A Mighty Heart
In 1933 John Steinbeck was so poor he couldn’t afford a dog. The literary critic Lewis Gannett uncovered this fact in Steinbeck’s correspondence with his agents during the time he was writing Tortilla Flat. He had published three books of fiction since 1929, but together they hadn’t earned back his wretchedly small advances from his publisher. Of his first novel, Cup of Gold, Steinbeck said, “I rather wish it had never been published.” Pastures of Heaven and To a God Unknown earned some praise but no money, and a novel called Dissonant Symphony he withdrew from his agents, saying he was ashamed of it.
“I need a dog pretty badly,” Steinbeck wrote. “Apparently we are headed for the rocks. The light company is going to turn off the power in a few days . . .” Then he published Tortilla Flat, and it became a popular success, which he didn’t understand. “Curious,” he wrote, “that this second-rate book, written for relaxation, should cause a fuss. People are taking it seriously.” And he added, “I am scared to death of popularity . . .”
This is a familiar pattern among some authors—poverty turning overnight into a confusion of success and money—but that isn’t quite my point tonight. Two weeks ago I was in a panel discussion and someone asked about self-doubt. I admitted to self-doubt on the basis of a theory I developed the hard way—that writers don’t really know what they’re doing when they’re doing it. Self-doubt, I suggested, is the price a writer pays for bringing out of his imagination work that is new and original to him, and—he hopes—to readers. Freedom from doubt comes from courting the sure thing—cloning yesterday’s successes, your own or somebody else’s. How can you not have doubt about untested work that seeks to be different from anything that has gone before?
The originality Steinbeck was trying for in Of Mice and Men, a short work of fiction, was to write “a play that can be read, or a novel that can be played . . . to find a new form that will take some of the techniques of both.” By the time he was writing it he had earned enough money to buy a dog—a setter named Toby who, one night, alone with the Of Mice and Men manuscript, made confetti of it. “Two months’ work to do over,” Steinbeck wrote. “There was no other draft. I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a manuscript I’m not sure is good at all.” Mice, as Steinbeck called it, was critically acclaimed, became a Book-of-the-Month, and a serious movie, but the suddenly famous Steinbeck still had his doubts. “I’m not sure,” he wrote, that “Toby didn’t know what he was doing when he ate the first draft. I have promoted Toby-dog to be lieutenant-colonel in charge of literature.”
By this time he was in the first of four stages of creation of The Grapes of Wrath. The first was seven articles for the San Francisco News in October 1936 on the desperation of migrant farm workers and Steinbeck’s plea for change; the second a novel called The Oklahomans, which he destroyed; the third a satirical novel called L’Affaire Lettuceberg, which attacked a cabal of power figures who, through terrorism, destroy a migrant workers’ strike. This novel was announced as forthcoming, but when Steinbeck finished it he wrote to his publisher:
It is a bad book and I must get rid of it . . . It is bad because it isn’t honest . . . I’ve written three books now that were dishonest because they were less than the best I could do. One you never saw because I burned it the day I finished it . . . Not once in the writing of it have I felt the curious warm pleasure that comes when work is going well . . . I had forgotten that I hadn’t learned to write books. A book must be a life that lives all of itself and this one doesn’t do that . . . Mice was a thin, brittle book . . . but at least it was an honest experiment . . . I think I got to believing critics—thought I could write easily and that anything I touched would be good simply because I did it. Well, any such idea, conscious or unconscious, is exploded for some time to come.
Steinbeck then began the manuscript that became The Grapes of Wrath, wrote it in five months, beginning in May and ending in late October 1938. He wrote in longhand, producing two thousand words a day, the equivalent of seven double-spaced typed pages, an enormous output for any writer. But in his diary, published as Working Days, he flagellated himself: “Vacillating and miserable . . . I’m so lazy, so damned lazy . . . where has my discipline gone?” This would be his ninth fiction book in ten years and he’d be thirty-seven years old.
The diary also shows him choking on self-doubt as he finishes Grapes:
No one else knows my lack of ability the way I do . . . Sometimes I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done, it slides into mediocrity . . . Got her done. And I’m afraid she’s a little dull . . . My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads . . . My work is no good, I think—I’m desperately upset about it . . . I’m slipping . . . I’ve been slipping all my life . . . Young man wants to talk, wants to be a writer. What could I tell him? Not a writer myself yet . . . I am sure of one thing—it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.
Grapes is the odyssey of the Joad family of Oklahoma after a great drought causes the loss of the family farm. The landless Joads set out in a dilapidated truck, across the desert, to find work picking fruit in the promised land of California, a pipe dream that turns into a nightmare. Historically the book is the major anthem of the multitudes at the bottom of the world, bereft and drifting outcasts from the hostile society spawned by the Great Depression; in particular it is a hymn to the peon class which one soulless corporate farmer said—and Steinbeck noted this—was necessary to the survival of California agriculture. The book can also stand as a vivid parallel to the homeless on America’s streets since the 1980s; but even more, it illumines a universal theme articulated by Ma Joad, the matriarch, who is the novel’s greatest character:
“We ain’t gonna die out,” Ma says. “People is goin’ on—changin’ a little maybe, but goin’ right on.”
And Uncle John asks her, “What’s to keep ever’thing from stopping; all the folks from jus’ gittin’ tired an’ layin’ down?”
“Hard to say,” says Ma. “Ever’thing we do—seems to me is aimed right at goin’ on . . . Even getting’ hungry—even bein’ sick; some die, but the rest is tougher. Just’ try to live the day, jus’ the day.”
I can’t go on, I’ll go on. It’s Beckett’s line before Beckett. And it was John Steinbeck’s theme song as he drove himself like a peon in a lifelong quest to create literature. When the Viking Press published The Grapes of Wrath, the novel its author thought was no good, the book became the top bestseller of 1939, won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize, still sells more than a hundred thousand copies a year in the United States. Worldwide it has sold close to forty-five million copies, a planetary best-seller.
Six months after it was published, Steinbeck wrote in his diary: “That part of my life that made the Grapes is over . . . I have to go to new sources and find new roots.” He published another dozen books, but few of them approached the literary excellence of his best early works. Then he published The Winter of Our Discontent, and in October 1962, the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature. An Academy spokesman said the novel was a return to the “towering standard” of Grapes, and called Steinbeck an “independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad.”
Later that day Steinbeck answered questions from a roomful of reporters, one of whom asked, “Do you really think you deserve the Nobel Prize?” Pete Hamill, New York columnist and novelist, was a young reporter in that room. He remembers Steinbeck at that moment and what he calls “the wounded look in his eyes.” Steinbeck paused, then said with his usual self-flagellation, “That’s an interesting question. Frankly, no.”
And so had begun the chorale of nay-saying which tried then, and is trying still, to dishonor the work of this writer. Not everybody who likes Steinbeck would agree that Discontent and Grapes are of equal weight, and I am one of those. But when I look at his achievements—Of Mice and Men, The Long Valley, Tortilla Flat in spite of itself, Cannery Row, much of East of Eden, and then The Grapes of Wrath—and when I try to name other American writers whose work meant as much to me when I was discovering literature and starting to write seriously, I count only a small handful.
John Steinbeck had the power. If at times he lacked the language and the magic that goes with mythic literary achievement and status, he had in their place a mighty conscience and a mighty heart. And sixty-three years ago, that man sat put pencil to paper, and, in five miraculous months—gorged with the self-doubt that plagued his life—he wrote his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, a mighty book that no amount of nay-saying can diminish.
“We ain’t gonna die out,” is what Ma Joad said.
And neither is John Steinbeck.