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A Nobel Laureate's Eden and Our Many Faults and Failures

Novels 1942-52: The Moon is Down/Cannery Row/The Pearl/East of Eden (Library of America #132) - John Steinbeck, Robert DeMott

Whenever "the great American novel" comes up in conversation, the names most frequently bandied about are Fitzgerald ("The Great Gatsby"), Faulkner ("The Sound and the Fury"), Hemingway ("The Old Man and the Sea") – and John Steinbeck, chronicler of rural California and the ordinary man's plight, like Faulkner and Hemingway winner of both the Literature Nobel Prize (1962) and the Pulitzer (1940, for "The Grapes of Wrath"), in addition to multiple other distinctions.

 

Little in Steinbeck's upbringing hinted at his future rise to fame. Born 1902, a modest Salinas, California, flour-mill-manager-turned-county-treasurer's son, he worked as a farm hand during high school and studied English and biology at Stanford, but left in 1925 without graduating in order to pursue journalism and writing in New York; only to have to return home a year later. Surviving on a number of odd jobs, he continued to write. His first novel, 1929's "A Cup of Gold," however, failed to return his publisher's $250 advance, and his subsequent collection of interrelated stories ("The Pastures of Heaven," 1932) and novel ("To a God Unknown," 1933) likewise remained largely unknown. Steinbeck's fate changed with 1935's humorous "Tortilla Flat," chronicling life in a Chicano community (and an allegory on Steinbeck's own first literary influence, the Arthurian legend, to which he returned much later in an unfinished attempt to modernize Mallory's "Morte D'Arthur"). Both "Tortilla Flat" and the subsequent "In Dubious Battle" (1936) – Steinbeck's first exploration of the California's migratory workers' fate – won the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal; and the sale of "Tortilla Flat"'s movie rights earned him his first truly big check. Steinbeck's reputation grew further with the interrelated coming-of-age stories of "The Red Pony" (1937), and his next two novels, 1937's poignant "Of Mice and Men" and, particularly, "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939), the story of angry "harvest gypsy" Tom Joad and his family. Both works are still among America's 35 books most frequently banned from school curricula: keen testimony to the nerves they continue to touch.

 

Steinbeck's major works are collected in four volumes of the Library of America series, the first covering his 1932 – 1937 writings, the second "The Grapes of Wrath," Steinbeck's extensive background research ("Harvest Gypsies," 1936), the short story collection "The Long Valley" (1938) and his contribution to "The Sea of Cortez," a 1941 publication about his 1940 marine exploration with close friend Ed Ricketts; and the final volume his last novels, written between 1947 and 1961, as well as the 1950 play-novelette "Burning Bright" and the travel narrative "Travels with Charley in Search of America" (1962). The present – third – volume contains his three major works from the 1940s, in addition to the awe-inspiring "East of Eden" (1952).

 

Read more on my own website, ThemisAthena.info.

 

Preview also cross-posted on Leafmarks.

 


Favorite Quotes

East of Eden

"After a while you'll think no thought the others do not think. You'll know no word the others can't say. And you'll do things because the others do them. You'll feel the danger in any difference whatever – a danger to the crowd of like-thinking, like-acting men ... Once in a while there is a man who won't do what is demanded of him, and do you know what happens? The whole machine devotes itself coldly to the destruction of his difference. They'll beat your spirit and your nerves, your body and your mind, with iron rods until the dangerous difference goes out of you. And if you can't finally give in, they'll vomit you up and leave you stinking outside – neither part of themselves, nor yet free ...They only do it to protect themselves. A thing so triumphantly illogical, so beautifully senseless as an army can't allow a question to weaken it."

 

Cannery Row

"It has always seemed strange to me ... The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second."

 

Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

"The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement."

Source: http://www.themisathena.info/literature/steinbeck.html#Novels1942-52