John Steinbeck and Three Others

John SteinbeckIn 1807, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born. I’m not a big fan of him, but there is no doubt that he was talented. Edgar Allan Poe, although at first an admirer of him later became his harshest critic. I don’t think it is widely know, but during his lifetime, Poe was known almost exclusively as a literary critic. People were not terribly interested in his fiction. Anyway, Poe correctly predicted that Longfellow’s work was derivative and would not live on. The main thing anyone knows is “Paul Revere’s Ride” and not because of its literary merit. But Poe was aware of his talent, having written that Longfellow was “a determined imitator and a dexterous adapter of the ideas of other people…” But Longfellow seems to have been a much nicer man than Poe. In the end, that matters a great deal more.

The great writer Irwin Shaw was born in 1913. I dedicated the day to him last year. I wrote:

About a year ago, I spent a couple of weeks with his Short Stories, Five Decades. It reminded me of when I first started writing about 25 years ago. I became obsessed with his short story “The Eighty-Yard Run.” I read it again and again. It tells the story of a man’s life from one day in high school that he looks back on as the pinnacle: an eighty-yard touchdown run during football practice. It is perceptive that Shaw used this example. In one way, anyone can understand that doing this would make a boy feel very good about himself. Life is like that: relatively little things can put on shine on life. But another way of looking at it is that it is pathetic. It is high school and it isn’t even a game—just a practice.

All of Shaw’s work is filled with unspoken truths. No one ever seems quite able to communicate what they think and feel—even to themselves. Everyone is left with the vague sadness that you think life is really all about when you are young. Of course, as you get older, you learn first hand that this is exactly what life is about. The one thing we all share is regret about everything. Shaw conveys this idea with an expansive collection of characters and their stories.

The great script writer Peter Stone was born in 1930. He is probably best known for writing the great screenplay for the film Charade. But he also wrote Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? as well as the very lively script for Sherman Edwards’ 1776. Here is the wonderfully silly trailer of the wonderfully silly Chefs:

Other birthdays: the man who killed Christianity as a vibrant religion, Constantine the Great (272 AD); Russian realist painter Nikolai Ge (1831); jurist Hugo Black (1886); historian Arthur M Schlesinger Sr (1888); actor Joanne Woodward (84); actor Elizabeth Taylor (1932); activist Ralph Nader (80); actor Howard Hesseman (74); actor Timothy Spall (57); Sid Vicious’ murdered girlfriend Nancy Spungen (1958); and actor Richard Coyle (42).

The day, however, belongs to John Steinbeck who was born on this day in 1902. He is probably my favorite novelist. He grew up in a wealthy family. Of course, that was during the robber baron days when inequality wasn’t as bad as it today. So he wasn’t out of touch. In fact, he worked at nearby ranches during his summers where he was introduced to migrants and others who weren’t working as just a summer job. It is easy, however, for a person like Steinbeck to not see the problem. Doing a crummy job voluntarily and temporarily while you wait to enter Stanford University isn’t that bad. But the experience did have a profound impact on his life. And we see that in books like The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row.

Steinbeck is a great writer in terms of raw storytelling ability, but certainly not better than William Faulkner. Yet I never think it is a good idea to go read some Faulkner, even though I greatly admire him. But I read at least some Steinbeck every year. Even as harsh as his stories sometimes are, I always find them edifying. Steinbeck’s point of view is eternally the same as mine: humanistic. He always understands his characters and sympathizes with them, even when they aren’t sympathetic. That’s the way I look at the world—or at least try to.

Happy birthday John Steinbeck!

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