Steinbeck’s Whitewash

Tony Ortega‘s feature “Louis Owens and John Steinbeck’s Ghosts” is something of a hybrid of personal essay and literary essay. Starting with the suicide of novelist Louis Owens six years ago, the Village Voice editor recalls his research of Steinbeck’s novel In Dubious Battle, which uses white Okies instead of the Mexicans who actually participated in the Great Cotton Strike of 1933. The entire piece is worth your time—it’s a nice tribute to Owens and an interesting exploration of Ortega’s own family ties to the strike. But this bit summarizes what’s at issue:

Making the workers all one ethnicity made sense in a couple of ways—not only was it easier to consider groupthink among a homogenous group, but by 1936, when the book was published, many more white Okies had poured into California as a result of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. You could argue that Steinbeck wasn’t only “whitewashing” the details of the strike in his novel to keep his theme pure, but also to reflect the times.

Other things, however, weren’t so easy to reconcile—in particular, some troubling remarks that the author had made in newspaper articles at about the same time. More than once, Steinbeck made the point that it was time for the larger public to pay more attention to the plight of farm workers for the very reason that so many of them were now white. As he put it, “their blood was strong”; democracy, he argued, came more “naturally” to the white farm worker, who wasn’t going to put up with the kind of treatment that earlier workers had.

Although Steinbeck didn’t use the bigoted language that was so common at the time, he was nevertheless implying that the “blood” of the Mexican workers wasn’t “strong,” that democracy didn’t come naturally to them, when the opposite was true: Organizers found the Mexicans more willing to stand up for their rights.

Best Westerns

The Charlotte Observer ponders the legacy of William Saroyan, who was born 100 years ago in Fresno, California. Donald Munro writes: “Who can say why Saroyan doesn’t have the name recognition today of, say, his contemporary John Steinbeck?”

Funny you should ask! In today’s Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley joins Robert Gottlieb as a member of the Salinas Handwringers Society—a small but apparently growing group of critics who take whacks at Steinbeck’s works yet still find themselves enchanted by them. “Why do people still read Steinbeck today while his contemporary William Saroyan…is almost completely forgotten?” Yardley asks, then proposes an answer:

The only reason I can come up with for the high esteem in which Steinbeck is still held is his transparent sincerity. It has long been my pet theory that in the popular marketplace, readers instinctively distinguish between writers whose work draws on genuine feeling and those who rely on art or artifice, and that they reward the former while repudiating the latter. From Jacqueline Susann to Danielle Steel, from James Michener to James Patterson, readers have recognized the sincerity of feeling beneath the utter lack of literary merit, and have rewarded it accordingly.

Yardley isn’t being cute or glib here—his assessment is couched in a wise reading of Cannery Row, and the whole essay is worth your time.

Staying in the West a little longer: I’m a little out of practice in long-form reviewing, but I wanted a little more room than usual to discuss Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s The Drop Edge of Yonder and Willy Vlautin‘s Northline. My review of both novels is in this week’s City Paper.

The Man America Loves to Hate

Robert Gottlieb, writing in the New York Review of Books, uses the Library of America’s release of a collection of John Steinbeck‘s later writings to reassess his legacy. Gottlieb argues that much of Steinbeck’s work is actively awful, and that in the late-period stuff was among the worst offenders. But while the piece doesn’t quite state it as a theme, floating in there is an argument that the more journalistically Steinbeck behaved, the better he was. Gottlieb writes:

His finest work is almost always reportorial. Although he didn’t (as was frequently misreported) go to Oklahoma to observe the migrant Okies as they set out on their hegira to the West, he did spend weeks with them in California—on the road, in their camps. At first he was working as a journalist to air their desperate situation, but quickly he realized that here was the material for the major novel he felt ready to write….

The Grapes of Wrath is a vertiginous conjunction of sweeping, irresistible narrative and highfalutin theorizing. That readers in 1939 tolerated the latter is testimony to the power of the former—and to the readiness of America to be affected by the terrible story of the Joads. With the book’s overwhelming success—it was the best-selling novel of the year, won the Pulitzer Prize, etc.—and the further impact of John Ford’s impressive film version, which appeared in movie houses only months after the book’s publication, Steinbeck graduated from being an admired young writer to worldwide acceptance as a major figure in American literature.

Is “The Wire” a Novel?

HBO’s series about organizational dysfunction in Baltimore, “The Wire,” debuted its fifth and final season last night. Me, I’m one of the critics who received advance screeners of the season, and I’m holding fire on registering an opinion on it for a little bit yet; I’m working on a piece for City Paper about it. I will say that much of the season scratches the itches I want “The Wire” to scratch, but I’m also wrangling with a few things I’m finding problematic. Getting too deep into that right now involves spoilers, so for now I’ll hold tight.

One thing that I and other critics have been discussing, though, is whether to call “The Wire” a novel. Maud Newton says no: “Watching it is not the same as reading. But I can’t join in pulling out the violins over the (supposed) death of fiction when TV as a form is revealing itself to have this kind of narrative potential.” The New York Times says yes, making much of how the word Dickensian gets batted around in the show. (One episode is titled “The Dickensian Aspect.”)

Me being the third-way fellow that I am, I think both make good points. “The Wire” is certainly in the tradition of social novels like Hard Times, Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle, and John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath. The difference, though, is that those novels had ambitions to affect social change. (And, to some extent, they followed through.) But “Wire” creator David Simon knows he’s in an era when the social novel doesn’t matter the way it used to–one of the chief models for the show, Richard Price‘s Clockers (a novel as Dickensian as American fiction has been in recent years), didn’t do a thing about the crack epidemic it describes, let alone American drug policy. “The Wire” understands that lack of force, and tries to understand the reasons why these stories don’t penetrated the public consciousness anymore. It’s a social novel that acknowledges the toothlessness of the modern social novel.