A review of America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, by John Steinbeck, edited by Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson

Hard as it is to imagine today, there was a time when second-rate propaganda-pushers such as Lillian Hellman and John Steinbeck were widely regarded as major writers." Thus writes Commentary music critic Terry Teachout in the March 25 issue of The Weekly Standard, awakening thereby an uneasy conscience in those who have enjoyed or had thought they might enjoy reading John Steinbeck. When Teachout says buy a CD, buy it. Following his musical advice is like obeying the natural law — you cannot go wrong, even if you do not understand it. But in polite recognition of Steinbeck's centennial year, and in light of the fact that Steinbeck, though a lover of music, was a writer, not a composer, Steinbeck fans and potential fans may be forgiven if they pause for at least a decent interlude before putting his books back on the shelf to gather dust in shame. 

To occupy that interlude, several questions suggest themselves: Was Steinbeck really just a "propaganda-pusher"? If so, was he second-rate? And even worse, was he a second-rate propaganda-pusher like Lillian Hellman?

Steinbeck's reputation is a little complicated, like the history of the country and the world in the decades in which his reputation developed. The earliest responses to The Grapes of Wrath, generally considered his chef-d'oeuvre, included book bannings, book burnings, and death threats. Steinbeck was charged with obscenity and was even publicly denounced in Congress by Oklahoma (!) Democratic Representative Lyle Boren (father of David): "his book is a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind." On the other hand, or maybe on the same hand, the book stayed on the best-seller list for months on end and continues to sell scores of thousands of copies a year.

That literary lioness of the Left, Mary McCarthy, writing for The Nation in 1936, sneered at Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, published that year, as "childish" and "infantile," while most critics across the political spectrum praised the book. McCarthy's sometime husband, Edmund Wilson — a literary establishment unto himself in mid-century America — never admitted Steinbeck's writing to the ranks of serious literature. Meanwhile, Steinbeck's books continued to sell prodigiously throughout the '40s and '50s and continued to be made into successful Broadway plays and movies.

Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, but this seems only to add to the complications — after all, Yasser Arafat would later receive the Nobel Prize for Peace. Some honor. One likes to think that Steinbeck was in a poetic way conscious of the problem. When asked whether he thought he deserved the Nobel, he answered, "Frankly, no." TheNew York Times emphatically agreed with him, though without any saving grace of irony. Arthur Mizener, writing for theTimes, insisted that the award had been a terrible error, that Steinbeck's was a "limited talent," which, even in his best books, is "watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing." 

In our own time, the Library of America has been reissuing Steinbeck's works over the past several years, with the latest installment coming out this year. In 1998, the National Steinbeck Center was erected at considerable expense in his home town of Salinas, California, where the locals used to call for the burning of his books. The Center reports some 100,000 visitors a year. In an extended centennial year (Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902) there is an orgy of events in honor of Steinbeck, sponsored by multitudes of independent groups, spread across dozens of states from Cannery Row in Monterrey, California, to Lincoln Center in New York. Many of these events take place at colleges and universities, where Steinbeck has not historically been treated very seriously (for a listing of most of these events, visit http://www.steinbeck100.org/newevents.html). And, of course, there are still serious aesthetes who consider Steinbeck a second-rate propagandist. 

As it turns out, Steinbeck was a propagandist, though perhaps not in the way supposed. Steinbeck's novels of the '30s — especially In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath — gained for him the dubious and unwanted reputation as a "proletarian" novelist, which stuck to him for decades. Communists and leftists tried to claim him as their own, and he was denounced by the legions of decency as a Jewish propagandist and a Communist propagandist. There is no question but that some of his writings were convenient for the purposes of Communist and leftist propaganda. 

Nonetheless, Steinbeck's hatred of Communism and his love of America began to confuse the picture very early on. His patriotic support of America in World War II and the early Cold War years brought from the Left bitter charges of treason, which continued for the rest of his life. These grew especially nasty in the Vietnam era, during which Steinbeck used his fame to give public honor to American soldiers, to defend the essential decency of America's cause, and to warn against the strategic dangers of Communist expansion. Steinbeck biographer Jackson Benson argues that the Left's hatred for Steinbeck often manifested itself not merely as political denunciation, but as literary criticism.

When Steinbeck did set out deliberately to propagandize, he meant to propagandize on behalf of his own country's cause. A few months after Pearl Harbor, he published a play-novelette called The Moon is Down, about a small fictional nation conquered and occupied by a foreign power suspiciously like Nazi Germany. He intended this book to be used as propaganda to boost the morale of the European peoples suffering under Nazi occupation. The book sold well; it was performed successfully on Broadway, and was made into a movie (March 1943). It also incited in America what one writer calls "the most heated literary debate of the Second World War." Eminent American literati savaged the book as bad writing — and worse — bad propaganda. James Thurber argued in The New Republic that Steinbeck's effort, far from advancing America's cause, would contribute to Hitler's triumph.

Contrary to this American assessment, the book appears to have had a powerful positive impact on its intended audiences: resistance movements in several occupied European countries. Looking back on the impact of The Moon is Down, one Swiss professor wrote that for the European reader this was "the most powerful piece of propaganda ever written to help a small democratic country to resist totalitarian aggression and occupation." Strangely enough, during the later months of the war, while The Moon is Down was being circulated by the French underground as anti-Nazi propaganda under the title Nuits Noires (Black Nights), Nazi collaborators in France were promoting In Dubious Battle, as propaganda against America and were preparing to use Grapes of Wrath for the same purpose. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, Steinbeck was "being acclaimed at the same time by the collaborationists and by the underground." But whatever use might be made of his books, there was no doubt where Steinbeck stood. After the war, the King of Norway awarded Steinbeck a Liberty Cross (an honor otherwise reserved to heroes of the Norwegian resistance) for writing The Moon is Down.

If Steinbeck was a propagandist, there are at least some who think he may have been a first-rate one — and not of the Lillian Hellman variety. An episode in the early 1950s suggests a subtle but decisive difference in their characters and their politics. Steinbeck was a very good friend of Elia Kazan, already a highly successful Broadway and Hollywood director. It happened that Kazan and Hellman were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee at around the same time. As Jackson Benson tells the story: "Kazan talked, Hellman refused, and almost immediately Kazan became the arch-villain and Hellman the arch-heroine of American intellectual circles." 

Like many Americans, Steinbeck hated Communism, loved his country, and despised this committee. He was not sure what he would have done or even what he wished he might do had he been called before the committee. But what he did think places him in a different moral-political universe from the fashionable opinion that continues to reign in Hollywood and America a half century later. As he wrote in a private letter in May 1952:

I understand both Hellman and Kazan. Each one is right in different ways but I think Kazan's took more courage. It is very easy to be brave and very hard to be right. Lillian can settle snugly back in a kind of martyrdom but Kazan has to live alone with his decision. I hope I could have had the courage to do what he did.

But was Steinbeck a "major writer"? America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction helps us part-way to an answer. It commemorates Steinbeck's centennial by gathering together selections from several series of his nonfiction articles written for different newspapers and magazines here and abroad, between 1936 and 1966. Some of these have never been collected; most are little-known and long-forgotten. The title of the volume is taken from the title of Steinbeck's last book, America and Americans, reprinted here for the first time since its original publication in 1966. For Steinbeck fans with an old copy of Travels with Charley, the volume also includes the final chapter of that book, which Steinbeck chose to exclude (proving his judgment was still sound). This is accurately presented as a "heretofore unpublished" chapter, though a new edition of Travels now includes it as an appendix. 

This collection reminds us that, as a writer, Steinbeck was in some respects a ham 'n' egger. He would write about almost anything, sometimes for the money, sometimes for the challenge or just the sheer fun of it. He was willing to publish writing that was far less than "major" literature. His last book, which gives this collection its name, was written as commentary to a series of photographs.

The editors plausibly maintain that in Steinbeck's literary journalism, from which these selections are drawn, may be found "more of the whole man…than in any of his novels." This is plausible because Steinbeck was always primarily an observer and reporter of those parts of the human condition that happened to fall within his experience. He wrote literary journalism, and he often wrote journalistic literature. His most famous novel arose from a journalistic study of the conditions of migrant farm workers. 

Shillinglaw and Benson are respectful of their subject the way a good friend is respectful — they are grateful for his gifts and fondly aware of his limits and his foibles. This is fitting to Steinbeck, whose best work illuminates with loving realism the glorious and heartbreaking aspirations of fallen men, unredeemed. Steinbeck said of himself, "I find I have to write about little things. I can't write about big things. It never comes out good." When Steinbeck tries to write about big things, he is drawn like destiny to third-hand, if not tenth-rate, philosophizing — it does not come out so good. But if you want to see how a major writer might deal with the little things, take Tortilla Flat off the shelf, and see if it does not inscribe its wise and sweet paisano sorrow with indelible gallantry on your soul.