Friday, February 21, 2020

Steinbeck Revisited

It all began in eighth grade, when my class was assigned a novel by John Steinbeck. As I read The Pearl, I became horrified. The story seemed so dark and awful, it was a shock to my young mind. After doing the required assignments, I sought to push it to the far recesses of my mind. I decided that I was done with John Steinbeck's writings. However, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, don't they?

As a freshman in high school the next year, my English class was assigned Of Mice and Men, also by John Steinbeck. All I can recall about this novel is that it taught me what the word "whore" meant, and that I hated it even more than The Pearl. The darkness and sin in the book were overpowering, and I struggled to see any kind of goodness or light to lift my spirits. I determined that I really was DONE with Steinbeck, and a dozen or so years rollicked by as I happily avoided any more books by this famed novelist.

A few months ago, however, a good friend mentioned Steinbeck to me. She had just begun reading East of Eden, and was enjoying it. As I listened to her, I inwardly held onto my resolve: I am DONE with Steinbeck. Yet, in the days that followed, I began seeing East of Eden mentioned in various articles about "Novels that Catholics should read." Hmm. All I really knew about this book was that it was a "re-imagining of Genesis" and that it was, supposedly, amazing. I couldn't get it out of my mind. Finally, I bit my lip, let go of my pride, and requested it from the library. Soon after, I heard my friend talk more about her love for this book, and I confessed that I would be reading it soon. With accountability in place, I knew that I couldn't avoid it: my re-match with Steinbeck was inevitable.

I was shocked when the first few paragraphs of the book melted my heart. The writing was gorgeous. As I read page after page, I was drawn deeply into the story of the vivid and vibrant characters. I cheered, I shuddered, and I stress-texted my friend when I grew horrified that a character was making a really terrible decision. Sinful choices tore apart the characters' relationships, but their free choice to accept God's grace built them up again. Through all of the darkness and despair, light shone through. For weeks after reading the book, I pondered the various plot points and characters. I enjoyed the experience of reading the story, and especially as I think about it and discuss it over time, I grow to love this book more and more.

What brought about this change in my attitude towards Steinbeck? Is East of Eden such a superior book that all of his other works are trash? While I haven't (yet) revisited the Steinbeck novels of my youth, I highly doubt that this is the case. Instead, I think the Southern author Flannery O'Connor offers some excellent insights on literature that are worth considering. 

In her essay, "Total Effect and the Eighth Grade," O'Connor mentions two cases in Georgia concerning 8th and 9th grade literature classes. Apparently, two books of modern fiction-East of Eden being one of them-were the source of controversy when some parents complained about certain content in these novels. Instead of addressing the presence of profanity or sexual content in the books, O'Connor takes a different angle. She notes her concern that novels are often assigned in a "haphazard way" as teachers offer what they think "will hold the attention and interest of the students. Modern fiction will certainly hold it." Rather than continuing this trend of literature, O'Connor presents a different path we could take. She writes:
"I would like to put forward the proposition, repugnant to most English teachers, that fiction, if it is going to be taught in the high schools, should be taught as a subject and as a subject with a history. The total effect of a novel depends not only on its innate impact, but upon the experience, literary and otherwise, with which it is approached. No child needs to be assigned Hersey or Steinbeck until he is familiar with a certain amount of the best work of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, the early James, and Crane, and he does not need to be assigned these until he has been introduced to some of the better English novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The fact that these works do not present him with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time, and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them." (O'Connor, Mystery and Manners-emphasis mine)
When I was required to read Steinbeck as a young teenager, I had been consuming a literary diet of  inspirational Christian romance novels with some classic female authors (a la Austen and L.M. Montgomery) thrown in the mix. Furthermore, I was pretty na├»ve about everything. I did not have "the experience, literary or otherwise," to bring with me as I approached Steinbeck's novels.

However, over the dozen years that followed, I matured and grew. I read hundreds of books-some from the very authors and categories O'Connor mentions-and had countless literary discussions throughout college and beyond. I simply lived life, too. I experienced a myriad of feelings revolving around love, betrayal, loyalty, anger, hope, suffering, and joy. I saw my plans for the future turned upside-down and inside-out in a beautiful way. I went through a short period of counseling and began to confront my own shortcomings and sufferings in a healing (but extremely painful) light. I embarked on the journey of parenthood. All of these times-and countless others-have formed me, shaped me, and contributed to the foundation that I subconsciously brought with me when I read East of Eden.

Therefore, I am grateful that I revisited Steinbeck now-not in college, and not three years ago-but at this very point in time. If I had read this novel even a few years ago, I may have hated it with the deep loathing that sprang up when I read Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. I am realizing more and more that great care could be taken when offering literature to others (and ourselves), and particularly, to the youth. How many other young teens hated Steinbeck (or other classic novelists they were introduced to, but not ready for) and decided that literature just "wasn't my thing"? How many other people have been assigned novels at the command of the State with no experiential or literary foundation to first prepare them? And how many people have shunned a classic author for years-as I did-without realizing the tremendous goldmine of beauty and wisdom that they might be ready to finally dive into?

Years after I was first required to read The Great Gatsby (spoiler: I was not a fan) I had to read it again in college; to my surprise, I enjoyed it. Years after I first tried to get through Brideshead Revisited, I finally "got" the book and fell in love with it (it took me THREE tries to reach that point, and I'm so glad I didn't give up). Over a decade after I pushed Steinbeck away, I found his words deeply impacting me.

Literature can be powerful and life-changing, but perhaps we could consider when-and how-we're introducing it to ourselves, our children, and our students.

Perhaps we could consider what kind of foundation has been laid, and if we're reading something only because "it's required" or "it's a bestseller" or "it's a classic," or because we are finally ready to embark on the journey of that novel (and if it's a journey worth taking).

Perhaps we could consider the type of literature we are immersing ourselves and our children in. If we believe that it's good to make our children (or ourselves) read "all the dark/depressing/scarring/horrifying books" because that's the standard for some schools, then perhaps we could also throw in some books that are lighter or-dare I say it-happier?

Maybe we could even consider bringing in a "dark" book where rays of light and hope distinctly shine through, like The Power and the Glory (incidentally, I think Graham Greene's Catholic novels can be a great preparation for Steinbeck).

I know it is much less work to simply read whatever is thrown at us, no questions asked. Yet, I wonder if perhaps becming more discerning about our literature in our schools, in our homes, and in our lives could benefit us.

Words are powerful, and the literature we read forms who we are-wouldn't it be good to consider what books are impacting us, and how they are changing us?


  1. This is such a good point, AnneMarie, and SO TRUE. There are books people just aren't ready for. I hated much of what I read in high school because of that - I just did not 'get' it. Now I understand so much more when I pick up a classic. But I'd love to know how to build that foundation now as an adult. I'm always reading something, but would love it explained where to start and how to build off introductory then more advanced works. That would be so helpful now as an adult! I don't think I've ever read anything by Steinbeck, and from the sound of it, I should probably read other stuff first, lol. Such a good and important point I wish more people and educators understood!

  2. We’ve already talked about this, but I love this post SO much. It echoes exactly how I felt after I read The Grapes of Wrath.

  3. I know this isn't the point of this lovely post, but I did laugh because it made me think of how my kids learned the word "whore" at about age 6... from reading the Bible. Gotta love the King James Version! It doesn't mince words.