Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Looking for the Ghost of Tom Joad
The New York Review of Books has a fantastic essay on the latest Library of America edition of Steinbeck's works. I've not read an abundance of Steinbeck--just the three majors (Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden) plus Travels with Charley in Search of America, and that in itself suggests that he's not taught much in universities. (I read the three novels on my own, and Travels was assigned to me in a directed reading one summer.)
I think Steinbeck is essentially on the same continuum as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Upton Sinclair. Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Jungle are not well-written books. They are clumsy and affected and melodramatic. And yet they've got a peculiar sort of uplift--they hit you, perhaps, in the gut instead of the head--and there's little doubt that they changed the world. Steinbeck's novels hit you harder, and they changed the world less, but I think history has ended up placing him with those novels rather than with his contemporaries like Faulkner and Hemingway.
I didn't teach any Steinbeck in my Comp II class this semester, and I doubt I will next year--his fiction is too simplistic, too jingoistic, too nailed down. I'll throw my support behind Travels with Charley in Search of America, though--it's less preachy than the novels, a cross-country travelogue more cohesive and enjoyable than On the Road and a highly personal love letter to America disguised as a piece of gonzo journalism. I was obsessed with the concept of spatiality the last year of my undergraduate work and the first year of my master's degree, and I think Travels set that off to some extent. "Nearly every American hungers to move," says Steinbeck early on, as he takes the camper out of park, and the book is pure joy from that point on.
So I don't know. If Travels with Charley manages to be something more than (a) jingoistic patriotism or (b) a pamphlet for the Communist Party, his fiction likely contains something beyond those things as well. It may be time for an academic re-evaluation of Steinbeck; he may be getting short-changed by the neo-aestheticism movement, and I suspect that a rereading of those novels would reveal something more subtle than my memory allows.