John Steinbeck: sifting the tide pool

In an impassioned assessment of the work of John Steinbeck on BBC 4 last night (John Steinbeck: Voice of America),  Melvyn Bragg recalled reading Steinbeck as a young teenager in Cumbria in the early 1950s.  This revived my own memory of how, after a branch library opened for the first time in the Cheshire village where I grew up, Steinbeck’s novels were among the first that I devoured.  How many of us, in those years, cut our literary teeth on books such as The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row? Then, in my first term at grammar school, the very first film shown by the school film society –  searing its politics into my soul alongside Dylan and the civil rights movement – was John Ford’s powerful screen version of The Grapes of Wrath.

At university in the late 1960s, Steinbeck was no longer fashionable, his reputation shot among students on the left by his support for the Vietnam war (a fact of which I was reminded in Bragg’s account).  Moreover, although the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to John Steinbeck in 1962 for his ‘realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception’, his star had been on the wane, at least among literary critics, for some time. As Melvyn Bragg noted, the Nobel announcement provoked some harsh criticism that amounted to personal attacks, led by Cornell University professor and critic, Arthur Mizener, who wrote a damning piece for the New York Times, ‘Does a Moral Vision of the Thirties Deserve a Nobel Prize?’ from which Bragg quoted: ‘limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing’.

Steinbeck didn’t roll with the punches.  In his Nobel speech he responded by attacking critics like Mizener:

Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches – nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tinhorn mendicants of low calorie despair.  Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed. […]

More recently, Robert Gottlieb presented a similar, though more lengthy and reasoned critique of Steinbeck’s output in the New York Review of Books in 2008:

We can see in hindsight that with The Grapes of Wrath, the most significant arc of Steinbeck’s career came to an end—the impassioned reporting of large-scale human tragedy, the Zola-esque attacks on injustice. Indeed, an entire cultural era was coming to an end: the populism that broadly ranged from Waiting for Lefty to early Frank Capra movies and documentaries like The Plow That Broke the Plains. At the close of The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad, on the lam, slips away into the dark to join the good fight for The People. A year or two later, with the war upon us, he would have been heading for the nearest draft board.

Gottlieb convincingly explained the connection between the radicalism of The Grapes of Wrath and his support for the Vietnam war thirty years later:

During the Sixties he had become a kind of cultural ambassador for the United States, close to people like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Dag Hammarsjköld. He had always been less radical than people thought he was—the outrage over injustice and poverty in The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle was personal, not ideological. He was, in fact, a liberal, middle-of-the-road Democrat—passionate about FDR, an ardent campaigner for Adlai Stevenson, and eventually close to Lyndon Johnson, whom he liked and vigorously supported, particularly on the Vietnam War.

But in his TV special, Melvyn Bragg was determined to make a case for Steinbeck as one of the great voices of American literature, travelling from Oklahoma to California to examine the enduring legacy of Steinbeck and visit some of the places that inspired his writing. (Though, notwithstanding academic critics, Steinbeck doesn’t need rehabilitating – his books still sell by the bucketload).

Salinas, California: Steinbeck's childhood home

Steinbeck was born in the farming town of Salinas, California in 1902 and had a comfortable, middle class upbringing, his father a local businessman. As a child growing up in the fertile Salinas Valley – the ‘Salad Bowl of the Nation’ – Steinbeck formed a deep appreciation of his environment, not only the rich fields and hills surrounding Salinas, but also the nearby Pacific coast where his family spent summer weekends. ‘I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers’, he wrote in the opening chapter of East of Eden, the novel that was part-family history.  ‘I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer-and what trees and seasons smelled like’.

From 1919 to 1925, when he finally left Stanford University without taking a degree, Steinbeck sometimes worked with migrants and hobos on California ranches. Those relationships, coupled with an early sympathy for the underdog, deepened his empathy for workers, the disenfranchised, the lonely and dislocated, that is characteristic of his work. For a short period Steinbeck worked in construction and as a newspaper reporter in New York City, before returning to California to devote himself to writing.

Bragg’s film was valuable in exploring these local influences on Steinbeck’s work, and in emphasising the ecological ideas that underpinned much of his writing, for example in Cannery Row – something that I, probably in common with many others, certainly missed as a youthful reader.  Bragg explored how the principles of ecology shaped several of Steinbeck’s novels and contributed to his awareness of an essential bond between humans and the environments they inhabit. In a journal entry kept while working on East of Eden, Steinbeck wrote:

The trees and the muscled mountains are the world — but not the world apart from man — the world and man — the one inseparable unit man and his environment. Why they should ever have been understood as being separate I do not know.

His conviction that characters must be seen in the context of their environments remained constant throughout his career. His was not a human-dominated universe, Bragg argued, but an interrelated whole, where species and the environment were seen to interact, where bonds between people, among families, with nature were acknowledged.

Bragg explained how Steinbeck’s holistic vision was determined both by his early years roaming the Salinas hills and by his long and deep friendship with Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist. Founder of Pacific Biological Laboratories, a marine lab housed on Cannery Row in Monterey, Ed was a careful observer of inter-tidal life: ‘I grew to depend on his knowledge and on his patience in research’, Steinbeck wrote in The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951).  Through his friendship with Ricketts, Steinbeck was drawn to the study of coastal biology. He often went collecting with Ricketts to the Great Tide Pool in Monterey Bay and spent many hours in his friend’s lab preserving specimens. In 1940 he accompanied Ricketts on a specimen-collecting trip to the Gulf of California. The story of their journey and philosophical ruminations  was later published as The Log from the Sea of Cortez.  In a passage from that book, Steinbeck explains the significance of the tide pool metaphor that is central to Cannery Row:

In rubber boots we moved over the flat uncovered by the dropping tide; a silty sand made the water obscure when a rock  or a piece of  coral was turned over.  And as always when one is collecting, we were soon joined by a number of small boys. The very posture of search, the slow movement with the head down, seems to draw people. “What did you lose?” they ask.


“Then what do you search for?” And this is an embarrassing question. We search for something that will seem like truth to us; we search for understanding; we search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life; we search for the relations of things, one to another, as this young man searches for a warm light in his wife’s eyes and that one for the hot warmth of  fighting. These little boys and young men on the tide flat do not even know that they search for such things too. We say  to them, “We are looking for curios, for certain small animals.”

Then the little boys help us to search….

Once they know you are generally curious, they bring amazing things. Perhaps we only practice an extension of  their urge. It is easy  to remember when we were small and lay on our stomachs beside a tide pool and our minds and eyes went so deeply  into it that size and identity  were lost, and the creeping hermit crab was our size and the tiny octopus a monster. Then the waving algae covered us and we hid under a rock at the bottom and leaped out at fish. It is very  possible that we, and even those who probe space with equations, simply  extend this wonder.

This was valuable: what I, and no doubt very many other readers have taken from reading novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row is something else: how Steinbeck gave voice to ordinary people who were battling poverty, drought and homelessness. Bragg explored this too, travelling Route 66 from the midwest to the Pacific coast, visiting the site of the 1930s dust bowl in Oklahoma, as well as the destination of the desperate Okies – the California orchards where bloody political battles were fought between the migrant labourers and the owners.

Tom Collins with a drought refugee and her sons at a Migrants Camp. Photograph by Dorothea Lange

Bragg revealed how The Grapes of Wrath, like many of Steinbeck’s novels, was informed in part by careful documentary observation, with Steinbeck spending time with migrants learning about conditions in the labour camps where they lived.  It turns out that Weedpatch Camp in the novel actually existed, and still does today – used by migrant workers, now primarily Mexicans. Bragg visited the camp and spoke to a local historian who explained the background to the book’s dedication: ‘To Tom, who lived it’.

In 1936, The San Francisco News hired Steinbeck to write a series of articles on the Dust Bowl migration. The seven article series, The Harvest Gypsies, provided the factual basis for The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck began his research with an escorted two week tour of California’s Central Valley visiting farms, labour camps, ‘Hoovervilles’, and shantytowns. One camp he visited was the Arvin Sanitary Camp—Weedpatch, built in 1935 by the Federal Government’s New Deal Farm Security Administration (FSA). In contrast to the squalid labour camps set up by the orchard owners, Weedpatch was clean, well-run, and boasted facilities such as a community hall and library.  Here Steinbeck met Tom Collins, the manager of the camp. Collins became the most important single source for The Grapes of Wrath, travelling with Steinbeck on three trips around California observing camp operations, talking to residents, and attending meetings.

Weedpatch camp today

Another aspect of the book that Melvyn Bragg discussed was Steinbeck’s utilisation of biblical patterns (the Exodus, the Promised Land) and language to give the story its mythic character.  He told how Steinbeck insisted that the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic should be printed on the endpapers of the first edition:

In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 25

Bragg told, too, of how, as well as being lauded by critics nationwide for its power and truth, The Grapes of Wrath also attracted a ferocious response. An Oklahoma congressman called it a ‘dirty, lying, filthy manuscript’. California politicians claimed the novel was a scourge on the state’s reputation, and in counties where the migrant population was burgeoning, the book was banned for many years. In some places, the book was burned.

Bragg didn’t have to labour any point about the book’s renewed relevance when he read extracts such as these:

The bankers … breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat.
The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 5

The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.
The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 5

Is a tractor bad? Is the power that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor were ours, it would be good – not mine, but ours. We could love that tractor then as we have loved this land when it was ours. But this tractor does two things – it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people were driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think about this.
The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 14

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.
The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 19

Whenever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.
The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 28

After working as a war correspondent in the Second World War, Steinbeck returning to California where he wrote his nostalgic account of his days on Cannery Row with Ed Ricketts. Cannery Row (1945) hasn’t got much of a plot, but is rather an attempt to capture the feeling of a place and its people, the cannery district of Monterey, California, populated by a mix of those down on their luck and those who choose for other reasons not to live ‘up the hill’ in the more respectable area of town. The novel centres on Doc, a marine biologist based on the real-life Ed Ricketts who worked at Pacific Biological Laboratory, 800 Cannery Row.

Pacific Biological Laboratory, 800 Cannery Row, Monterey, in 1946

Early morning is the time of magic in Cannery Row. In the grey time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended in time in a silvery light. It is the hour of the pearl – the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. … How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream-be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain 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 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 let the stores crawl in by themselves.

It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.
– Cannery Row

Cannery Row, 1930s
Cannery Row, Monterey today

Bragg concluded by talking about Steinbeck ‘s ambivalence towards the United States, to whose landscape and people he felt inexorably drawn, but whose slide into commercialism and corporatism he lamented, especially in one of his last books, Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962). In 1960, he toured America in a camper truck, and on his return published the highly praised Travels with Charley that both celebrates American individuals and decries American hypocrisy. There was powerful writing here, which Melvyn Bragg read out:

American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash – all of them – surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much.The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use. In this, if in no other way, we can see the wild and reckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index. […]  The new American finds his challenge and his love in the traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another while the townlets wither a time and die. This is not offered in criticism but only as observation. And I am sure that, as all pendulums reverse their swing, so eventually will the swollen cities rupture like dehiscent wombs and disperse their children back to the countryside. […]

The climax of his journey is his visit to the New Orleans ‘cheerleaders’ who daily taunted black children newly registered in white schools. His disenchantment with American waste, greed, immorality and racism ran deep. His last published book, America and Americans (1966), decried the seemingly crumbling morality of the American people.

Overall, what I gained from Bragg’s survey was a new understanding of the ecological concepts that underpinned much of Steinbeck’s work – and a desire to re-read those novels I read back in my early teens, as well as those, such as Travels with Charley and The Log from the Sea of Cortez that I have never read.

We have usurped many of the powers we once ascribed to God. Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life or death of the whole world – of all living things. … Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope.
– John Steinbeck, Nobel award speech

4 thoughts on “John Steinbeck: sifting the tide pool

  1. An excellent summary, Gerry. I’m glad you enjoyed the documentary and it fired up your enthusiam for Steinbeck once again. This is a very impressive website ! All the best, Chris Walker – Producer/ Director: “John Steinbeck – Voice of America.”

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