Peter Matthiessen: Story Lines
John Steinbeck’s admirable early work was an important part of my own formative reading: the grit of his descriptions, his deceptive simplicity, so free of the intrusive style that often bothered me in Hemingway and even Faulkner. The clear feel . . . I love the clear feel of “The Red Pony,” which is in The Long Valley, even though it betrayed an early tendency toward that sentimentality which would mar the later work, but shouldn’t obscure the extraordinary qualities of simplicity and clarity. Here’s the very beginning of “The Red Pony”:
At daybreak Billy Buck emerged from the bunkhouse and stood for a moment on the porch looking up at the sky. He was a broad, bandy-legged little man with a walrus moustache, with square hands, puffed and muscled on the palms. His eyes were a contemplative, watery gray and the hair which protruded from under his Stetson hat was spiky and weathered. Billy was still stuffing his shirt into his blue jeans as he stood on the porch. He unbuckled his belt and tightened it again. The belt showed, by the worn shiny places opposite each hole, the gradual increase of Billy’s middle over a period of years. When he had seen to the weather, Billy cleared each nostril by holding its mate closed with his forefinger and blowing fiercely. Then he walked down to the barn. . . .
Now that’s good writing. It’s very precise, very evocative. You instantly know who Billy Buck is, and that’s quite an accomplishment. These days simplicity is out of fashion, but it will come back. Storytelling is always valuable. Indian people in some tribes are not allowed to tell stories in the summertime, during the harvest, in the season of plenty; they save storytelling for winter. That’s how precious stories are in every traditional culture I’ve been exposed to.
The books that stick to my ribs even today are Of Mice and Men, In Dubious Battle, and The Grapes of Wrath, which concerned farm labor, and especially migrant labor in the Sacramento valley. One reason they stay with me is that they evoke my own travels—they’re like the dreams behind all of my travels. I used to hang out with an Indian friend on the east side of the Salinas Valley, where Steinbeck came from; that’s the Long Valley. And again, later in life, I worked with Cesar Chavez in the Sacramento Valley, and went up and down the valley, and of course the Sacramento Valley is the scene of The Grapes of Wrath. And the place names have not changed. I was doing a book on the grape boycott, which was simply a continuation of the conditions that Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath. And the organizers who worked with Chavez had known the organizers whom Steinbeck knew. The echoes are still there—powerful echoes.
Steinbeck had been so eloquent and empathetic in his chronicles of poor people, working people, that his increasingly conservative politics as life went on were disappointing. And so were those blockbusters, such as East of Eden. As I recall, there was enormous hoopla in the offices of the Viking Press when East of Eden came out: Book-of-the-Month Club, big bestseller, mega-movie sale, James Dean. I’m afraid that was also the first Steinbeck novel I put down unfinished. Tom Ginzburg told me that John Steinbeck was depressed as he and his wife Elaine set off on a sea voyage to celebrate his huge success with East of Eden. He felt he was being honored too late, for the wrong book, and that his best work was behind him. Possibly he was right. And perhaps this is why John Steinbeck’s work, as often happens in the decades after a writer’s death, is now in shadow. Hard-won simplicity, not to speak of story, are out of critical fashion. But I like to believe that the shadow is a cloud over the sun. Even so great a writer as Joseph Conrad, after all, suffered a dimming of his reputation after his death. Now Conrad has returned into the light, where he will stay. It would be wonderful if the centennial of his birth ignited a fresh appraisal of John Steinbeck, a marvelous storyteller whose best fiction will surely stay in the light.