Too much time has apparently passed since anyone took the time to deliver a postmortem groin kick to John Steinbeck. Forty years dead, Steinbeck has not been properly pilloried by the tweedy legion of East Coast ancients for a good long while. Fortunately, the author of the seminal work on George Balanchine has stepped forward to remind the boorish vulgarians that Steinbeck was a preachy oaf who once wrote a pony story.
"You can divide his work up into coherent periods," according to Robert Gottlieb in his critique this week in the New York Review of Books, "but there's no coherent trajectory of quality."
The diatribe comes at the release of the fourth and final volume of Steinbeck's work by the Library of America.
That Steinbeck was a cranky bastard with a checkered portfolio is not a revelation, and Gottlieb is certainly correct in asserting that inclusion of "Sweet Thursday" and "Burning Bright" in a collection purporting to celebrate literature stretches its definition. Steinbeck's Pulitzer may have been a fluke and his Nobel a travesty. But every Updike has his "The Witches of Eastwick."
If the "limp" and "faux-parable" junk Steinbeck wrote led him to "East of Eden," a study of what came before his work of genius ought not be shrugged off. And his documentary depiction of Dust Bowl immigrants was a powerful indictment against a status quo that had capitalized on the suffering of others. Yes, Mr. Gottlieb, Okies named their daughters "Rose of Sharon." And, yes, she was a "symptom." That the harsh realities of American affliction still seem foreign to the Gottliebs of the world only indicates that we need more Steinbecks today.
Literature? Maybe not. An important author for his time? Of course.
Steinbeck deserves better, even if he suffered the misfortune of a California birth.