Stanford professor’s new book explores Steinbeck’s range and depth in stories about humanity’s relationship to the natural world
Analyzing the works of 20th-century American fiction writer John Steinbeck is a daunting task. Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his “classic” books that are routinely assigned in high school and college classrooms. Yet, well-known literary critics, from Edmund Wilson to Leslie Fiedler, have dismissed him as a “middlebrow” writer stuck in a nostalgic past.
But Stanford scholar Gavin Jones, the Frederick P. Rehmus Family Professor in the Humanities, contends Steinbeck was one of the most experimental writers of his era. By tackling issues like humanity’s relationship to a fragile planet and wealth injustice, Steinbeck remains a relevant, if complicated, voice for today, Jones argues.
In his new book, Reclaiming John Steinbeck: Writing for the Future of Humanity (Cambridge University Press, 2021), Jones sees the topics Steinbeck covered, ranging from drought and the resulting mass migration of the Dust Bowl era to the portrayal of Asian and Latinx characters, as evidence of the author’s deep and abiding interest in the human condition and humanity’s relationship to the natural world.
“There are so many topics Steinbeck addressed in his stories that are of great importance today,” said Jones, professor of English in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “Not least is his interest in the environment and environmental change. In a way, he helped to pioneer a certain kind of ecological thinking.”
Experimental literature and science
For Jones, using the word “experimental” to describe Steinbeck has a dual meaning that highlights both the author’s literary and scientific experimentation. As a writer, he jumped from short stories, to mysteries, to novels, to film. Steinbeck also cultivated a passion for science as a student at Stanford from 1919-1925.
While Steinbeck did not earn a degree, the courses he took helped him hone his creative writing skills and explore his interest in race and poverty, marine biology and ecology. Combining his sense of experimentalism in both literature and the sciences, Jones said, the author viewed the interconnectedness of the humanities and sciences in radical ways. He even petitioned to take courses at Stanford’s School of Medicine.
“He wanted to take a course on the dissection of cadavers so that he could learn more about people,” Jones said. “He really wanted to understand what’s on the inside, both psychologically and physically.”
Steinbeck is often considered a California writer for his moving portrayals of life in and around the Salinas Valley where he was born. Although his stories can sometimes reflect racial stereotypes of his era, they also include Asian and Latinx characters as important drivers of the narrative. For example, the Asian character Lee in East of Eden.
Image credit: John Steinbeck and Robert Capa, Moscow USSR, 1947. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos
For Jones, elements of the portrayals of these characters show Steinbeck’s modernity, relative to other writers of the same era, in creating non-white characters with complex personalities. “Steinbeck really is a writer of greater California,” Jones said. “He’s very interested in crossing the border into Mexico, so for him, the West was really a transnational West.” Scholars have estimated that one-third of Steinbeck’s works include either Mexican or Mexican-American characters. Works like Tortilla Flat highlight the author’s interest in Mexican-American culture and traditions and Sea of Cortez makes evident his fascination with Mexico’s marine environment.
Steinbeck’s work also confronts the presence of racism in American life. His short story The Vigilante, for example, revises the account of a lynching that took place in San Jose in 1933 to emphasize the vulnerability of African Americans to mob violence. “Unpublished manuscripts predating The Vigilante show the extent to which Steinbeck grappled with the problem of racial injustice,” Jones said.
Steinbeck was also interested in portraying wealth and social disparities in the U.S. and his works are populated by poor whites as well as downtrodden characters of other races and of mixed-race heritage. In the sweeping novel The Grapes of Wrath, he follows the destitute Joad family as they make their way from drought-ravaged Oklahoma to the fields of California to find work.
Drought as an ecological concern is also featured in the early Steinbeck novel To a God Unknown. “Steinbeck was ahead of his time in understanding that drought isn’t simply a fluctuation in our environment but something that is very profound and can impact human psychology in fundamental ways,” Jones said.
Unpublished werewolf novel
Recently, Jones’s efforts to get an unpublished Steinbeck detective thriller featuring a werewolf released have been met with great interest from the public. Jones has argued that the potboiler, which he has read in its entirety, is another example of Steinbeck’s desire to experiment with different types of fiction.
Jones sees the work – which agents representing the author’s estate have declined to publish – as a precursor to the California noir detective fiction genre, which flourished in books and films from the late 1930s through the 1940s.
There’s also another way that the unpublished novel fits the Steinbeck that Jones explores critically in his new book. In the unpublished work, the full moon is the catalyst for a character to transform into a lethal werewolf. “It’s a novel about the very thin line between humans and other animals,” Jones said.
The theme is one Steinbeck would revisit often in his work, including The Red Pony, which uncovers the connections between horses and humans, and The Vigilante, which portrays individuals acting on their more animalistic instincts, leading them to commit murder. “He’s questioning the stability of our humanity and thinking about ways in which, perhaps, we’re all capable of moments where we transform into creatures that we cannot control,” Jones said.