Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Of Men and Their Making: The Selected Non-Fiction of John Steinbeck

This is a collection of John Steinbeck’s essays and journalism. It’s organised in subject order rather than chronological order, and he wrote on wide variety of subjects. I found it quite difficult to review because it covers such a wide ranging topic area, it’s difficult to know where to start. Some of it is funny, some informative, some outraged and some just plain moving.

Whichever it is, and whatever he is writing about the writing is just brilliant.
Steinbeck obviously felt passionately about everything he wrote about. In fact, the introduction to this collection said that he reserved the right to only write only about the things he wanted to. But It didn’t really need to say this. It comes across in his writing.

Being as Steinbeck’s most famous novels are about the starvation and human injustice that took place during 1930’s America, this seems like as good a place as any to start. The series of articles that he wrote about the squatters camps are almost unbearable to read, but at the same time compelling, and very moving. His sense of social injustice comes across in virtually every word.

“If you buy a farm horse and only feed him when you work him, the horse will die. No one complains of the necessity of feeding the horse when he is not working. But we complain about feeding the men and women who work our lands. Is it possible that this state is so stupid, so vicious and so greedy that it cannot feed and clothe the men and women who help to make it the richest area in the world? Must the hunger become anger and the anger fury before anything will be done?”

“I heard a man tell in a monotone voice how he couldn’t get a doctor while his oldest boy died of pneumonia but that a doctor came right away after it was dead.”

He also writes a lot about the struggle to gain equality between blacks and whites, which would have been a very pressing issue at the time he was writing. In fact he mentions numerous events that I had to look up, since I’m not American and my knowledge of American History is woefully sparse! Things such as Littlerock, and the Bus boycott meant very little to me. His strong feelings on equality can be summed up with this quote from late on in his career.

“We will not overcome the trauma that slavery has left on our society, North and South, until we cannot remember whether the man we just spoke to on the street was Negro or white”

It’s not all doom and gloom though. A lot of the articles seem to get his point across whilst still being entertaining. He writes about a porter in Ireland who wouldn’t fetch bread and whiskey because it was against the rules, the joy he felt as a child when the circus comes to town, the horrors of war, the rights of war, What it means to be French through a conversation with French people, politics and so much more.

What struck me most was that a lot of what he says still seems to be relevant today. It is sometimes hard to believe that this was written between fifty and eighty years ago. Below is just a selection of quotes that could be just as relevant today as they obviously were when Steinbeck wrote them.

“Since the river polluters and the air poisoners are not criminal or even bad people, we must presume that they are heirs to the early conviction that sky and water are unowned and they are limitless.”

“Indeed the cult of sexual excitement over underdeveloped females seems one more evidence of the American preservation of adolescence beyond its normal span."

“It is one of the less attractive of human traits that everyone wants to look down on someone, to be better than someone else”

I could go on forever but I really should stop somewhere! I think it’s probably fairly obvious by now that I really likes this. It was surprisingly easy to read. I’ve been scared of reading Steinbeck for a long time now, and based on this I really shouldn’t have been. On to some of his fiction next I think. I’ll leave it with one last quote that although Steinbeck is talking about a small Italian town, sort of sums up how it feels to read his writing.

“It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone”

1 comment:

Kristen said...

"The Winter of Our Discontent" is one of my favorite novels, but I've never read anything else by Steinbeck. I think I'll have to get this book. Glad you reviewed it.