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Articles on John Steinbeck

Reflections on John Steinbeck’s “spiritual streak” or Was he a religious man?

Susan Shillinglaw

As a boy, he attended the Episcopalian church

Born in Salinas, California in 1902, John Steinbeck was raised an Episcopalian and became a young alter boy. One of his favorite narratives about his Episcopal background is a story he told both in nonfiction—Letters to Alicia--and in fiction—The Winter of Our Discontent:

Once, in that choir stall under the lectern, a dreadful thing happened. I wore the lace and carried the cross and sang a beefy soprano. Once the bishop was officiating, a nice old man, hairless as a boiled onion, but to me glowing with rays of holiness. So it was that, stunned with inspiration, I set the cross in its socket at the end of processional and forgot to throw the brass latch that held it in. At the reading of the second lesson I saw with horror the heavy brass cross sway and crash on that holy hairless head. The bishop went down like a pole-axed cow and I lost the lace to a boy who couldn’t sing as well, a boy named Skunkfoot Hill. (Winter 112-13)

It’s an iconic moment, perhaps a tipping point in Steinbeck’s Episcopalian leanings. His faith and commitment were tested.

What is undoubtedly true, however, is that this author’s spirituality was never narrowly channeled—either as an Episcopalian or as a true believer like his Grandmother Hamilton who knew “every street in heaven,” he wryly noted. Steinbeck distrusted zealotry and narrow-mindedness, wherever he saw it. Indeed, one of the most negative portraits in The Grapes of Wrath is the adamantine Mrs. Sandry who, when the Joads stop at the government camp, piles guilt on Rose of Sharon.

Another revealing story about Steinbeck’s church attendance is from his Stanford days: a friend took John his home to Berkeley, and the two young men dutifully attended a church service with the boy’s mother. Exasperated at the pious sermon, John stood up in the middle of the minister’s oration and yelled at the congregation: “You all look satisfied here while outside the world begs for a crust of bread or a chance to earn it. Feed the body and the soul will take care of itself.” The congregation was aghast. John Steinbeck set down his own social/spiritual path—far from organized religion.

(Steinbeck may have gotten that line from Jack London’s work; in The Iron Heel, Bishop Morehouse sells his worldly goods to buy food for the poor: “For truly now… I am feeding his lambs. And I have learned a great lesson. The soul cannot be ministered to till the stomach is appeased.”)

Consider the hungry. Care for the plight of others, whatever their faith or their ethnic background.

“This I must fight against,” he writes in East of Eden, “any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about” (132).

If John Steinbeck rejected strict religious credos--very much as Jim Casy does in The Grapes of Wrath—he, like Casy, remained a seeker and a deeply empathetic man—and like Casy, he embraced the principles of Christian love and commitment while rejecting the forms, the self-righteousness, and the emphasis on sin. Steinbeck had “a spiritual streak that never left him,” as his widow Elaine told me in 1999. “There was always a spiritual quality to John . . . he did not feel that he had to go to church on Sunday; he didn’t. But when he went, he acted like an active church goer” (Interview with author, 1999). Active in the sense of curious and engaged about a mysterious, vividly sensed unseen world. Steinbeck was a reader of the Bible, a believer in spirit, a holistic thinker--for whom nature yielded meaning—and a man of great empathy for all peoples. Such is the spiritual and humanistic bedrock of John Steinbeck’s world view.

Back to that Episcopal childhood. Like so many American children born on the cusp of a new century, educated before the first world war, Steinbeck was steeped in the King James version of the Bible. As a child, he loved the sounds of words; the cadences of musical prose bewitched him. He long insisted that he had the instincts of a minstral rather than a scrivener. When he was a 22 year old student at Stanford, for example, he wrote a friend that he had “discovered a very beautiful word, probably the most beautiful in the world. It is the name of a town in Canaan and I used it in my Bible story. It is Harosheth.” (C. Wilhelson). In The Grapes of Wrath, Rose of Sharon’s name is biblical, and Ma Joad loves the sound of it on her lips. “Sometimes the feel of words is like a round and warm emotion,” he wrote as he was composing East of Eden. (Journal 92)

Listen to the Steinbeck’s stately prose, the biblical parallism of The Grapes of Wrath, for he ensnares readers in musical sentences: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.” Or, in Chapter 25, the most incendiary in the book and the source of the title: “in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” From the bible (and from Malory’s Morte D’Arthur—John’s favorite book as a 10 year old), Steinbeck learned the dignity and heft of sentences.

Steinbeck also mined biblical stories—the root of The Grapes of Wrath is Exodus, where Oklahoma exiles journey to the promised land of California—although that succor eludes them. The restless energies and woes of migrating peoples everywhere are contained in that ur-story of displacement, and the impoverished Joads become all peoples pushed from one land, journeying to another, unwelcome in either. The root of East of Eden is “that powerful, profound and perplexing story in Genesis of Cain and Abel…this story with its implications has made a deeper mark in people than any other save possible the story of the Tree of Life and original sin,” wrote Steinbeck in Journal of a Novel. Why was one son favored over another? Why is gift-giving frought with complexities of spirit? What meaning can be found in the tensions between fathers and sons? In the bible Steinbeck found the stories that contained the truths of human experience, and he mined those narratives again and again—as he did ancient myths and the Arthurian saga as well. Kino and Juana fall from innocence to experience in The Pearl. The passion of Christ marks Ethan’s fall and redemption in The Winter of Our Discontent. Late in life he considered writing the life of Christ from the four gospels. Biblical stories and myths set out, so lucidly, man’s troubled steps through the world.

“In 1952, he handed screenwriter Jules Buck a package: “Here—I’m giving you the source material for all stories. You’ll have no problems after this.” Buck asked John what it was: “The Bible.”

We read Steinbeck today, in part, because he wrote about the rocky paths of ordinary folk. Empathy is a word that comes up again and again when discussing this writer. The source of Steinbeck’s empathy is his emotional grip on human suffering: He wrote in 1951: “The writers of today, even I, have a tendency to celebrate the destruction of the spirit and god knows it is destroyed often enough. But the beacon thing is that sometimes it is not . . . the great ones, Plato, Lao Tze, Bhudda [sic], Christ, Paul, and the great Hebrew prophets are not remembered for negation or denial. . . . It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage” (115).

Steinbeck’s beacon list crosses cultural and spiritual boundaries.

John Steinbeck—seeker, holistic thinker, pantheist. A lifelong “spiritual streak.”

If young John Steinbeck wrestled with church doctrine, he found respite, always, in nature. His was a visceral and spiritual connection to the land. At an early age, notes biographer Jackson Benson, the foundation of Steinbeck’s “rich inner life” was “a special relationship he developed with nature . . . . Over and over again in looking back on his childhood, Steinbeck uses such words as ‘secret,’ ‘special,’ and ‘magical’ . . . .” (29). In the words of writer Barry Lopez, John Steinbeck “brings together the human heart and the land.” Lopez urges us to consider two primal landscapes: external landscapes--our relations to the land, to oaks, to the whir of night frogs--and interior landscapes, often shaped by the places where we reside. This Steinbeck does. In the marvelous Red Pony stories, for example, he invites readers to look outward at “round comfortable oaks” and “dumpling summer clouds.” “On the fences the shiny blackbirds with red epaulets clicked their dry call. The meadowlarks sang like water, and the wild doves, concealed among the bursting leaves of the oaks, made a sound of restrained grieving.” Steinbeck sentences record the rapt attention he paid—and he would have readers pay--to the natural world.

To see with precision was only a part of what nature meant to Steinbeck. however. To see also beyond the physical to underlying meaning was equally essential, and for him, the tidepool (so familiar to him as a child who went often to the Pacific) was a powerful metaphor for the way to consider the world deeply, to see beneath surfaces:

There are good things to see in the tidepools and there are exciting and interesting thoughts to be generated from the seeing. Every new eye applied to the peep hole which looks out at the world may fish in some new beauty and some new pattern, and the world of the human mind must be enriched by such fishing. (“Preface,”Between Pacific Tides vi)

Nature yields more than simple beauty: “a man looking at reality brings his own limitations to the world,” Steinbeck writes in Sea of Cortez. “If he has strength and energy of mind the tide pool stretches both ways, digs back to electrons and leaps space into the universe and fights out of the moment into non-conceptual time. Then ecology has a synonym which is ALL” (99). This all-encompassing vision embraces the unity between and among humans, the natural world, and the ineffable world beyond.

Let me consider Steinbeck’s deep ecology another way.

American literature is full of conquest narratives—the white explorer venturing across virgin land. But for John Steinbeck, nature is not a commodity, animals not for slaughter, the woods not for felling, and peoples not for conquering—although he recognizes the historical patterns that made all of this so. In contrast, Steinbeck’s cultural and natural landscape is not man-centered but holistic, with all humans seen as species bound intimately to the places they inhabit. Characters in Steinbeck’s California novels, whether alone or in communities, are intimately connected to homes and land. In The Grapes of Wrath, for example, “the people”—Oklahoma sharecroppers--are introduced by their connection to the land where “grandpa fought the Indians,” where Uncle John “jumped over a feeny bush as big as a piana” and where Muley Graves father “got gored to death by a bull. An’ his blood is right in that groun’, right now” (65-6).

In each of Steinbeck’s California novels, in particular, environment similarly shapes inhabitants, and Steinbeck repeatedly demonstrates that bond. Lennie and George are trapped--and they are always seen in tight, enclosed spaces. In Cannery Row, Mack and the boys are survivors--and dig into the Palace Flop House like the tenacious hermit crabs they are compared to. Steinbeck’s is a vision of ecological connection, of human’s interdependence with nature and one another. “Our own interest,” he writes in Sea of Cortez, “lay in relationships of animal to animal. If one observes in this relational sense, it seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and base of a pyramid, that all life is relational. . . .” (256-57).

This connectedness becomes a kind of spiritual urgency in Steinbeck’s fiction--to show how humans find sustenance in communities, in a felt connection to one another and to their environments. To fully appreciate Steinbeck’s quest for connection to place, one book is essential: the early novel, To a God Unknown. The hero Joseph Wayne yearns to connect with nature fully, completely. His god is the natural world. The book is “a parable,” he wrote to his Stanford roommate, Duke Sheffield, “the story of a race, growth and death. Each figure is a population, and the stones, the trees, the muscled mountains are the world--but not the world apart from man--the world and man--the one indescribable unit man plus his environment.” (“To a God Unknown” Notebook)

For Joseph Wayne, as for Steinbeck, nature enfolds spirit. A holistic sense of place includes a spiritual connection to place. In Travels with Charley, for example, he reflects on the majesty of the California redwood:

From my earliest childhood I’ve felt that something was going on in the groves, something of which I was not a part . . . there’s a breathing in the black, for these huge things that control the day and inhabit the night are living things and have presence, and perhaps feeling, and, somewhere in deep-down perception, perhaps communication. (146)

“It is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious,” Steinbeck writes in Sea of Cortez, “most of the mystical outcrying, which is one of the prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricable to all reality, known and unknowable.”

It is hardly surprising that part of the unknowable was captured in folklore. When he was filming The Forgotten Village, a documentary that featured a curandura, or healer, he was given a hummingbird in a small box. He kept that box with him for years—maybe all his life, “It has just about all the magic there is in the world. In 1948, devastated by a divorce, he wrote “The Miracle of Tepayac,” a retelling of the Virgin of Guadalupe story; Juan Diego has visions of “The Queen of Heaven” whom he sees in “a pool of light on the hill of Tepayac. She told me you must build a temple to Her by the hill.”

Steinbeck felt related to the whole mystical universe.

A writer with a conscience

“In every bit of honest writing in the world,” Steinbeck wrote in the late 1930s, “there is a base theme. Try to understand men” (“Long Valley” Notebook). He wrote that when he was composing Of Mice and Men, a little novel that asks readers to understand and accept what is: “Something that Happened” was the working title of this little study. Initially what has happened between two traveling men is something extraordinary--an unlikely but deep friendship that bleeds into love. Eventually what happens is inevitable in a world where the vulnerable don’t survive. Steinbeck asks readers to understand dreams and the loss of dreams—he demands that readers recognize that not even Slim’s consideration can, in the end, repair the loss of Lennie and the extraordinary friendship. Steinbeck packs this little book with a deep understanding for the marginalized—be it Lennie or Candy or Crooks—and with a steady acceptance of things that happen. His is not acquiescence, but simply a deep empathy and understanding of the world as it is.

And in this book, Steinbeck asks readers to understand that a woman like Curley’s wife is more than the “tart” that men accuse her of being. To the ranch hands she is one-dimensional. To sensitive readers she is lonely, needy, visionary and adrift. Steinbeck also asks readers to understand something about the ethnic mix of California—like Crooks’ exclusion. Certainly the full measure of that complex racial and ethnic history is not enfolded into every novel Steinbeck wrote, and sometimes this writer is brought to task for his supposed lapses—the field workers in In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath are all white, not reflective of the racial mix of the Calfornia’s workers. But writers of fiction have aims beyond factual accuracy, certainly, and might it be that empathy for the Joads’ plight extends to empathy for the down and out, wherever they are found? Steinbeck’s specific story embraces the hungry and excluded and marginalized—The Grapes of Wrath—like his other works of the late 1930s, In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men, are read that way.

It seems to me that Steinbeck’s heart is usually in the right place.

In a long career-- from 1929, the year he published his first novel, Cup of Gold, to 1968, when he published his last reflection on the state of America, essays in America and Americans--Steinbeck committed himself to understanding human nature to the best of his ability. Usually that meant that he wrote about what he witnessed—seeing clearly was a necessary part of the writer’s commission. But equally urgent was his desire to make that understanding a felt experience for the reader, to bring together mind and heart.

John Steinbeck was a deeply spiritual man. His works reflect an unflagging compassion for the possibilities as well as the lapses of the human condition—when we function together as friends, when we experience the loneliness of failed dreams.


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