Saturday, August 7, 2010

Steinbeck today: summer reading

I'm reading East of Eden, which I've never read, and I tend to be the sort of reader who loves one book by an author so then reads all the others. Steinbeck has been one of my most influential writers on the basis of The Grapes of Wrath and Travels with Charley, two very different books that I read for the first time in high school. I've read The Grapes of Wrath four or five times, and Travels with Charley more times than I can count.  I still have the copy of Travels with Charley that I stole from the Washburn branch of the Minneapolis/Hennepin County public library, and I didn't steal many books from libraries. Sometimes I took them without checking them out, usually because I had too many fines on my card, but I usually returned those. I only kept them if I needed them. I've been carrying this copy of Travels with Charley around for twenty years now.

So why didn't I ever read all of Steinbeck? He's written a lot of books, but that doesn't usually stop me. It's probably partly because I didn't like Of Mice and Men (though I should give it another shot) or The Pearl (which I'm still not sure I need to revisit). I might have read Cannery Row. I also might have read The Red Pony. So I didn't read all of Steinbeck because while two books knocked me flat, others bored me. He's no Horatio Alger.

I'm about a fourth of the way through the 600-page East of Eden. Published in 1952, set at the turn of the last century ("You can see how this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900"), Steinbeck ruminates on how people then must have felt about the century just ending, and from this vantage point, he is so clearly looking at it from the middle of that next century. Smack in the middle of the Cold War, back from WWII where, according to that estimable source, Wikipedia, he "served as a World War II war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and worked with the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA)," Steinbeck--okay, Steinbeck's narrator--tells us:
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.
And now we return to our regularly scheduled programming, the story of Adam Trask and his evil monster wife.

I don't read many novels that have such a visible author/narrative voice. I'll keep reading, but I wish Steinbeck would put himself a little more in the background and just tell his damn story. Though I do love how much it's about place, and how much he loves that Salinas Valley he came from.

I could keep going on. About the women characters--I don't remember the women in The Grapes of Wrath feeling so two-dimensional, and he was fifteen years younger when he wrote that. What happened? But this is enough for now.

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