Sunday, October 01, 2006

Reading With Ignorance

This post was written by one-time contributor RK

As a reader of literature increases their sophistication they risk ruining certain enjoyments and Steinbeck is one of those writers easily exposed by the attentive reader. To the ideally naive eye a story like Of Mice and Men is a heartbreaking story of two men and their tragic friendship, the camraderie of working men, and the seductive charms of a particular woman-- rich dialogue and some humor. Adapted for the screen, it is the richness of the story and the warmth of the friendship that is emphasized. What is left off or forgotten is what the sophisticated reader immediately recognizes in Steinbeck's texts-- flat allegorical characters, heavy handed metaphors, socialist propoganda. Even the more intricate metaphors are handled so obviously (the old dog put down and all the dialogue about that is later reflected in Lenny's death) that they fairly jump off the page, the writer's puppet strings clearly visible. This would be fine were this post-modernism where observing the writer's strings are point of the enjoyment. But it isn't post-modernism. It isn't even Joyce where the ideas in the text are part of the hunt. This isn't literature written to provoke social change. It is propoganda.
In Saul Bellow, the author's guiding intelligence and essay-like search for truth of existence is essential to the experience. The difference between Bellow's essay-novels and Steinbeck's propoganda-novels is that Bellow's novels are controlled by the guiding intelligence, but the characters and events remain alive and real and uncorrupted (perhaps Bellow achieved this by basing his characters heavily on real persons) by the ideas being worked out around them while in Steinbeck the characters are the embodiment of certain ideas and types. Once these ideas and types are recognized Steinbeck's stories are no longer an engrossing and emotional read of two men and their struggle for a place in a cold world, but become two WORKING MEN beat down by the elite. They become part of a cast of society's outcast-- the old worker, the Negro, the Female. The story becomes a lecture. A needed lecture, perhaps, but still a lecture on social equality. Bellow lectures, too, but through a superior organization and analysis of real characters and real events. The same as Tolstoy and Flaubert and other immortals.
The only way to read Steinbeck for emotional impact is with ignorance. This is not my prescription for just Steinbeck and it is not my disgust simply with propoganda-literature, but with all literature where characters are the embodiments of ideas-- political or social or philosophical.


  1. Once, in a flurry of hyperbole, I was telling Derek Anderson that Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Steinbeck were the four great masters of the modernist novel, like the four fathers of the church. He told me he didn't think Steinbeck was at their level; he was the great social writer, but his prose wasn't at that level of mastery. I tended to agree.

    I think it is a serious error, however, to reduce Steinbeck to propaganda. Propaganda is a deliberate call for political action. "Of Mice and Men" has flat characters and a social message, but that's not propaganda. It's a flat description of the tragic nature of the current system, of the struggle for the working class to make it, etc., but it's at least an examination. It's not propaganda.

    Besides, Steinbeck wrote some of these short novels (like "Of Mice and Men" and "The Pearl") deliberately to be flat. They were intended to be like myths, like realist fables, like brief stories of the tragedy of existence. When he wrote longer works (like "The Grapes of Wrath"), he was able to bring in a personal, alive nature to the characters and situations. This is why people still remember Ma Joad and Tom Joad so vividly (among others)--in "The Grapes of Wrath," Steinbeck created characters that were not only archetypal, but real, unique, personal. That was never his intent in the shorter novels (also, you have a sort of distaste for characters that are archetypal rather than individual, is that not the case?). I remember in "Travels with Charlie" hoping for the grand authorial explanation of the meaning of it all...and never getting it. Steinbeck was fully capable of the sorts of exploration you ascribe to Bellow, it was just never his intent to do so in the short novels.

  2. I would also suggest it is quite arrogant to claim that it is only ignorance which allows an emotional impact. It could be for some individuals, the less-specific, archetypal portrayals have a deeper resonance than more unique character portrayals. But this is based on my belief that Steinbeck isn't writing propaganda.

  3. I think I prefer lit where "characters are embodiments of ideas." It comes down to why we read. I read for ideas, not intimate character portrayals.

  4. i didn't like the pearl, either. i did, however, like east of eden which indulges in biblical archetypes and i think grapes of wrath is a great novel because of its expansiveness. what i was trying to say about bellow is that the ideas and the character is there. but i don't need character-- kafka is one of my favorites and so is beckett.

  5. i think of mice and men is a deliberate call to social action.

  6. What social action, though? Unionization? Wage increases?