If you want a great (albeit nerdy) debate, sit down with some die hard Steinbeck fans and try to hash out which novel is his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden. For a writer to have created just one of these brilliant books in their lifetime is impressive, but for one man to produce both is staggering. Grapes of Wrath seems to get the lion’s share of attention, but in my opinion, East of Eden is a richer text. It’s hard to pin down exactly what gives it the advantage, but if I had to guess, I’d say it has something to do with politics. Grapes of Wrath is a convincing tapestry with deeply human characters artfully woven into it, but the design of the whole is coloured by an agenda. While I sympathise with much of Steinbeck’s political sentiments, they can be distracting at times. It’s one thing to write about workers’ rights, but it’s more ambitious to excavate the fundamentals of the human condition, as East of Eden does.
Now that we’ve (controversially) established which is Steinbeck’s greatest novel, I’d like to move on to my favourite. As much as I appreciate the gravity of Steinbeck’s serious writing, I prefer the levity of his more comedic books and the foremost among these has to be Cannery Row. Though it stands on its own, it’s worth reading Tortilla Flat and Sweet Thursday alongside it if you have time, as they’re all loosely connected. The Short Reign of Pippin IV is another enjoyable read, but it feels almost frivolous in comparison to the others. It also comes across as something of an inside joke if you’re not familiar enough with the history of French politics. I certainly felt like some of the humour was over my head, but I still liked it.
Some novelists manage to stun readers right out of the gate with an amazing debut; I wouldn’t put Steinbeck in this category. His first book, Cup of Gold, is probably among his weakest and I would only recommend it to devoted fans. His next novella, The Red Pony, is a different kettle of fish but it also lacks the strength of his later work. It comprises a series of episodes; this formal experiment is both a pro and a con. On the one hand, it shows Steinbeck’s writing taking on greater sophistication. On the other hand, it’s jarring and a little off-putting. There is a fine thematic thread connecting the sections, but it’s easy enough to miss.
It’s in Steinbeck’s 3rd novel, To a God Unknown, that his writing really begins to mature. I don’t know what it is about this odd familial saga, but the whole thing has a haunting quality that sticks with you. The Wayward Bus is another entertaining novel and a great character study. It certainly has prominent comedic leanings, but one harrowing scene in particular keeps me from putting it in the comedic category.
In Dubious Battle is a compelling bit of propaganda, but its political agenda is even more blatant than Grapes of Wrath’s and it loses more of its literary potency because of it. The Moon is Down certainly has a political agenda as well, but its delivery is smoother, more subtle. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as to say that it’s better than Dubious Battle. They’re pretty evenly matched.
If you’re anything like me, you’re first encounter with Steinbeck was probably in an academic setting where you were forced to read Of Mice and Men. And, if you’re anything like me, you were too immature to appreciate it at the time. Unfortunately, I still haven’t revisited the book since, so my impressions of it are still negative. I know now how great of an author he is, but I look at his best work and think, “It’s a damn shame that there isn’t time to have kids read some of that stuff in school instead of Mice and Men.” Of course, they might not appreciate any of that either. Who knows?
The last three novels on the list have settled down to the bottom because they’re outliers, hard to categorise. The Pearl is so thickly allegorical and two dimensional, it seems impossible to rate against the others. Burning Bright is probably the most experimental of Steinbeck’s novels and, like Red Pony, the form distracts from the content. Last but not least, The Winter of Our Discontent just doesn’t feel like a true Steinbeck. With so much of his work rooted in California, this New England novel seems thoroughly dislocated. It may not be his worst, but it certainly isn’t among his best either.
To conclude, if you’ve only got time for one Steinbeck novel and you want something fun, go with Cannery Row. If you want something you can really sink your teeth into, then read East of Eden. I’d also highly recommend several more of his books and just plain recommend a few others, but when it comes to the bottom of the list, you can probably afford to miss the last four.
For my next instalment of Author Review, I’ll try another literary giant: Hemingway.
East of Eden
The Grapes of Wrath
To a God Unknown
The Wayward Bus
In Dubious Battle
The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication
The Moon Is Down
Of Mice and Men
The Winter of Our Discontent
The Red Pony
Cup of Gold