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Thursday, December 22, 2016

John Steinbeck and the Romanticization of Poverty

If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.

At some point in my junior year of high school, I starting claiming John Steinbeck as my favorite author. We had read The Pearl freshman year, and I liked it—an anomaly in the 9th grade—and the only other work I read by him was The Grapes of Wrath as a part of assigned summer reading. The latter book didn’t do anything for me initially, but the silhouette of a man in a red cloud of dust crouching over the earth remained with me.

For some time, I thought that was a pretty decent choice for favorite author—he’s a big deal and all—but later I caught wind of the truth: John Steinbeck was critically derided. I learned, in fact, that Steinbeck was most known in scholarly circles for being overrated; I learned that the Nobel Prize he was awarded—a surefire symbol of his skill—was extremely controversial in 1964. Commenting on the honor, The New York Times had asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose “limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophising.” And 50 years later, it was revealed in the committee’s archives that Steinbeck was indeed a compromise choice in a year with no clear frontrunners.

Most of the criticism for Steinbeck stems from the supposed genre of his work. The American novelist is generally classified as writing in the milieu of modernism, naturalism, and realism—and is most commonly associated with the last one. Realism is, of course, the mode of writing that tries to keep things as close to reality as possible. It doesn’t romanticize, it doesn’t spruce things up, it doesn’t embellish or make flowery. It depicts the banal activities of everyday life and seeks to present a message through them. That’s how Steinbeck writes.

Except when it comes to poverty. And it comes to poverty a lot because poverty is in all his books. Seriously, all of them. Take for instance his two short works on his hometown, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. In those two novels, Steinbeck writes fairly straightforward—in the mode of realism—but he presents a world much unlike our own and crafts a utopia where the poor live in a perfectly functioning communist society; some have said his Monterrey is more like Eden than its actual namesake. There is also Steinbeck’s magnum opus, The Grapes of Wrath, where the author creates a mythology of poverty that persists to this day. Any time that Steinbeck writes on the topics of poverty, marginalization, and weakness—on the hardships of mankind—he abandons the clinical contrasts of realism, and in its stead, he dons a romantic reverence, becoming in his writing almost lyrical.

This is what the critics hate. They hate his pushy communist politics, his overbearing style, the preachiness of it all. They hate the Tom Joad monologues and the cliche, dramatic Timshel endings. They want subtlety, and he gives them in-your-face; they want ambiguous ethics, and he gives them his own, untrained musings. I finished East of Eden this year, and I get the complaint. He draws you in with realism, and sneakily works in his philosophy.

But despite his “tenth-rate philosophising,” Steinbeck has still been hugely popular and an inspiring writer for the following generations, and I think that warrants a second look at this oddity of his. What is it about his propensity to romanticize poverty amidst his otherwise realist writing—a taboo if there ever was one—that has made him so successful? I would posit his style gives us the best—nay, the only—way to think of the disenfranchised. 

The lessons we learn from The Grapes of Wrath are the same lessons we learn from A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life, but they are delivered more in the fashion of Bicycle Thieves or Precious. Steinbeck is writing in (or possibly starting) a legacy of works that force us to acknowledge the very real pain of poverty, but they manage somehow to inspire and give hope, not allowing the message to wash over as we remember the times we were taken advantage of by the poor or our belief that laziness corresponds with poverty was affirmed or we witnessed the wicked and selfish nature of the poor.

Steinbeck overreaches on purpose. He chooses not to be clinical when he writes about poverty. And when he does this, he forces us to recognize that poverty is not a matter of choice or work ethic but of vicious cycles and cosmic fate. He knows what he’s doing.


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