is no language too harsh with which to criticize the writer.

Nobody expects anything better from Hollywood. When “Joan of Paris” or “Mr. X” or John Garfield defeat the Gestapo single-handed, there is at least that opiatic compensation which is the major reason for the great popularity of the motion pictures. But when Steinbeck writes a novel about the underground in exactly the same preciously stylized grotesquerie as when writing of Georgie and the rabbits, anyone with a modicum of literary taste and a flicker of sensitivity must be instantly repelled.

There is perhaps no better way to describe this novel than by comparing it with a certain type of motion picture in which the hero – say, some aggressively masculine type like Tyrone Power – beats up seven or eight villains in a violent rough-and-tumble – and then proceeds to kiss the heroine with his profile about three inches from the camera, his hair immaculately spiffed, not a scratch on his Lux Toilet Soap skin and not a tear in his English worsted suit.

This novel has a theatrical cheapness that is positively appalling. Imagine, if you will, a small town Norwegian mayor (we are not sure that it is Norway; Steinbeck is incapable of making anything concrete or real) who goes to his death at the hands of the Nazis ... reciting Socrates’ final speech!

(What an effective third act curtain!)

Steinbeck is unable to etch one real, living character. They are all abstractions, types, puppets: the slow, but heroic mayor who is the “personification of freedom”; the small town philosopher of whose wisdom we are, fortunately, not given any samples; the cracked-up Nazi lieutenants (has anyone ever written a war book in which the lieutenants didn’t crack up?); the fanatical Norwegian woman whose husband has been shot by the Nazis ...

When three of these presumably Norwegian youths make their way secretly to England, they are given an anti-appeasement speech by the mayor which might have been written by Mike Gold in one of his sober moments!

There is no hint in this book of the motivations which might impel resistance to the Nazi conquerors. What does this “freedom” mean to these Norwegian people? Why is the local grocer a Quisling?

It is all enacted in the realm of airy abstractions and wordy pomposities – about as lifelike and individual as a Stalinist manifesto calling for a second front in Europe. Edmund Wilson some time ago pointed out that Steinbeck has a fatal inability to create real characters, that all his figures are vegetarian abstractions. But when this crucial literary inability is topped off by a theatrical vulgarity ...

Somewhere or other Steinbeck has read that a “good style” consists of writing “lean, nervous sentences.” He therefore writes “lean, nervous sentences,” with the result that his style is as preciously self-conscious as that of a high school sophomore trying to imitate Hemingway.

Well, it is all a colossal literary fraud which will be (and already has been) hailed by every critic and woman’s club in the country and will probably make a small fortune for Steinbeck, which is probably as good a reason as any for writing this book.

Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 29 December 2014