Carter Johnson on John Steinbeck

Can you give readers a brief background about your scholarly interests and your studies in your current graduate program?

My name is Carter Johnson, and I am a Master’s in English student at Virginia Tech. My primary scholarly focus is the life and work of John Steinbeck. However, this interest is embedded in the larger arena of modernist literature and art. Additionally, I have worked with the psychology of Carl Jung and the mythological and archetypal theory of his disciple, Joseph Campbell. Currently, I am working on my master’s thesis, which will consider the environmental writing of three Californian modernists: John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Robinson Jeffers. I hope to pursue a Ph.D. in literature after completing my degree at Virginia Tech.

You mention that Modernism is your broad area of focus, but, more narrowly, you are interested in American Modernism and John Steinbeck. What aspects about Steinbeck interest or appeal to you more in comparison to other American Modernists?

As many high schoolers do, I fell in love with the dazzling work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the magnetic personality of Ernest Hemingway. My early encounters with The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s short stories became my entrance into the world of modernist literature. When I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, I was significantly moved by the emotion of the novella’s final pages. However, I could not articulate the philosophic and artistic tensions that created this effect. However, as T.S. Eliot observed of Dante, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”  My understanding of Steinbeck’s artistry grew as I encountered his longer fiction. After reading The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, I became enamored with Steinbeck’s presentation of the human condition. His writing is earnestly compassionate, undoubtedly funny, and capable of asking difficult metaphysical questions within clear depictions of life.

There exists a tremendous tendency to approach Steinbeck’s work as primarily political. His depictions of migrants can easily be used as heraldry for systemic change. Critics approach the popular elements of his work as averse to complex literary achievement. Yet, to reduce Steinbeck’s work to political and social critique is to miss his mastery. In reference to In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck commented that “I have used a small strike in an orchard valley as the symbol of man’s eternal, bitter warfare with himself…I’m not interested in ranting about justice and oppression, mere outcroppings which indicate the condition.” While it would be shallow to assert that Steinbeck was opposed to political activity, it would be equally shortsighted to reduce his artist muse to mere partisan propaganda. Steinbeck often focused on mythological themes, participating in the larger resuscitation of mythology in the twentieth century. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, he located these mythological struggles of humanity among relatable people, not in cubistic and egotistical abstractions. Steinbeck’s primary interest in culture was not political, but human. Steinbeck’s artistic goals were aimed at unveiling some truth that was yet observed. He was interested in depicting human universals in highly unique characters. Steinbeck’s desire to write was inextricable from his desire to explore the human condition.

If you could suggest a book for a Steinbeck novice to begin with, would you suggest one of Steinbeck’s more well-known novels (like The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden), or a less-studied work? Does your pick coincide with your favorite Steinbeck novel?

Variety is one of the many wonderful aspects of Steinbeck’s corpus. I recommend for a first-time-reader to pick up a book that corresponds to their interest or reading purpose. If you are reading to increase your literary and cultural fluency, I would recommend one of his popular and early novels: The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men. These are the masterpieces that helped propel Steinbeck’s career during the early twentieth century. They are often considered his best work and will likely have the most mileage at cocktail parties. If you are interested in environmentalism, biology, and/or sociology, I would recommend The Log from the Sea of Cortez or To a God Unknown. The Log is Steinbeck’s journal from a biology research expedition in the Gulf of California; it is a splendid combination of journalistic descriptions and philosophic wanderings accompanied by entertaining passages of cultural and social observations. To a God Unknown, first published in 1933, explores humanity’s spiritual relationship with the past and the environment. If you enjoy mythology and storytelling, it’s hard to beat East of Eden. This multi-generational story is a retelling of the Cain and Abel narrative from the book of Genesis. Additionally, Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold, along with his unfinished translation of Mallory’s King Arthur also engage mythic motifs. Finally, if you are looking for wit, humor, and insightful commentary on life in community, I recommend Cannery Row, The Pastures of Heaven, or Travels with Charley. I won’t detail these works here; however, in each of these unique books, you will gain a wonderful perspective into Steinbeck’s playful personality.

While concise prose typifies Hemingway and confusion defines Joyce’s work, how would you characterize Steinbeck amongst other Modernist writers? Do you find there to be any overlaps in themes or style, or are you compelled to separate Steinbeck from other Modernists?

Unlike the High Modernists, Steinbeck did not adorn his writing with the surface complexity that we observe in Joyce or Faulkner. Additionally, while aspects of his prose resemble Hemingway’s bare-bone tonality (see The Pearl), he does not embrace the tradition-defying simplicity of “Papa’s” fiction. Steinbeck could just as easily slip into complex sentences and poetic phrasing that maintain resemblances to nineteenth-century novelists. In regards to poetic language, he lands nearer to Fitzgerald than Hemingway. In many ways, Steinbeck resisted the urge to defy tradition, a tendency central to modernists from Ezra Pound to Gertrude Stein to Picasso. Steinbeck was acutely aware of the unfashionable nature of his prose among critics. In 1930, Steinbeck worked on an “experimental” manuscript entitled “Dissonant Symphony.” Amidst his frustration with its form, he wrote: “I know the modern escape is ‘To be wrong is nothing. To be unconvincing is the one crime.’ I cannot bring myself to this opinion. Somewhere in the creative mind there is a passionate desire for truth which has…nothing to do with religion or ethics.” Steinbeck firmly resisted the desire to create speculative work that moved beyond the observable. Rather, he attempted to display the unknowable depths of the human experience in the observable shallows of daily life. This pursuit led to significant criticism among critics, an unfortunate trend that continues today. Steinbeck expressed his chagrin explicitly when he speculated the reception of East of Eden: “I believe that Moby Dick, so much admired now, did not sell its first small first edition in ten years. And it will be worse than that with this book. It will be considered old-fashioned and old hat. And to a large extent it is – you have to look closely to see its innovations even though there are many.”

In many ways, Steinbeck’s prediction was partially realized. Critics have been quick to pigeon-hole Steinbeck as a “popular” writer because of his seeming lack of innovation. Yet, behind his clear prose and storytelling, there exists a deep connection with myth and humanity. I hope to forward the budding resurgence of Steinbeck’s work within academia and our culture.



Photograph: Sonya Noskowiak, John Steinbeck, 1930. No changes.

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