/ 29 January 2024

Where is today’s Steinbeck?

John Steinbeck Posing For Portrait
Write stuff: American author John Steinbeck, on the left, with the Russian painter Martiros Saryan

In the world before 7 October 2023, US President Joe Biden surprised — perhaps even shocked — the American left and progressive trade unions by stoutly supporting an automobile workers’ strike.

But that was then and this is the now in which Biden has earned for himself the deserved epithet “Butcher” for bankrolling and arming mass murder in Gaza and the West Bank.

There was in those pre-7 October days much premature talk of Biden’s achievements in edging forward what in US politics passes for a progressive agenda and legislation. Some deluded pundits and many over-excitable hacks even drew flattering comparisons with Franklin D Roosevelt and his projects to pull the US out of the quagmire of the Great Depression.

What the Biden term — and surely, no matter how apocalyptic the consequences for the world of Donald Trump squatting anew in the White House, it will be just a single term — lacks is a great chronicler. There has been no great protest music, though there has been poetry that rages against the dying of the always stuttering liberal and progressive flames.

There have been no era-capturing, and sometimes era-defining, films of the class of On the Waterfront, The Last Picture Show, Return of the Secaucus 7 and Big Wednesday

And yes I know the last is “only a surfing movie about a bunch of high-school buddies” — except that it’s not. Like The Last Picture Show, it captures a coming of age and the passing of promise, youth and hope, with the characters in both films staring into the abyss of the rest of their lives as adults in a country they don’t recognise and never knew existed.

And what of literature? Where is the Arthur Miller of this age, to eviscerate capitalism as in Death of a Salesman? There, in one line of dialogue, Miller speaks to his time and ours: “He works for a company 30 years, opens up unheard-of territories to their trademark, and now in his old age they take his salary away,” says Linda Loman, the wife of the play’s main character Willy Loman.

Troubled Youth
James Dean stars in 1955’s East of Eden, based on the novel by Steinbeck. Photo: John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

In Miller’s A View from the Bridge, we see an uneducated longshoreman (dockworker or stevedore) begin to realise more and more about himself and the grim surroundings of life and work. As the lawyer Alfieri says, “But this is Red Hook, not Sicily. This is the slum that faces the bay on the seaward side of Brooklyn Bridge. This is the gullet of New York swallowing the tonnage of the world.”

In short, where is the John Steinbeck of Biden’s America? Along with Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, Steinbeck (1902-1968) is one of the triumvirate of Nobel literature laureates who from the 1920s shifted the focus of American literature.

Faulkner is the grimmest and least optimistic of the three, while Hemingway and Steinbeck are the great proselytisers of the promise of collective action. That theme is writ large in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Old Man and The Sea (1952). 

In the third of those novels, Hemingway likens avarice and capitalism to the sharks and other predators that rip and tear relentlessly at the body of the great fish the old man has caught as he tries to take it back to shore lashed to the side of his boat. 

Capital’s exploitation of wage labour — for the old man must sell the fish to the middlemen of the marketplace, as he lacks any means of refining it into other products — is mercilessly exposed in an allegory and fable of profundity and pathos.

After several stints over six years at Stanford, from which he emerged degreeless, Steinbeck took on manual work to support his writing. It’s that experience of hard labour that gives authenticity and conviction to his many worker characters. 

Steinbeck does not imagine unremitting toil as creative writing graduates might do. Rather, he summons up the memories, sweat and the backache of real labour.

In terms of collective labour, and collective action more broadly, Steinbeck made a start in the opposite direction with his early novel Cup of Gold (1929), which exalts the anarchist individual over the collective. But that “mis-step” was soon to be remedied.

In the ranks of those striking US autoworkers there are sure to have been more than a few who had read Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle (1936), an almost textbook account of a fruit-pickers’ strike led by two union organisers from “the Party”, assumed to be the Communist Party of America. Rarely have labour politics been so gripping on the page.

Then came the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in a sense a story of to have and have not. It is a story of migrants, internally displaced in the US by climate and other disasters that turn Oklahoma into a dust bowl and force the poorest living there to flee in search of something better, or merely anything that is not their current hopeless existence.

At the end of a great trek to California, what awaits these families is the harshest exploitation, in which capitalism extracts ever-greater profits from the “agricultural system” (read: workers).

Like so many others, Steinbeck was not quite the same after World War II. His later novels are softer, with a sentiment that leavens the unyielding mood and fight of his pre-war works. 

All, of course, are worth reading, in particular East of Eden (1952), a reflection on manhood that has as its insistent and wise voice the family’s Chinese cook (all but written out of the film version that starred James Dean), and the gem that is the novella The Pearl (1948).

The young couple Kino and Juana are peasants in a fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico. It is no ordinary fishing for, apart from fish, the men of the village are lured to the waters by the promise of pearls. Diving off sturdy boats handed down from generation to generation, they seek out oysters, bringing them to the surface in baskets.

On one dive, Kino finds a large oyster that turns out to have produced an extraordinary pearl — the “Pearl of the World” as he later dubs it. And, yes, a whole new world beckons for the couple and their infant Coyotito. 

They can afford to pay to be married in the church. They will all have new clothes; Kino a new harpoon and, perhaps, a rifle, a Winchester. Their son will be educated. 

“My son will read and open the books, and my son will write and know writing. And my son will make numbers, and these things will make us free because he will know — he will know and through him we will know.”

This is the voice of indigenous people deprived of sovereignty, property and rights in their own land by imperialist invaders, colonisers and occupiers. Their own shields are their boats and their songs, of which Steinbeck writes tellingly.

A L'est D'eden.

“It was at once property and source of food, for a man with a boat can guarantee a woman that she will eat something. It is a bulwark against starvation.” (Recall here the fights of indigenous fishers the world over — and on our own shores — against industrial fishing ships that ignore territorial waters and decreed protected local fishery areas.)

“His people had once been great makers of songs, so that everything they saw or thought or did or heard became a song. That was very long ago. The songs remained; Kino knew them, but no new songs were added.”

The gulf between coloniser-occupier and indigenous people is vast, succinctly and searingly captured in a few lines of Steinbeck’s precise, unwavering and detailed prose: “They came to the place where the brush houses stopped and the city of stone and plaster began, the city of harsh outer walls and inner cool gardens where a little water played and the bougainvillaea crusted the walls with purple and brick-red and white. They heard from the secret gardens the singing of caged birds and heard the splash of cooling water on hot flagstones.”

Sound familiar? A lot like home? Yes, because in his particularity, Steinbeck is universal. The struggle to lead an ordinary life, here and in so many Steinbeck novels about collective endeavour and hardship, are the struggles of humankind against what Vladimir Lenin called “imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism”. 

Lenin died 100 years ago on 21 January 1924. Let’s heed his warning that “bourgeois scholars and publicists usually come out in defence of imperialism in a somewhat veiled form; they obscure its complete domination and its profound roots, strive to push into the forefront particular and secondary details and do their very best to distract attention from essentials …”

Not so Steinbeck. Read and savour his socialist collective sensibility.