Sunday, December 20, 2015

"You Don't Have Steinbeck to Kick Around Anymore" (Unless You're the NY Times Book Review).

Today, Sunday, December 20, 2015, marks the 47th anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck (1902-68). And almost a half-century after his death Steinbeck's work is still read and respected by a broad audience. Recalling fondly my own past readings, and eagerly anticipating future re-readings of Steinbeck's work, imagine my dismay at opening this morning's New York Times Book Review and finding its erstwhile editor Sam Tanenhaus throwing Steinbeck under the wayward bus.

Tanenhaus' target is Steinbeck's 1936 novel In Dubious Battle, which fictionalized real-life cotton strikes in the San Joaquin Valley. According to Tanenhaus, Steinbeck "first conceived [of the novel] as an almost documentary record, though he didn't visit the strike camps (instead relying on interviews). In the end he buffed and prettified the material, making it a fable of salt-of-the-earth whites, forerunners of the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, when in fact 75 percent to 95 percent of the work force was Mexican."

Has our obsession with race poisoned even our ability to read, enjoy, and appreciate classic literature? Should Steinbeck's work be weighed in Tanenhaus' scales and be found wanting? Since In Dubious Battle is a work of fiction, shouldn't the author have the privilege of casting his narrative with anyone he pleases, regardless of color and gender? Should the exclusion of any demographic be looked upon conspiratorially, as an act of overt exclusion that belies racism or prejudice?

Tanenhaus finds a comrade in political correctness in Kathryn Olmsted, whose book Right Out of California sparked Tanenhaus' take-down of In Dubious Battle. Reviewing Olmsted's book, Tanenhaus says Olmsted, "is doubtless correct that Steinbeck's 'decision to erase brown-skinned people and women of all colors from the story was political.'"

Upending both Tanenhaus' and Olmsted's implications that Steinbeck harbored anti-Mexican prejudices, one need only look at his previous novel, Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, which was a celebration of the Mexican paisanos of Monterey, California.

John Steinbeck's work speaks for itself, at least to those who invest the time in reading his books. Doing so will dispel the cloud of criticism left by the likes of Tanenhaus and Olmsted, and prove to be both enlightening and enjoyable.