Welcome to the third installment of Legends of Literature. Our latest iconic author is John Steinbeck, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
East of Eden
This sprawling and often brutal novel, set in the rich farmlands of California's Salinas Valley, follows the intertwined destinies of two families - the Trasks and the Hamiltons-whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.
Travels With Charley
In September 1960, John Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, embarked on a journey across America. A picaresque tale, this chronicle of their trip meanders along scenic backroads and speeds along anonymous superhighways, moving from small towns to growing cities to glorious wilderness oases.
Abe - Which of Steinbeck's books are most relevant today, and why?
Susan Shillinglaw: “That's a tough question, since one could make the argument that nearly every book he wrote is relevant: The Grapes of Wrath and homelessness; Cannery Row and holistic ecology; The Winter of Our Discontent and analysis of the post-modern temperament; America and Americans and race, ethnicity, morality, greed, the environment. To be relevant in fiction or nonfiction is, after all, to cause people to see the world from fresh perspectives, to reconsider positions. One aim of Steinbeck's writing was to have people ‘participate’ in his prose - it was a word he used a lot; he wished to engage readers in all ‘levels’ of his work. Both ideas were grounded in science, marine biology to be specific, and both were notions that he and his closest friend in the 1930s, Ed Ricketts, discussed concerning ecological issues.”
Abe - Which of Steinbeck's book do you think is the most underrated of his works and why?
Susan Shillinglaw: “Considering that Steinbeck was again lambasted - or damned with faint praise - in a recent issue of NY Review of Books, one could argue that Steinbeck is today being forced into the same old Procrustian beds of criticism: he's a realist, he's sentimental; he's a naturalist. What is important in reading Steinbeck, I think, is to appreciate that notion of levels I mentioned above: certainly all writers like to be considered more complex than merely to read for plot - level one, if you will. The lucid surface of Steinbeck's prose suggests to many that's all there is. New ways to see his works are to consider his serious engagement with science, from the 1930s on; his environmental stances; his notions of group/individual behavior which shift throughout his career; his negotiation with gender (which is far more complex than noting only the roles that women play in his book); his playful, often serious reconstruction of the notion of family. Cannery Row, for example, is a superb book - a book about place, war, a skewed family, gender, spirituality/or Ricketts’ notion of ‘breaking through’ from physical to metaphysical. Steinbeck said that Cannery Row had four levels. Sea of Cortez, one of my favorites, was also Steinbeck's own favourite - that book deserves attention.”
Abe - If Steinbeck where to publish a new book as an unknown author today do you think he would attain the same notoriety?
Susan Shillinglaw: “That one I can't answer. I was in a book group where, reading Persuasion, one reader said that if Jane Austen wrote that book today she wouldn't get it published. To my mind, that is a preposterous notion. And it's equally impossible to know if Steinbeck would be embraced if he came out with a new book - notoriety is a result of seizing the political moment - or shocking. Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath not intending or wishing for notoriety - he simply wrote about a problem he thought needed addressing. Honesty was called for - and still is, always and forever.”
Abe - What legacy did Steinbeck leave?
Susan Shillinglaw: “People keep reading his books, because he engages his readers. He can be funny and serious. He's a great writer - lucid and clear. He evokes a sense of place like few other westerners before him or since. He was “engaged” in political and social events of half the 20th century - the Depression, World War II, Russia and the Cold War, politics, Vietnam. He was empathetic - he cared about working people, people who work with their hands, or dig ditches or fix cars. He cared about marginalized people -those on the fringes of society who, today, can't buy gasoline for their cars.”
To learn more about the National Steinbeck Center, visit: www.steinbeck.org