- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

JOHN STEINBECK: NOVELS 1942-1952
Notes for this volume by Robert DeMott
Library of America, $35, 983 pages
REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS


When John Steinbeck, one of the most popular American writers of the last century, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, he received the following telegram from his friend John O'Hara: "Congratulations. I can think of only one other author I'd rather see get it." Although O'Hara, whose popularity and, arguably, talent equaled if not surpassed his friend's, was never reticent about reminding the world that he thought he deserved the major prizes more than any of his peers, he remained steadfast in his defense of Steinbeck when the literary establishment attacked his laureateship for reasons that even now cast a shadow on his literary achievements.
There can be little doubt that Steinbeck deserved his international acclaim, and now that the centennial of his birth on Feb. 27, 1902, is here, it is obvious that his reputation, unlike O'Hara's, is secure. His books remain in print and continue to sell well. In fact, Viking-Penguin is releasing special commemorative paperback editions of six of them, including the often overlooked, always delightful "Travels With Charley in Search of America." Viking also has recently published "John Steinbeck: America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction" (Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson, editors), a splendid collection that deserves a place on the shelves of those who enjoy and respect his work.
This flurry of publication is complemented by celebrations in over 30 states where writers, critics and professors will join fans to honor Steinbeck's contributions to American letters. Perhaps the largest of these events, and the most international in flavor, will be Hofstra University's "John Steinbeck's Americas," a three day conference (March 21, 22, and 23) where scholars from over six countries will meet to present papers and engage in discussion on topics such as "Steinbeck as Literary Artist" and "Steinbeck and Musical Theater," to name just two of the many sessions and panels.
In addition to the scholarly side of this conference, there is scheduled a concert version of "Pipe Dream," which is based on "Sweet Thursday," with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, respectively; an optional trip to New York City to see "Oklahoma!"; a tour of Sag Harbor, where the author lived; and a screening of the controversial "The Forgotten Village." (For information: Tel (516) 463-5669; FAX (516) 463-4793; E-mail HOFCULTCTR @Hofstra.edu.)
Just as it is difficult to believe that John Steinbeck has been dead for 34 years (Dec. 20, 1968, of cardio-respiratory failure), so too is it startling to realize that the Library of America is 20 years old and has released over130 volumes in its ambitious and very successful cultural project. It would be a stretch to think that many readers are unaware of the Library of America. When the first volume ("Herman Melville: Typee, Omoo, Mardi") appeared in 1982, it signaled the advent of a publishing venture that would provide the reading public with some of the best writing done by Americans.
Every volume remains in print in several formats, ranging from the slipcased volumes subscribers receive to hard-and soft-cover trade editions. Not only do these volumes make available, in reader-friendly, environmentally sensitive books, the works of, say, Frederick Douglass, William Bartram, and James Thurber, as well as Henry James, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton, but they also afford readers an opportunity to recycle those musty, yellowing, heavily-annotated inexpensive paperbacks used in college courses, and to replace them with sturdy books designed to retard if not defeat time.
Each volume follows a similar pattern: first, the primary texts themselves; second, a length "Chronology" that serves as an extensive biography focusing on the author's personal and professional life; third, a "Note on the Texts," which provides important information on the compositional history of each text; and fourth, "Notes", which seeks to clarify topical allusions, foreign quotations, now-obscure references, and the like. Readers are left free to form their own opinions of a writer's work because none of the cant the critical wars have generated is present. The Library of America's volumes are for readers who want to experience novels, plays, poems, political and journalistic writings directly.
To celebrate John Steinbeck's centennial, the Library of America is releasing the last of three volumes devoted to his major work. The first volume appeared in 1994, and includes "The Pastures of Heaven," "To a God Unknown," "Tortilla Flat," "In Dubious Battle," and "Of Mice and Men." The second was published in 1996, with "The Long Valley," "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Log from the Sea of Cortez," and "The Harvest Gypsies." The third volume gives us "The Moon is Down," "Cannery Row," "The Pearl," and "East of Eden."
All of Mr. Steinbeck's weaknesses and strengths are apparent in these volumes. For readers who expect an author to challenge universal themes in a vigorous style complete with the innumerable difficulties language contains, his fiction is often too accessible, too "easy" to read.Rarely do we find the nuances and complexities of style that, say, William Faulkner created to force readers to confronthistory, and themselves.
Ernest Hemmingway's cold, clean minimalism explores the ironies and ambiguities of the individual life in the face of a devastating historical dehumanization. F. Scott Fitzgerald's ebullient though controlled romanticism exposes the failure of the mythic American Dream, and the effects knowledge of that failure has on human life. John Steinbeck, however, shaped characters that seem more contrived, more stereotypical than many of his peers, and in a rather simple style.His work has been called "middlebrow," a label affixed to work that is too transparent, too, well, sentimental.
Some of his weaknesses also can be seen as strengths. He was, especially for readers with an eye for the historical or sociological, one of the great recorders of the proletariat, of ordinary people in a specific time caught up by forces they don't understand and, therefore, are powerless to resist. They struggle simply to survive.
Whether it be the Joads fleeing the Dust Bowl of Depression-era Oklahoma to find salvation in the false promise of California; or Kino, whose discovery of a large pearl initially offers hope but results in tragedy; or the Trasks, one of the most dysfunctional families in fiction, who can only try to bend in the storm of family and business horrors … Steinbeck's characters achieve a kind of nobility even as they are defeated.
Because of both his weaknesses and strengths, John Steinbeck will remain a major voice in American Literature. His wide, popular appeal insures his place if not in literature departments, then in his reader's hearts. What better way to celebrate his birthday than to read his books, and to suspect that in 2102, he will continue to be honored.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic living in Pottsville, Pa.



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