Real People: Dorothy Allison on Steinbeck
Can you be personal about John Steinbeck? they asked me. Can you speak personally? I was born into the kind of poverty that John Steinbeck wrote about. I wanted to grow up to be a writer. Oh, I can speak personally about John Steinbeck.
I remember the pleasure I took in being told that my stories were not sentimental. No gloss on the real, I told myself. To be true is to be hard-edged and precise about grief, pain, horror, to be matter-of-fact about rape and cruelty and death. And I’ve always despised whining, that sentimental stuff, those weak sisters pleading through snotty tears. I’m tough stuff, I told myself, I’ll be a tough writer.
You write like a man, I was told. No, I write like a dyke. Except—except sometimes I try to write like John Steinbeck. I try to go from everyday conversation: real people stubbornly deciding to make do with what they must, to lift their heads over the cooling bodies of those they love and plan how they’re going to bury them. I make people starve and spit and refuse to go mad when the loss is so great madness is all that makes sense. I make them breathe, take a breath, take another, moment by moment, slow on the page, wrap that baby in baby-powder sheeting, put it in the ground, root it with a rock, do not think about what will come up in the spring, do not think about what is gone, a specific mamma, dirty hands on a muslin scrap, men in an empty landscape. The women, the men, the land. And then I hesitate. I cringe. We’re not supposed to do that, you know, we writers. Can we? Are we allowed to go from the woman to the women, the grave to the land? I have to fight myself to believe we can. To take prose to poetry, narrative to gospel, flesh to spirit, mental hesitation to passionate conviction. I have to try to put on the skin of John Steinbeck.
And this is what it feels like. Phrase, break, chorus, stanza, refrain, breaking music, his, or that breaking music Muriel Rukeyser wrote about—and she was called sentimental. Gospel choir, Beethoven choral moment, story lifting for a moment, perspective shifting up, up, and then down again into the skin of someone speaking, someone shoveling dirt on a grave. Old truck grinding noise and gravel, man wiping dust from under his eyes. Is it Oklahoma, or Bakersfield, or Greenville, South Carolina, on a day without rain? I do not want to be thought to write badly. I do not want to be predictable, mock-poetic, or silly, foolish, romantic. Don’t want to write down or betray my ignorance, don’t want evidence of prejudice to show on the page, or have it seem that I didn’t think deeply enough about what I intended. I want genius. I want genius to descend and erase all petty hesitations, awkward phrases. I want song, I want a cycle of song and glory, the true, absolutely true felt moment on the page. What John Steinbeck wanted, what he did.
I am partisan to the common people, he said in his journal. Partisan to the common people. On a radio show in April 1939, he disputed the idea that Gods and heroes and kings are the fit subjects for literature. Steinbeck said the writer can only write about what he admires. Present-day kings, he said, are not very inspiring, and God’s on vacation, and the only heroes left are scientists and the poor. The poor. Is that socially conscious art? Is that advocacy fiction? The Grapes of Wrath has been judged less as a novel than as a sociological event, less as a novel than a political cause, less as a novel than as a case study. John Steinbeck called what he was doing “participatory.” He wanted the reader to feel the life of the poor. He wanted you to see and feel, be inside the struggle, the loss, the fear, the uncertainty. He wanted the experience to be lived, for the reader to know what his people were feeling almost before they felt it, making right here, right now, not at a distance, not over there, everything right here, holding a stillborn child, looking up at a dangerous man and seeing contempt in his eyes for who you are. Trying not to be afraid, trying not to be ashamed. Immediate. Not cushioned.
A novel is not a social document. It ain’t in the same category as a monograph on fathers and sons or migrant workers. But it is, it is. A novel is a social document when it stirs a community to action. A novel is a social event when it provokes change. A novel is more than any damn case study when you feel that its people are part of your family, or better still you are part of theirs, desperate, determined, large-souled and small, fearful, and angry, and doing just what you got to do. And what you got to do is the point, of course. What you got to do that you never before imagined yourself doing, the novelist imagines it for you and takes you inside it—you feel it, and now the music of another nation sings in you.
Why is it people still castigate John Steinbeck after sixty years? He got it wrong, they say. The Joads could not have left Eastern Oklahoma, they had to have been from the Western part of the state and, by God, people in those desperate circumstances, they don’t act like no saints, no, by God. No, they don’t. They act like people. People from dry-baked rock-burn pancake, people who pick up and leave. And they would have left just as he writes them leaving. And they might have banded together just as he imagines them doing. They might have been in some moments as strong, as noble as he made them be, and that is what I needed to read as a girl. John Steinbeck set the Joads against all the hatred, contempt, and lies that had been directed at the poor and the lost of this nation. We say, they would never have left Oklahoma, but we know what we mean by “they.” We know who they are. Ma and Tom and Casy and Rosasharn: they live for all that they were the figments of one man’s imagination. The poor’s advocate. The voice of a deliberately impassioned partisan advocacy.
You readers, these people suffer and cry out for you to act. Let not another infant be buried by the side of the road. Make it happen not by penalizing the mother, but by feeding her, by giving her hope and work and a place to deliver that child. Let not another man be driven to despair, losing himself and his family. Give him dignity, a place, a share of what you yourself value, give him pride. You are your brother’s keeper, your sister’s salvation.
Oh dear. Oh dear, I’ve gone too far, haven’t I? I’ve used the language of the Bible, or a socialist in 1937. Any minute now I’m going to start using phrases like “The workers, the hope of history.” I’m going to go further, I could really embarrass us all. We’re so modern. We think ourselves beyond such things: not caring for those we should care for, caring more for our sense of the appropriate, the inappropriate, what is good writing and what is not sentimental. We hesitate. We might overreach. The fear of overreaching. Ah, the fear of overreaching.
John Steinbeck occasionally overreached. He committed the sin of sentimentalizing suffering, romanticizing poverty, he mixed lyricism and realism, he voiced moral indignation and righteous outrage, he projected worth and purpose onto a people and a nation too often dismissed and held in contempt. He made me and many like me love ourselves, love our families. He made us want to be writers. He made us believe justice could be made on the page, and in his work it was.