Today, nearly 40 years after his death, Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck remains one of America's greatest writers and cultural figures. We have begun publishing his many works for the first time as Penguin Classics. This season we continue with the seven spectacular and influential books East of Eden, Cannery Row, In Dubious Battle, The Long Valley, The Moon Is Down, The Pastures of Heaven, and Tortilla Flat. Penguin Classics is proud to present these seminal works to a new generation of listeners and to the many who revisit them again and again.
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Golden, mythical America
A funny thing happened to me as I was reading this book - I forgot that Steinbeck wasn't quite being literal. Yet the characters fell so alive, the valley seems like such a real place that you fall into its spell almost immediately. Not until the end when the tourists are looking down into the valley (much like how the book begins) do we feel how Las Pasturas del Cielo is a promised land and we are all still wandering around the dry California scrag like so many little American Moses'.
I wonder how someone who has never lived in America would feel about this book? I've been reading a lot of novels from Russia and I always wonder what it is I'm missing because I am, in fact, unaware of all the nuance that a Russian author would take for granted of his Russian reader. And would a Russian not quite feel everything that an American would feel reading Steinbeck? The distance that separate us socially as a culture, our yearning for something new and to always be on the move, the easy calm mixed with religious firmness ... are these things unique to America?
I don't know.
I do know that Steinbeck writes about the inner yearning and nostalgia and dreams of Americans with an ease as gentle as the calm breeze of the valley of this book. He's writing about ideals, about something much more firm than a place in the ground - he's writing about us as a people in all our varied eccentricities, our hopes and our failures and above all, our idea of what we want our lives (and our country) to be about. Here in this book is a place where harsh politics and extremist religions are tempered with hard work, good neighbors and family. People are good, and though they may not always see eye to eye, they know how to work out their differences honorably.
That's why Las Pasturas del Cielo isn't a real place, and that's why the tourists at the end can't seem to figure out that living in heaven is as simple as just walking out of the desert and into the valley. Life is complicated, life moves quickly, we grasp onto things that aren't really firm in hopes of finding happiness in things. And yet Las Pasturas del Cielo is still there, waiting, and hoping we will all get our acts together, put aside the things in life that aren't really that important, and just 'go home'.
Steinbeck is writing about a very conservative ideal, but it's the American ideal. It's quaint, it's hard work, but it's full of a joy and a simplicity we wish we had more of.
Anyway, this is a wonderful book but it's easy to forget what an artistic masterpiece this is because of its simple, idealist subject matter. Steinbeck very simply and vividly created an entire community full of living breathing people, he described the very minutest details of everyday people, and brings them to life with a uniquely American economy of words. And each story grows more mature as the book goes on, the themes a little darker, more bittersweet, but always hopeful.
I suppose a lot of readers would find the book old-fashioned, its art antiquated and its subject matter far too conservative, but there for a book about a place that doesn't exist, there is something firm here that I can feel in my very soul that no postmodern expression could ever hope to capture. This is a book about how we could be as much as it is about how we are. It's about a place that has never existed but we wish existed. It's a book that everyone should read after taking a deep breath.
I hope Steinbeck will soon enjoy a renaissance because too many school kids have been forced to read him when they're far too young to really get him and so think of his as some quaint American throwback. Yet there is real art here and it's a kind of art we could stand to have a little more of.
- Dan Harlow
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