Saturday, October 26, 2013

Politics and Humanity in the Writing of Steinbeck

The work of John Steinbeck is infused with emotion, often with a seeming political bent. Readers of works such as In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, to name two examples, often feel that Steinbeck must have a political agenda behind the words that he writes. Yet Steinbeck claimed to have no political agenda behind what he wrote. How does this claim make sense in light of the politically charged books that he wrote? How should readers understand these books, if Steinbeck did not intend to steer the reader towards a particular political viewpoint?

Steinbeck’s letters shed some light on what he might have been getting at in politically charged books. He rejected the notion that In Dubious Battle was a strike novel in a letter to George Albee: “I’m not interested in strike as means of raising men’s wages, and I’m not interested in ranting about justice and oppression, mere outcroppings which indicate the condition” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 98). However, on reading the novel, the feeling of identification with the cause of Jim and Mac comes naturally, as does the feeling that the migrant workers on strike are suffering great injustice. These feelings, however, are meant to point the reader to human nature, not to a political party. To combat the idea that his work was a strike novel, Steinbeck explained in the letter: “…I have used a small strike in an orchard valley as the symbol of man’s eternal, bitter warfare with himself…this self-hate which goes so closely in hand with self-love is what I wrote about. This book is brutal. I wanted to be merely a recording consciousness, judging nothing, simply putting down the thing” (98).

A closer look at the character of Doc Burton in In Dubious Battle helps establish that Steinbeck was not writing a piece of propaganda for the Communist Party, for Doc’s concerns present a serious threat to the ideals of the Communist Party. The fact that Steinbeck even inserted these confrontations between Doc and Mac refutes strong complaints of critics. Doc questions Mac’s fundamental ideas, and gives his reasoning for doing so: “I want to see the whole picture – as nearly as I can. I don’t want to put on the blinders of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and limit my vision” (Steinbeck 113). In his novels, Steinbeck attempted to give a whole picture of things that were going on surrounding a particular situation, with all the injustice and hope mixed in together. He endeavored to create a complete portrait of human life.

The scope of In Dubious Battle, therefore, is human nature rather than politics. Through this novel, Steinbeck focused on the human condition, and part of the way to do this was to purposefully end In Dubious Battle in the middle of a sentence. “There is a cycle in the life of a man but there is no ending in the life of Man. I tried to indicate this by stopping on a high point, leaving out any conclusion” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 99). His novel, which began with the idea to write a biography of a Communist, a focus on one human, turned instead into a sweeping fiction about the nature of mankind. The absence of the conclusion highlights Steinbeck’s goal to focus not on one man, but on humanity.

Critics may say, however, that even if Steinbeck did not mean for his book to be primarily political, surely his own private convictions influenced what he wrote. Steinbeck’s letters and biography suggest that although he certainly did hold political convictions, he was often not interested in exclusively aligning himself, but wanted to look at issues simply as they existed, from many different angles. When In Dubious Battle met criticism, Steinbeck complained, “Does no one in the world want to see and judge this thing coldly” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 107)? He was frustrated by those who attacked his book, either saying that it was Communist or that it wasn’t, and remained aloof from a particular identification with either side, instead criticizing their need to automatically put a label on the thing they read. He reacted strongly to the inclination of people to stick fiercely to their own side without considering the whole: “That is the trouble with the damned people of both sides. They postulate either an ideal communist or a thoroughly damnable communist and neither side is willing to suspect that the communist is a human, subject to the weaknesses of humans and to the greatnesses of humans” (108). Steinbeck’s concern was not with the Communist Party, but with the human.

Jackson Benson also made clear that Steinbeck did hold political convictions in his biography, yet he would agree with the above conclusion that Steinbeck preferred to consider the whole than to only think in terms of the ideals of one political party. Benson wrote: “…throughout much of his life he shared a number of ideas with the socialists, was accused of being a socialist or communist on various occasions during the thirties, and yet never endorsed or advocated socialism as a system” (Benson 44). More important to Steinbeck than throwing in his lot with socialism or communism, wrote Benson, was the ability to maintain and preserve his “intellectual independence” (44).

In response to those critics who worried that his political views crawled into his pages, Steinbeck stated in a letter to Pascal Covici: “I’ve never changed a word to fit the prejudices of a group and I never will…Actually if there has been one rigid rule in my books, it is that I as me had no right in them. And if that is so of the text, let it be so of the publicity. You really don’t need me in it. If you do – then the book is a failure” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 175-176).

Through his work, Steinbeck meant to depict a portrait of humanity as it really is. Benson said that Steinbeck did not often give readers a plan of action, and often portrayed a situation that left a reader feeling as if there were no clear direction of action that could be taken (Benson 237). Steinbeck did not prescribe alignment with a certain political party, or list specific political actions that had to be taken, in order to fix the issues of the world. He presented the issues as occurrences that are present as part of the human condition. He painted a picture of humanity as it is, with the awareness that some of the essential qualities of human beings can never be changed. Yet through this exploration of human nature, readers can recognize the actions that they fall into, and awareness of their own natures can cause them to effect change.

Before the conclusion is too easily established, another look at Benson might challenge what has been said thus far. He wrote that Steinbeck’s own emotion toward issues often stood in the way of what he wrote, and listed this as one of Steinbeck’s major weaknesses, one that led to an obsession with his characters and the impulse to attempt to rewrite to perfection (Benson 181-182). Benson also articulated some of Steinbeck’s past experiences which created strong feelings within his conscious as a writer: “At a relatively early age, he had broken out of the mold of middle-class sensibility, had lived among those who actually did lack food and the means to obtain it, and had developed a strong sense of social justice, giving vent to the same indignation he was to express so forcefully in The Grapes of Wrath nearly two decades later” (44).

Even though they were a slight impediment, Benson also wrote that these strong emotions were a large part of what drove Steinbeck to write: “He recognized his tendency toward sentimentality, and he was defensive about it, but it was intimately tied to his talent…It was part of the force that led him to write in the first place; it was the opposite side of the emotional coin from what ‘Salinas’ and ‘Republicans’ meant to him. The two together were the rage and the love that drove him to pen and paper” (Benson 182).

Since such strong emotion was attached to his writing, did Steinbeck truly avoid letting his own political views creep into his works? Were the critics really correct? Did Steinbeck’s own human nature get in the way of his goal to set down human nature completely?

No human could be perfectly objective in portraying a part of life as it is in this world. The nature of human beings is such that emotion is nearly always tied to the actions that they carry out. As a part of this world, Steinbeck’s emotions and political views were certainly present when he was writing. However, more so than many other authors, he was able to set down what he saw mostly in terms of human nature and experience, rather than in terms of a certain political party. Evidence for this is summed up in the opening chapter of Cannery Row: “When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves” (Steinbeck 3). Steinbeck’s purpose was to take the whole and present it in a novel. So many of his stories seem to lack plot or a concrete ending because so much of life lacks plot, and so far for the whole of human history, there has never been an ending.

Steinbeck’s works are not only unique in form, but also in content. His books stir in readers anger at injustice or hope for a family not because of political ideals, but because readers are all human and experience the things that he wrote about. In another letter to Pascal Covici, he wrote of The Grapes of Wrath: “One other thing – I am not writing a satisfying story. I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 178). Steinbeck did mean to influence his readers, like any writer would. That is part of the motivation for writing, if not the whole. But Steinbeck did not mean to influence his writers to follow one political strand of thinking over another. He meant to impress on them his view of mankind as part of a biological whole, as a part of the world, not separate from it. He wanted to present to them the truth of human nature.

His views were often being brought into focus and sharpened, and he challenged his readers in new ways to look plainly at mankind. A letter to John O’Hara that sheds new light on his group-man theory also helps to prove the point that he was writing about man, not politics: “I think I believe one thing powerfully – that the only creative thing our species has is the individual, lonely mind…Unless we can preserve and foster the principle of the preciousness of the individual mind, the world of men will either disintegrate into a screaming chaos or will go into a grey slavery” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 359-360). Humankind would have to learn to see the idea of the human as a whole, and nurture that individuality which stood apart from a single political stance. Steinbeck’s goal was not politics, but to set down the human alive.

Works Cited:

Benson, Jackson. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: The Viking Press,
Steinbeck, Elaine and Robert Wallsten, eds. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. New York: The Viking
Press, 1975.
Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row. 1992 ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1945.
Steinbeck, John. In Dubious Battle. 2006 ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1936.

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