Rescuing John Steinbeck from “The Rescue of John Steinbeck”

by zunguzungu

From this review, The Rescue of John Steinbeck, “The extraordinary thing about John Steinbeck is how good he can be when so much of the time he’s so bad.”

This opening line should give us a sense of how it’s going to be: the question is not only whether Steinbeck matches up or doesn’t (Is he good? Or bad?) but how he manages to be good when he’s so obviously bad. It’s a fine article, mainly; Robert Gottlieb has a better sense for the whole arc of Steinbeck’s career than I have, and he hits the bases. But I’m going to hold him to the same crushing standard he holds his subject, so when he writes these words:

“[Steinbeck’s] compulsion to hector us with heavy-handed opinions and ideas-remains one of the chief obstacles to reading Steinbeck with pleasure today. Like so many other writers of his time, he’s disgusted with capitalism, yet he’s not really a revolutionary-he comes across more as a disaffected adolescent, dishing out a kind of callow cynicism.”

I’m tempted to apply his own sentiments to himself. Where does Robert Gottlieb get the compulsion to hector us with a high-handed statement like “so much of the time [Steinbeck] is so bad?” It certainly hindered my ability to read his review with pleasure, so full of disgust was it, yet neither had it the zeal of the real revolutionary. No, faint praise is his damnation of choice. And since the job of the reviewer, apparently, is to be smarter and more perceptive than the person who has written something worth reviewing, Gottlieb’s gameness in stepping up to that plate speaks volumes.

What actually bothers me, however, is the second part of the statement-the implication that one can either be a supporter of capitalism or a revolutionary, but only a child would dither in between-which seems like the sort of thing that it is possible to say only by having very little sense of what kinds of politics it was possible to have in the era of the New Deal. And let’s be clear: Steinbeck’s politics were FDR-esque, of whom it is quite reasonable to say “he [was] disgusted with capitalism, yet he [was] no revolutionary.” But on the basis of this desire to reform-not destroy-capitalism, who would call FDR a callow, adolescent cynic? Apparently the standards for a writer are different than for normal people. Let us read on.

Th thrust of his critique of Steinbeck’s prose seems to be that he has a politics at all. For example, Gottlieb laments:

“How can the writer who reports a dying old woman saying “I’m jus’ pain covered with skin” also have his Ed Ricketts- substitute, the itinerant preacher Casy, spout things like “Listen to people a-talkin’, an’ purty soon I hear the way folks are feelin’…. I hear ’em an’ feel ’em; an’ they’re beating their wings like a bird in a attic”?

I’ll agree that the first line is better than the last. It better be, since he cherry picked his examples. But it isn’t a qualitative difference, nor is there something intrinsically wrong with the second (indeed, the beating of the wings metaphor is pretty sharp). They just do very different things. But Gottlieb is quite sure that one of those things is wrong, so he says things like this:

The Grapes of Wrath is a vertiginous conjunction of sweeping, irresistible narrative and highfalutin theorizing. That readers in 1939 tolerated the latter is testimony to the power of the former”

To that, let me simply say: good use of the word vertiginous. But calling Steinbeck’s theorizing “highfalutin” is simply to damn it as such, to imply that any theorizing is, and must be, elitist and out of touch with the true people. “Highfalutin” is the word that salt of the earth types use to describe elitist eggheads, you see, and Gottlieb has his finger on the pulse of those salty readers in 1939, people who could never have had any particular interest in things like, oh, say, figuring out what the hell was fucking going on with the world. I mean, things like Great Depression and Nazis sweeping across Europe, no, such things don’t need to be theorized or explained. Only an egghead would imagine that that rapidly modernizing world was a scary place in which old explanations and old theories seemed as appropriate as Deuteronomy on Wall Street. Or rather, only everyone ever who talks about the period.

 My over-truculent point there-sorry, I’ll try to dial it down-is that there’s a really anachronistic standard of value being indiscriminately applied here, and the consistency of that anachronism is worth highlighting. Since the 1930’s, we’ve learned that capitalism is God’s Own Economic System, of course, but it might be worth cutting some slack to the massively unemployed, underemployed, and dislocated populations of the thirties for not having seen the light yet. I mean, it’s not their fault that watching the entire world tear itself apart before their eyes made them a bit receptive to “highfalutin theorizing.” But it seems absolutely appropriate that Gottlieb would have no time for such things. In the era of George Bush, thinking is, if not absolutely outlawed, at least looked on with suspicion by the right and left alike. Observe how even the democratic party is shouting “elitist” at itself, while republicans nod in agreement, for such a small crime as suggesting that phenomena have causes.

 Empowered by the structural conceit that reviewer knows more about his subject than his subject does, Gottlieb continues to see into the depths of Steinbeck’s soul. At times this works well. For example, placing the misogyny of East of Eden in the context of Steinbeck’s very messy divorce from his second wife is the type of biographical criticism that seems useful: knowing more about the personal world Steinbeck was writing out of doesn’t explain why he wrote it (in the most simplistic sense), but it helps bring what he wrote into focus.

But, take a paragraph like this one:

“Meanwhile, Steinbeck’s life was disintegrating. He was depleted, resentful of attacks from the left and the right, aggrieved by the negative response of critics like Wilson and Kazin, and facing the fact that his marriage was coming to an end. Carol had been a real collaborator…But now she was feeling trapped and unfulfilled…The war came to his rescue, giving him the subject of his next novel, The Moon Is Down (1942), as well as an excuse to get out of America and the doldrums…”

As Gottlieb explains the reasons why Steinbeck did and didn’t write, he passes over one of Steinbeck’s richest and most interesting texts, The Sea of Cortez, which was written in 1941. It doesn’t really fit into the narrative Gottlieb is trying to construct here, so he leaves it out. Or, rather, he mentions The Log from the Sea of Cortez, published in 1951, but doesn’t mention the original Sea of Cortez, which was a larger and more complex text from which The Log was extracted. You can see why Gottlieb would do this: first, he’s constructing a narrative of muses and inspiration, where the loss of his first wife deprives him of his ability to write until war came to the rescue. The book he wrote while still bickering with Carol (but before Pearl Harbor) can’t, in such a timeline, be very good, so it gets ignored.

But it gets ignored for another reason: while Gottlieb continually wants to portray Steinbeck as a person plagued by the curse of having thoughts and writing them down (and of not knowing what we know), The Sea of Cortez is the book where Steinbeck most clearly thinks and writes about what it means to think and write (see, for example, a brief discussion of a particularly sharp passage here). Gottlieb has already railed against the ways that the “Ed Ricketts-substitute” in The Grapes of Wrath spouts lines of highfalute (implying that Steinbeck doesn;t realize it), but The Sea of Cortez is the book where Steinbeck the writer and Ed Ricketts the Scientist face off, in a very self-conscious way, where each critiques and thinks about the other. It’s a book in two parts: one is the writerly “Log,” which would be republished separately in 1951, and the other is the scientific, Ed Ricketts part. The very structure of the thing, in other words, calls attention to the insufficiency of any single perspective (be it “writerly” or scientific) and, as a co-written text, it attempts to derive some kind of dialectic transcendence of this problem. In other words, the very book that looks least like the caricature of Steinbeck that Gottlieb wants to create (a naive idealist without the maturity to put aside idealism, and also an egghead elitist) happens to disappear from the review.

Along with it, the very contentiously productive (and, at least, ambiguous) relationship that Steinbeck had with Ricketts disappears as well. Ricketts is not Steinbeck, so there is no reason to assume that when the Ricketts character utters the line about listening to people talking and feeling, he is any less the subject of Steinbeck’s questioning and critical gaze than anyone else in the novel. The Sea of Cortez, after all, has to be ignored because that’s exactly what it does: call attention to the subjective limitations of any one perspective. It’s curious, then, and ironic, that while Gottlieb damns Steinbeck for having been naively unaware of his own limitations, for having blithely spouted off theorizations without a trace of self-consciousness, he can do so only by systematically excluding all the points when Steinbeck was completely conscious of those limitations and the ways that Steinbeck himself called attention to the problems of knowledge production and scientific theorizing about people. Perhaps Gottlieb was too busy theorizing about Steinbeck (from a position, if I may, of a very High Falute) to notice.