Was the rest of Steinbeck’s writing that good?

Our friend Bryan retweeted this the other day, with a very brief comment: “Dude could write.”

Yes, he could, I thought as I read it. And then I thought of something else: Was any of his other, more familiar, writing this good? Or was he even better than usual when trying to be ingratiating to Marilyn Monroe?

First, I admit that I haven’t read a whole lot of Steinbeck. I hate to admit that, seeing he was, as Wikipedia asserts, “a giant of American letters.” I never quite finished his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.

The only two books of his I know I’ve read all the way through are Of Mice and Men (more than once, I think) and the somewhat less celebrated The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. So, you know, I’m not even qualified to draft a Steinbeck Top Five List.

Those were good books (even though, let’s face it, Mice and Men was a downer). But did it have passages that grabbed you as insistently as this does: “He has his foot in the door of puberty, but that is only one of his problems. You are the other.” (And you know he’s not exaggerating, because this is, you know, Marilyn Monroe.)

Poor kid. It would be a rough obsession to have, being that age at that point in her career. I was only 8 when she died, so the effect was different.

Anyway, yeah, I know, I need to finish Grapes of Wrath. I truly feel obligated to do so, sort of the way I feel about Moby Dick. But the thing is, I’m already fully convinced of its greatness, and it’s import as a slice of American life at a critical moment in a critical place. But come on, despite all these years of not letting myself see the movie until I’d read the book, I already know how it ends. And not to give anything away, but it’s kind of a bummer, too.

I’ll try. But I might finish Moby Dick first. I know that has some pretty engaging writing in it

Oh, one last thing: Given what he says in the first graf, do you think the nephew actually exists? I dunno. Great writers can be mysterious…

Here’s the kid’s other problem. Assuming he existed…

14 thoughts on “Was the rest of Steinbeck’s writing that good?

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Maybe, when I go back and try again, Grapes of Wrath will knock me over with how good it was. That happens to me. Moby Dick did that (although I still didn’t finish it).

    1984 does that every time I go back to it, starting with the great opening:

    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

    Wow. That just sums up Winston’s dismal life from the start. You’re immersed in it from the start, and feeling what it’s like — which is lousy. But you have to keep reading.

    In recent days, I did myself the favor of rereading Heart of Darkness for the first time in decades, maybe in 40 or 50 years. Which was wonderful, because I’d forgotten so much. It was thoroughly amazing. While I was reading it, I had a conversation with a high school English teacher who recently used it in his class. He said it went well, but it still seems to me there’s no way those kids fully appreciated it. If they appreciated it at all, they’re in for a real treat if they wait and then reread it in a few decades…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      If you go long enough without reading Conrad’s masterpiece, and you’re a movie buff, over time you misremember the original; you lazily start to think it’s just “Apocalypse Now” in book form.

      After all, the parts of the film that invoke the book are the good parts. I’ve never been as enamored as so many are with, say, the Robert Duvall part. Oh, make not mistake — I think Duvall is amazing, and that part of this flick is a lot of fun. But such trite, cartoonish fun has no place in this film. The parts in which Martin Sheen is reading Kurtz’ dossier and thinking his thoughts out loud are the parts that invoke the feel of the book. (I’d sort of like to see a cut-down version that just had the Conradian parts. That’s what Coppola should have done, instead of releasing his extended version. All you get out of the extended version is the strong conviction that he had been right to cut those parts out to begin with.)

      Which is weird, in a way. Nothing like that — like Willard reading the dossier — happened in the novella. In fact, the biggest difference between the movie and the book isn’t that Marlow’s name has been changed to Willard. It’s that Willard, unlike Marlow, has a mission, one that is spelled out for him from the start. And the mission is Kurtz.

      Marlow doesn’t have that. His obsession with Kurtz sort of happens organically, from the things he hears as he travels up the river. Willard has everything known about Kurtz laid out for him, in his briefing and the dossier.

      This huge difference was necessary, I think. And it points to an important difference between what makes a film work and what makes a book work. Conrad’s is a short novel (or a long short story), but as long as Apocalypse is, it would have had to be a lot longer for Willard to work all that out for himself.

      And yet, even though Willard is under orders, that’s not why he’s there. Like Marlow, he had his own reasons for what he did — for seeking out the job of going up that river, and for seeking out Kurtz. Willard was just looking for a mission. He had to get back into the darkness of the jungle, and this mission was the way.

      The commonality is that Kurtz was something that had gotten under each man’s skin…

      1. Bill

        “It must be said, too, that I knew very little of my officers. In consequence of certain events of no particular significance, except to myself, I had been appointed to the command only a fortnight before. Neither did I know much of the hands forward. All these people had been together for eighteen months or so, and my position was that of the only stranger on board. I mention this because it has some bearing on what is to follow. But what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship; and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself. The youngest man on board (barring the second mate), and untried as yet by a position of the fullest responsibility, I was willing to take the adequacy of the others for granted. They had simply to be equal to their tasks; but I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.”

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          The Secret Sharer!

          I need to go back and reread that as well. Assuming I even read it all — it’s been so long, I can’t say for sure.

          And it’s so easy, because Conrad is all in the public domain now. I enjoy both the Apple Books app and the Kindle app I have on my iPad. And most of the great books ever written are free. My only complaint about these services is that they’re all the time pestering me wanting me to buy something new. Why would I do that, when far more masterpieces than I’ll ever have time to glance at are available free?

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I mean, I thought it was cool that Barnes & Noble had that display of public domain books in a special, low-cost edition. But on my iPad, the same books are FREE!…

            It’s not quite the same kind of miracle as Google Maps, which continues to blow my mind. The technology of free books is simpler. But it’s still one of the greatest advantages the internet affords…

          2. Bill

            When the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Secret Sharer” describes his first reaction to Leggatt’s narrative, he loses his ability to name his feeling about the stowaway’s tale. Written fifteen years after Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency in 1895, Conrad’s story echoes Wilde’s famous aphorism, “the Love that dare not speak its name,” placing it in a turn-of-the-century cultural and literary tradition of sexual and social dissidence. Conrad, in his story “The Secret Sharer” and some of his earlier novels, toys with the genre of boys’ adventure fiction, abiding by many of its conventions while subtly manipulating others of them, and thus upsets the traditions of the genre. By complicating the hero figure, the main character in boys’ adventure fiction, with his incorporation of a deviant masculinity into tales of adventure, Conrad reconfigures Victorian standards of masculinity, creating a name and space for this deviance that did not exist for Wilde.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Lord of the Flies is another book I didn’t read in school the way so many did. I read it as an adult, and was impressed.

      “28 Days Later” was also good… although, of course, as anyone who has seen The Walking Dead knows, walkers don’t move that fast…

  2. Matt

    Wondering if Jon Atkinson of Austin, TX existed, I searched Google and found an obituary for Frances Atkinson from 2004. She was ” preceded in death by her husband and a sister, Elaine Anderson Steinbeck”.
    Survivors include a son, Jon Atkinson.


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