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Remembering Steinbeck

John Steinbeck died on this day in 1968 at the age of 66, six years after he won the Nobel Prize, which even he himself didn’t expect.

Critical scorn

When asked by a reporter whether he believed he deserved the prize, he responded, "Frankly, no,” says Robert Gottlieb. In a New York Review of Books article published in April this year, he writes about Steinbeck:

When to everyone's surprise, including his own, he won the 1962 Nobel Prize, the reaction was startlingly hostile. "Without detracting in the least from Mr. Steinbeck's accomplishments," ran a New York Times editorial, "we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer …whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age."

Of Mice and Men

But Steinbeck still sells “well over a million copies a year,” says Gottlieb, “with Of Mice and Men accounting for more than half of them. (It's short, it's easy to follow, and it's full of feeling—a perfect assignment for junior high school readers.)”

Note the words Gottlieb puts in brackets. He sounds so dismissive. But he finally has to praise the book.

It begins, as so many Steinbeck novels do, with a loving evocation of its natural setting:

“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green…. On the valley side the water is lined with trees—willows fresh and green with every spring.”

And he loves his central characters, too, the pair of itinerant ranch hands—"bindlestiffs"—named George and Lennie. George is the smart one, the leader; Lennie is the massive semi-idiot, worshiping George, dreaming of the little bit of land they might one day own, and—his most powerful fantasy—the rabbits he might one day be able to tend and caress.

We know that this isn't going to happen, and on some level George knows it too, but he needs to believe in it as strongly as Lennie does: it's the illusion they live by. And then, catastrophe. Yes, the pathos is laid on thick; yes, everything is foreshadowed and manipulated. (Edmund Wilson called it "contrived with almost too much cleverness.") But Steinbeck's sympathy for these decent, forlorn men is so intense that it carries us along with it. Uninfected by moralizing, ingeniously if stagily constructed, and credibly populated, Of Mice and Men—far from Steinbeck's most ambitious book—is the closest he came to a fully satisfying work of art.

The snapshot here from Google Book Search shows George and Lennie’s first appearance in the book, just after Steinbeck has described the banks of the Salinas River.

Of_mice_and_men

I was moved to tears when I read the book a long time ago. Imagine Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid without the wisecracks and the horseplay. Of Mice and Men describes a relationship similar to that except that one man is totally dependent on the other.

Writer for hard times

In my younger days in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Steinbeck was popular with our parents’ generation. The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, they were all popular books. While The Grapes of Wrath was considered a classic – Calcutta has always been a leftist city – East of Eden was apparently a very popular movie, too, though I have not seen it myself.

Steinbeck is relevant again today because of the economic downturn, says the Millions blog:

With Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Steinbeck embodied the Great Depression in fiction. It would be a small silver lining if this moment produced an epic on the order of Steinbeck…The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.

Steinbeck may suit people who like folk music – songs like This Land is Your Land, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Prison Trilogy…

Maybe I am over-romanticising Steinbeck. I haven’t him read him for a long time.

But I was moved by Of Mice and Men.

And a man has to have his heart in the right place to say, as Steinbeck did:

"Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love."

"All war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal."

"I wonder how many people I've looked at all my life and never seen."

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Abhijit

Abhijit loves reading and writing.

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