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A Political Companion to John Steinbeck

A Political Companion to John Steinbeck

Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh
Simon Stow
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    A Political Companion to John Steinbeck
    Book Description:

    Though he was a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature, American novelist John Steinbeck (1902--1968) has frequently been censored. Even in the twenty-first century, nearly ninety years after his work first appeared in print, Steinbeck's novels, stories, and plays still generate controversy: his 1937 book Of Mice and Men was banned in some Mississippi schools in 2002, and as recently as 2009, he made the American Library Association's annual list of most frequently challenged authors.

    A Political Companion to John Steinbeck examines the most contentious political aspects of the author's body of work, from his early exploration of social justice and political authority during the Great Depression to his later positions regarding domestic and international threats to American policies. Featuring contemporaneous and present-day interpretations of his novels and essays by historians, literary scholars, and political theorists, this book covers the spectrum of Steinbeck's writing, exploring everything from his place in American political culture to his seeming betrayal of his leftist principles in later years.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4204-3
    Subjects: Political Science, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Series Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)

    THOSE WHO UNDERTAKE a study of American political thought must attend to the great theorists, philosophers, and essayists. Such a study is incomplete, however, if it neglects American literature, one of the greatest repositories of the nation’s political thought and teachings.

    America’s literature is distinctive because it is, above all, intended for a democratic citizenry. In contrast to eras when an author would aim to inform or influence a select aristocratic audience, in democratic times public influence and education must resonate with a more expansive, less leisured, and diverse audience to be effective. The great works of America’s literary tradition...

  4. PROLOGUE: John Steinbeck in the 1930s: Living Under the Gun
    (pp. 1-7)
    Rick Wartzman

    IN ONE OF HIS MORE obscure works,The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights,John Steinbeck asserts that in any fight “the final weapon is the brain. All else is supplemental.” Perhaps. This analysis, however, didn’t stop Steinbeck from packing a pistol in the late 1930s, just in case he needed a little protection beyond what resided between his ears.¹

    It isn’t entirely clear what kind of firearm he had. But records suggest that he owned a Colt automatic, maybe two. In any case, beyond doubt is that Steinbeck felt his life was in danger—as stark a...

  5. INTRODUCTION: The Dangerous Ambivalence of John Steinbeck
    (pp. 8-16)
    Simon Stow

    AT A TIME WHEN the United States is enduring a severe economic crisis caused by the unregulated lending practices of major financial institutions, decades of antilabor policies, and rampant globalization; when that crisis has driven families from their homes; and when the gap between the rich and poor in America is, by some measures, larger than at any point in its history, a volume on the political work of John Steinbeck could not, perhaps, be more apropos. Steinbeck will be forever known as the author ofThe Grapes of Wrath,the 1939 novel in which he chronicled in fiction what...


    • CHAPTER 1 Revolutionary Conservative, Conservative Revolutionary? John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath
      (pp. 19-48)
      Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh

      IN 1939 JOHN STEINBECK finishedThe Grapes of Wrath,his sixth novel.¹ It is, among other things, a political saga about the Joads, an imaginary family of heavily indebted tenant farmers who are suddenly evicted from the land that their forebears had seized from Indians and Mexicans and then proudly cultivated.² Rather than remain in Oklahoma and become servile machine tenders, the family decides to purchase a used jalopy and head for California. The male members of the family envision the West as a pristine Eden, with abundant and fertile land and without heartless bankers who bedevil small farmers. The...

    • CHAPTER 2 Star Signals: John Steinbeck in the American Protest Literature Tradition
      (pp. 49-76)
      Zoe Trodd

      “A WRITER . . . IS TRYING to communicate like a distant star sending signals,” observed John Steinbeck in 1955—“to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel—‘Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’”¹ Although he did not anticipate a widespread and explosive response toThe Grapes of Wrath(1939), he did hope to achieve more with its publication than a place in America’s literary canon. After researching squatter camps in August 1936, he published a series of seven newspaper...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Novelist as Playwright: Adaptation, Politics, and the Plays of John Steinbeck
      (pp. 77-97)
      Donna Kornhaber

      THE AUTHOR OF SOME twenty-seven novels and works of nonfiction, John Steinbeck was unmistakably committed to prose. Yet according to Brooks Atkinson, theater critic for theNew York Times,he could have easily been one of America’s greatest playwrights, crafting works designed for performance and not simply for private reading. Steinbeck’s “first play,” Atkinson writes, “is the quintessence of commercial theatre and it is also a masterpiece.”¹ The occasion for Atkinson’s praise was the 1937 Broadway premier ofOf Mice and Men,the first of three plays Steinbeck would pen over his lifetime. The second would be an adaptation of...

    • CHAPTER 4 Steinbeck and the Tragedy of Progress
      (pp. 98-116)
      Adrienne Akins Warfield

      JOHN STEINBECK LEARNED in late 1962 that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Fearing that the award would prove to be an “epitaph” for his writing career, he hesitated to embrace the accolades of the literary establishment. Shortly afterward, critics who believed his writings were unworthy of the award spoke up. Steinbeck complained to his friend Bo Beskow, a Swedish artist, “I suppose you know of the attack on the award to me not only byTimemagazine with which I have had a long-lasting feud but also from the cutglass critics, that grey priesthood which defines literature...


    • CHAPTER 5 Group Man and the Limits of Working-Class Politics: The Political Vision of Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle
      (pp. 119-145)
      Charles Williams

      JOHN STEINBECK’SIN DUBIOUS BATTLEwas initially praised for its political objectivity and realism. Most reviewers judged Steinbeck as broadly sympathetic toward the striking apple pickers and Communist organizers portrayed in the novel yet deemedIn Dubious Battledevoid of bald propaganda. As William Rose Benét wrote in theSaturday Review,“The author’s attempt has been to bring out heroic motive and action in those whom the newspapers denounce as ‘Reds,’ and at the same time to state events as they would naturally happen as logically and fairly as possible.” “Here are no puppets of propaganda,” he concluded, “here are...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Indifference of Nature and the Cruelty of Wealth
      (pp. 146-170)
      Michael T. Gibbons

      THERE ARE FEW NOVELISTS in the history of American literature whose work has been the subject of as much disagreement as John Steinbeck’s. For some critics, his work embodies a tradition of American thought that is indebted to Emerson, Whitman, and Dewey, and extends what is unique to that tradition (see chapter 2, by Zoe Trodd).¹ It is precisely the kind of literature that Emerson insisted Americans must develop for themselves. For others, Steinbeck’s work reached its full aesthetic potential withThe Grapes of Wrath,the book for which he won a Nobel Prize.² But the work followingThe Grapes...

    • CHAPTER 7 “The Technique of Building Worlds”: Exodian Nation Formation in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
      (pp. 171-188)
      Roxanne Harde

      PUBLISHED IN 1939,The Grapes of Wrathis a creative cultural product with its roots in Steinbeck’s journalistic training, his radical worldview, and the Bible. On the one hand, the novel makes explicit the veracity of its textual representation of migrant workers during the Depression. On the other hand, like John Winthrop and William Bradford before him, Steinbeck draws on biblical typology to add resonance to a text based on historical events and to clarify the processes that change loosely knit groups of oppressed and marginalized peoples into a new nation with its own political codes. In this way Steinbeck...


    • CHAPTER 8 Focusing on the Migrant: The Contextualization of Dorothea Lange’s Photographs of the John Steinbeck Committee
      (pp. 191-226)
      James R. Swensen

      FOR MORE THAN HALF a century, John Steinbeck’s 1930s writings—The Grapes of Wrathin particular—and the photography created under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) have been synonymous with the Great Depression.¹ Americans use these works of art, rightfully or not, as lenses through which to view the conditions and the challenges of America in the latter half of the 1930s.² More recently, in the wake of the devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the economic meltdown known as the Great Recession, Americans have used Steinbeck’s writings, coupled with the images of the FSA,...

    • CHAPTER 9 Participatory Parables: Cinema, Social Action, and Steinbeck’s Mexican Dilemma
      (pp. 227-246)
      Marijane Osborn

      AT THE END OF 1939 Steinbeck found himself exhausted by his work over the spring and summer on the medical documentaryThe Fight for Life(about care in maternity hospitals), by the publicity surrounding the publication ofThe Grapes of Wrathin April of that year, and by the mixed public reactions to the book, some of which—in circles of privilege and power—were quite violent.¹ On October 16 he wrote, “I have to go to new sources and find new roots.”² Then on November 13 he wrote, with a somewhat panicky humor, “There are things in the tide...

    • CHAPTER 10 “Not Afraid of Being Heroic”: Bruce Springsteen’s John Steinbeck
      (pp. 247-267)
      Lauren Onkey

      IT IS NOT HARD TO FIND connections between John Steinbeck and Bruce Springsteen. Most obviously, Springsteen recorded an album titledThe Ghost of Tom Joadin 1995, and during the subsequent tour he received the first John Steinbeck In the Souls of the People Award from the Center for Steinbeck Studies. TheNew York Timesdubbed him “Steinbeck in Leather” in 1997. But more importantly, both artists sought to effect social change with their work, although they shied away from radical or revolutionary political organizations. Both were also embraced by a large audience, a fact that was sometimes used to...

    • CHAPTER 11 Retelling an American Political Tale: A Comparison of Literary, Cinematic, and Musical Versions of The Grapes of Wrath
      (pp. 268-290)
      Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh

      AT THE TWENTY-FIFTH anniversary concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at Madison Square Garden in 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with guest performer Tom Morello (the lead guitarist of the recently disbanded rock group Rage Against the Machine) performed a loud, electrified version of Springsteen’s song “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Films of the performance record fans cheering wildly. To make sure that the listeners understood the importance of the song’s message, Springsteen prefaced the performance with comments about being part of a long American musical tradition—stretching back to early folk, blues, and...


    • CHAPTER 12 Patriotic Ironies: John Steinbeck’s Wartime Service to His Country
      (pp. 293-310)
      Mimi R. Gladstein and James H. Meredith

      IRONIES ABOUND IN THE story of Steinbeck’s service to his country during World War II. Although his biographers generally acknowledge that Steinbeck was not, beyond his novels and journalism, particularly politically active until the war, others’ perceptions of his political leanings created considerable barriers for his attempts to serve his country. While many of his countrymen and peers sought deferments, cushy assignments, or other ways to escape military service, Steinbeck paradoxically had to fight his government in order to serve his nation.

      During the 1930s Steinbeck published a number of novels that sympathetically portrayed laborers, particularly migrant workers, while simultaneously...

    • CHAPTER 13 John Steinbeck’s Shifting View of America: From Travels with Charley to America and Americans
      (pp. 311-324)
      Robert S. Hughes

      WHEN PETER LISCA INThe Wide World of John SteinbeckincludesTravels with Charley(1962) andAmerica and Americans(1966) among the “serious defeats” of Steinbeck’s later career, he reiterates a position that others have long held.¹ Whether or not one accepts this notion of a decline in Steinbeck’s powers, these two neglected works provide a compendium of his life, thought, and art found nowhere else in his canon. They treat a most unwieldy subject—the entire American nation and its people—with contrasting approaches. Perhaps most interesting, though, is the shift these volumes reveal in Steinbeck’s view of his...

    • CHAPTER 14 “Can You Honestly Love a Dishonest Thing?” The Tragic Patriotism of The Winter of Our Discontent
      (pp. 325-348)
      Simon Stow

      JOHN STEINBECK’S FINAL NOVEL,The Winter of Our Discontent,is a literary enigma. While the Nobel Prize Committee cited it as evidence of his continued importance as a writer, many of Steinbeck’s contemporary critics dismissed it as a minor work from a journeyman author whose best days were behind him.¹ More recently a number of commentators have sought to rehabilitate the book and, with it, the later-Steinbeck’s literary reputation.² In what follows I will bracket this debate, except insofar as it touches on the political argument of the essay, and concentrate instead on how the novel works to offer a...

  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 349-352)
    Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh and Simon Stow
  11. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 353-356)
  12. List of Contributors
    (pp. 357-360)
  13. Index
    (pp. 361-373)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 374-374)