John Ernest Steinbeck entered the American literary scene when a change of scenery took place and many of traditional faces and characters had to leave the footlights. The spotlights turned on the new faces. The USA finished the First War as a winner, but it did not mean an unlimited economical success. The American Dream was just an illusion in many ways. A great economic and financial crisis and subsequent depression paralyzed the country. John Steinbeck was a witness and a participant in all these events.
In his early novels the writer shows the money- centred society, the blind ambition to own for its own sake moved the basic human values to the periphery of the society. Steinbeck was not the first but one of the best to observe, describe and attack these dark sides of the American reality. Speaking about early works I mean the works created until the beginning of the WW II, including "The Grapes of Wrath".
In his firs novel "Cup of Gold" (1929) he tried to solve the contradiction between the human dream and the rough reality. He is dealing with social and psychological problems close to his contemporaries. Steinbeck was interested in the idea of the strong person, who fights against the circumstances and copes with the obstacles. The American critics have found in Morgan, the main character, an embodiment of the ideas of the "lost generation" and later will compare him with Fitzgerald's Getsby. Steinbeck was not satisfied with his first novel. He wrote that it performed on him a purifying effect and turned out to be his preparation for more valuable works. The author redirected his attention on the lives of the ordinary people as a reflection of the complicated social structure of America.
At the end of 1929 Steinbeck finished his second novel "To a God Unknown" edited in 1933 in which California proves itself as the writer s preferable region, as a source of most of his subjects. The valley of Salinas and the Pacific coast were not just a background in his books, but a peculiar condition of human spirit, an environment on which the man projects himself as a complicated combination of contradictions. The main character in the novel is Josef Wayne, a farmer, who became a victim of the nature forces which he was trying to take under control. Possessed by the maniacal idea to safe the fertility of the soil, he committed strange rituals and he was ready to offer a sacrifice to a god unknown. The author himself evaluates his act as a great heroism. In his work we may recognize the peculiarities of his real style- symbolism, extraordinariness of his character, the pantheistic attitude to the nature, rhetoric and decorativeness.
His first formal experiment was the novel "The Pastures of Heaven". It consists of several separate stories with a common theme and setting and taken together they compose the story of the colourful valley. In this small idyllic world live twenty families. They are ordinary, friendly and good-hearted people, some of them a little strange and eccentric. Steinbeck's own basic attitude is a comic detachment which allowed him to mingle the social concern with good-humoured laughter at the irresponsibility of paisanos. But this isolated world was destroyed by the appearance of the family of new settlers. The new inhabitants are missing humanity and warmness. The author reveals all the horror, disorder, narrow-mindedness and futility of the modern American society. The novel became a kind of programme manifesting his strong interest in social problems. The critics defined the story and the characters as primitive, but the writer s primitivism is taken from the real life.
In 1935 the novel "Tortilla Flat" was published. As a genre it is something mixed between romantic idyll and comic epos, describing the life of a small brotherhood of poor and carefree paisanos. They follow their own moral code and reject the values of the heartless philistine society. The man idea of the author is that the wealth and the property are evils', destroying the soul of the natural man. The end of the story is tragic - Danny - the main character died, the two houses that he inherited burn down, the brotherhood falls apart. The final phrase shows the impossibility to preserve the friendship, the faithfulness and the honesty in a society of carthly- minded people. "Tortilla Flat" reveals Steinbeck as a talented narrator and humorist, who masterly uses comic situations to treat serious problems.
In 1934 he became a witness to tragic events. In Salinal started a strike of the apple-pickers which turned to a cruel battle. The writer was horrified. Being an honest man, he could not keep silence and dedicated his next work to these events. The name of the novel is "In a Dubious Battle" (1936) - an expression taken from Milton s Lost Paradise. His characters are victims of the social injustice. The author's position is rather similar to this of doctor Berton - one of his main characters. He sympathises the workers, but remains an observer, who tries to narrate objectively. Steinbeck explains the social problems with the imperfection of the human nature. Here his views of the group may be felt. He was influenced by the concepts of his friend, the biologist Edwerd Rickest. According to him the big human communities are not just a sum of the separate individuals, but a kind of beings with their own collective memory, psychology and conduct, that can not be understood. His idea is to perceive the varying reality as something granted without seeking for the reasons and laws of the occurrences. In the world of nature there can not exist guilty beings. The writer could not find the solution of an ethical paradox-in human society those who possess virtues like goodness, honesty and generosity always parish. The group theory and the thinking in facts are not dominating in his works.
In 1937 was published a short novel "Of Mice and Men". It is written with eye to both stage and movie adaptation. His study of the friendship of the strange Lennie and his faithful George is believable as a revelation of warped personality at the same time that it is symbolic of man s eternal longing to return to the land. The writer was interested in the animal motivation underlying the human conduct, and with its aid he created the world of unreality, with which he could offset that of the ugly world he knew. He was at his best when he succeeded in maintaining a contra punctual interplay between these two worlds by the use of the larger symbolism.
"The Grapes of Wrath" (1939) combines the most important and meaningful characters and ideas of his earlier works, but as a quality is something rather higher. The chief narrative describes the tragic fates of three generations of the Joad family, expropriated Oklahoma farmers from the dust bowl region who set out for California in an old truck. There are two kinds of reasons causing Joad's tragedy-forces of nature and economical laws. They are represented in the novel by two symbols -monsters - the bank and the tractor. They destroyed the world of the farmers-owners depriving them of the most cherished - the love and the attachment to the land. Joad's tragedy must be treated not only in social aspect. It has a great psychological meaning as well. It is a sudden and cruel change of the human soul .Losing their land they become outsiders - people without future and self-confidence. Their only hope is the road. The idea of movement is widely used in the American literature to symbolize the last chance, the new possibilities. Putting his characters on the federal road 66 Steinbeck creates a generalized picture of the human stream .The remarkable innovation of Steinbeck is the combination of two levels - a generalized symbolic level and an individual, specific concrete level. "The Grapes of Wrath" became a sensation in literature and society of America. The serious critics evaluated the novel as a remarkable phenomenon, but it provoked a stream of refutations of reactionary part of society as well.
Starting from "Cannery Row" the author redirects his attention to "the individual mind and spirit of a man" (Eden, p.152) stating that human creativity is something like a moral force in the bad world. "The group never invents anything" (Eden, p.160) so individual departure from the group is an absolute necessity for a man to do his or her own thing. In Steinbeck's later works the group is the society itself and the individual expression means to be separated to resist the acquisition of power, the ambition to own for its own sake, the Dark side of the American Dream. This concept is quite different from the traditional American individualism. In "Cannery Row" Steinbeck recreates the truly poetic world of his youth into a metaphor for a special and perhaps the best kind of America, for the mind, the sensibility, the spirit of the American soul. Although this world had gone, it touches that better part of the American consciousness that is in odds with lotteries, the game shows and cutthroat business practices. The inhabitants of the street are not just funny eccentric figures of the past but the author s cry and willingness to prefer passionate enjoyment to aggressive ambition.
According to Steinbeck the big human communities are not a sum of separate individuals but a kind of beings with their own collective memory, psychology and conduct .The attack on blind ambition, on quest for money and power which ruin the human soul and become a slippery downward slope run through the most Steinbeck's works.
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Steinbeck, J. Cannery Row. New York: Viking 1945. Print
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