December 15, 2017

Steinbeck's Discontent

On this day in 1961, John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent was published. Steinbeck was fond of reading Shakespeare -- he and his family would play quotation games with the sonnets -- and he approached the publication of this book with the hope that it might very well make "glorious summer" of his various discontents. His previous book, a treatment of Arthurian legend, had bogged down -- for good, it turned out. He suffered a stroke during the writing of this book, in 1959. His estrangement from his sons continued, and his battles with his ex-wife worsened, to the point of going to court. His view of America, sharpened by a year in England, was of a nation sliding into "cynical immorality" and consumerism -- the recent quiz show scandals seen as one marker. Perhaps worst of all was his mental health, a despair that "I come toward the ending of my life with the same ache for perfection that I had as a child," and a belief that his fame or friends had led him astray, so that "true things gradually disappeared and shiny easy things took their place." He wanted to "slough off nearly fifteen years and go back and start again at the split path where I went wrong." His new book was to bring its author, and America, back to their best selves. Like an athlete in training, Steinbeck withdrew to keep focus: as a response to the inevitable 'How's the writing going?' he had cards printed which read, "I wrote ten pages today."

Some celebrated the result: "In this book," wrote Saul Bellow, "John Steinbeck returns to the high standards of The Grapes of Wrath and to the social themes that made his early work so impressive, and so powerful. Critics who said of him that he had seen his best days had better tie on their napkins and prepare to eat crow." Many reviews were less enthusiastic, and when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, critics in most of the major publications went from not eating crow to picking a carcass. One editorial wondered that the Committee could not find an American writer "whose significance, influence, and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression." One article in the New York Times, on the eve of the awards ceremony, said that "serious readers" had stopped reading Steinbeck decades ago, driven away by his sentimentality.

Having long been a target, Steinbeck included in his Nobel speech a reference to the "pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches." As driven and unsure as ever, he wrote a friend that he had made a pledge to himself to not let the Nobel be an "epitaph," but The Winter of Our Discontent turned out to be his last novel. He died of a heart attack in 1968, at the age of sixty-six.

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