Monday, June 10, 2013

(J)ohn Steinbeck - Part I of a chronological tour through his writings

In the beginning of this year, I undertook a personal challenge to read through the alphabet. I made sure it wasn't too difficult in order to fit in all the good reading that I wanted to get to that had been piling up while I read challenge books and group reads. I decided that this was the year that I would read what I wanted. The alphabet challenge has become a fun vehicle to do that.


I blame it on the Chunksters group read of East of Eden a couple of years ago. That's where my love for John Steinbeck's writing began, thanks to fellow-readers who enhanced my appreciation with their knowledge of his works and good analysis of his writing. I fell in love with his easy style, believable characters, inclusion of California history, and the contrasts and similarities that draw the reader's eye. Since then I've devoured several other books and unabashedly count myself one of the horde who consider Steinbeck their favorite author. Here's to John Steinbeck, the first of a series of posts dedicated to reviewing all his works in chronological order.

Does Steinbeck have anErrol Flynn thing going on?

Errol Flynn


Cup of Gold: A life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccanneer, with Occasional Reference to History introduced Steinbeck to the literary world in 1929.  It only sold 1537 copies in its first printing but 939 copies were sold from a second printing in 1936, surely due to the success of Tortilla Flat which published in 1935.

This is what I wrote in my GoodReads review upon reading Cup of Gold: Cup of Gold launched Steinbeck's literary career and has the distinction of being his only historical novel. From a Steinbeck fan POV, this book fascinated me. The flashes of Steinbeck phrase-ology peeked through like the sun on a mostly overcast day in the first and last chapters, while the middle chapters consisted primarily of vintage Steinbeck. I felt I could see him fishing in the deep blue sea for his voice and style in the two chapters mentioned before, while the mid-voyage was awash with the patented Steinbeck smoothness of speech.

Personally, I'm glad he abandoned the historical novel ship and flew his own colors writing novels that encompass what he learned in his own life and about his family history. The advice 'write what you know' cannoned him to fame and served other writers well. However, I enjoyed my time asea with Captain Henry Morgan in the golden pages of this first treasure. My spyglass is now trained on the next novel, The Pastures of Heaven. 

Steinbeck returns to California

Pastures of Heaven  is an odd book for Steinbeck when compared to his more popular books. He clearly begins to find his writing style, skill at characterization and he is comfortably at home writing about California vs. Panama City as in Cup of Gold. This book could almost be labeled a collection of short stories vs. a complete novel. Could Steinbeck have felt uncomfortable writing a complete novel and opted to write 10 chapters about different folks who live in the fictional setting of Paradise of Heaven? I don't know, but look forward to reading a biography or two that perhaps will address this question. Anyhow, the unique stories struck me as practices in drawing up characters and then stuck together with the scotch tape of a few characters who make appearances in multiple stories. (eg. Bert Munroe and members of the Whiteside family) This is no complaint. Being the Steinbeck aficionado that I am, I found it highly interesting to observe his growth as a writer. The growth between Cup of Gold and The Pastures of Heaven is significant and I look forward to comparing it with takes place in his next book, Tortilla Flat, his first commercial success.

Here is a chapter-by-chapter summary of The Pastures of Heaven:

Chapter I   -   The disciplinarian corporal felt weak in the face of so serene a beauty. He who had whipped brown back to tatters, he whose rapacious manhood was building a new race for California, this bearded, savage bearer of civilization slipped from his saddle and took off his steel hat. 
     "Holy, Mother!" he whispered, "Here are the green pastures of Heaven to which our Lord leadeth us.
     ...After a long time a few families of squatters moved in to the Pastures of Heaven and built fences and planted fruit trees....
Chapter II   -   Bert Munroe and his family come to the valley. Before Bert Munroe took possession of his new property, there were a dozen stories about him circulating through the Pastures of Heaven. He knew that the people who were to be his new neighbours were staring at him although he could never catch them at it. this secret staring is developed to a high art among country people. They have seen every uncovered bit on you, have tabulated and memorized the clothes you are wearing, have noticed the colour of your eyes and the shape of your nose, and, finally, have reduced your figure and personality to three or four adjectives, and all the time you thought they were oblivious to your presence.

Chapter III   -   Enter Edward "Shark" Wicks..."Shark?" they said, "Oh, I'd guess he was worth around twenty thousand, maybe more. He's nobody's fool."

     And the truth was that Shark had never had more than five hundred dollars at one time in his life.

Chapter IV   -   The origin of Tularecito is cast in obscurity, while his discovery is a myth which the folks of the Pastures of Heaven refuse to believe, just as they refuse to believe in ghosts.

Chapter V   -   Helen Van Deventer was a tall woman with a sharp, handsome face and tragic eyes. ...At twenty-five she married Hubert Van Deventer, a florid, hunting man who spent six months out of every year trying to shoot some kind of creature or other. ... As he lay dying under a tree, one of his companions asked whether he wanted to leave any message for his wife.
     "Yes," said Hubert. "Tell her to have me mounted for that place in the library between the bull moose and the bighorn! Tell her I didn't buy this one from the guide!"

Chapter VI   -   Meet Junius Maltby, the Robert Louis Stevenson adventure-reading fiend...

Chapter VII   -   Hola, here are the Lopez sisters... Old Guiermo Lopez died when his daughters were fairly well grown...For a time, with grim martyrdom, they went hungry, but in the end the flesh conquered. They were too fat and too jolly to make martyrs of themselves over an unreligious matter like eating.
Chapter VIII   -   The story of Molly Morgan, one of a couple about school teachers.

Chapter IX   -   Of all the farms in the Pastures of Heaven the one most admires was that of Raymond Banks.

Chapter X   -   Pat Humbert's parents were middle-aged when he was born; they had grown old and stiff and spiteful before he was twenty.

Chapter XI   -   May I introduce to you, Richard Whiteside.  On the evening of a fine clear day, he drove his two bay horses to the top of the little hills which surround the Pastures of Heaven. He pulled up his team and gazed down on the green valley. And Richard knew that he had found his home,...

Chapter XII   -   At two o'clock in the afternoon the sight-seeing bus left its station in Monterey for a tour of the peninsula. ... "It's called Las Pasturas del Cielo," the driver said. ...The name means Pastures of Heaven.""If I had the money, I'd buy the whole thing. ..."

Steinbeck does a nice job of book-ending the ten stories between short chapters entailing the founding of Pastures of Heaven and a bus tour observing the "modern-day" Pastures of Heaven. Overall, an enjoyable read and a nice stop on my Steinbeck tour. The next Steinbeck book in my chronological tribute is Tortilla Flat.

I'm going to put an Australia update, more Steinbeck and a side trip to explore some Southern Lit in a tumbler, shake it up and see which post comes out first.