Oprah Winfrey probably thought she was avoiding controversy last week by selecting John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to kick off her new, classics-only book club. Dead authors, after all, can’t criticize her taste in literature as “schmaltzy” or complain about her “logo of corporate ownership” on the cover, as The Corrections author Jonathan Franzen did shortly before Oprah called off her old book club altogether. (Meanwhile, the jacket on the new edition of East of Eden declares it THE BOOK THAT BROUGHT OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB BACK.) But if Oprah wanted to get pats on the back from literary types for introducing viewers to the American canon, she chose a curious way to do it. Not only is Steinbeck the canonical American writer most likely to have his work dismissed by critics as sentimental (Oprah-like?) pap, but East of Eden might be his most controversial book. In fact, Steinbeck has more reason to worry about his literary reputation being sullied—at least in the short run—by association with Oprah than Jonathan Franzen ever did.
Steinbeck’s selection by Oprah is likely to confirm the suspicions of those critics who look down their noses at him as a simplistic writer not worthy of inclusion in the American pantheon. For starters, if East of Eden is a classic, it’s a disputed one. A handful of Steinbeck partisans defend it as one of Steinbeck’s great books, to be placed alongside works like Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Others argue that it’s flawed but still worthwhile, even a masterpiece. But an equally large—if not larger—group thinks that hardly anything good can be said about it. Even Steinbeck’s hagiographer, Jackson Benson, didn’t like it. Here’s one recent critic’s assessment reduced to a book-jacket blurb: “ponderous, clanging biblical allegory … indefensible … so laughable that it’s impervious to parody.” The New York Times once called East of Eden “arguably his most problematic work,” and the New York Review of Books has referred to it as “bloated, pretentious, and uncertain … a wretched and meretricious book.”
But if there’s one category that East of Eden squarely and undeniably fits in, it’s the genre of “Oprah book.” Critic Chris Lehmann aptly summed up her oeuvre in Slate last year as “tales of lurid family abuse, tales of the individual struggle of redemption, and—God help us all—tale upon tale of three generations of women absorbing life’s hard knocks in a small town.” Make it three generations of men, and East of Eden hits for the Oprah cycle.
While it’s inarguable that Steinbeck wrote some real stinkers—Sweet Thursday? The Short Reign of Pippen IV? Cup of Gold?—some of Steinbeck’s toughest critics question everything he ever wrote, up to and including The Grapes of Wrath. Despite landing at No. 10 on the Modern Library’s list of the 20th century’s best English-language novels, Grapes is no longer an unquestioned masterpiece. During last year’s Steinbeck centennial, Harold Bloom decreed to the New York Times that the John Ford movie version was the greater artistic accomplishment and that Steinbeck didn’t belong in the American canon (even though Bloom included Grapes in the “canonical prophecy” section of his book The Western Canon). The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley, on the occasion of Grapes’ 50th anniversary more than a decade earlier, wrote that its prose “tends to the leaden” and its dialogue “borders on the embarrassing.” In this view, Steinbeck is Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Upton Sinclair, or Edward Bellamy—a writer who is important for his political or cultural impact, but not for the literary quality of his books. Some argue that Grapes is closer to popular literature (think, Who Moved My Joads?) than what Franzen called “the high art literary tradition.”
The critical opinion on Steinbeck has always been, to some extent, geographically divided. Even during his lifetime, Steinbeck faced criticism from the Eastern literary establishment, so Eastern critics aren’t really rethinking Steinbeck’s reputation—rather, they never thought much of him to begin with. Edmund Wilson, a Steinbeck contemporary, wrote that Steinbeck’s books “seem to mark precisely the borderline between work that is definitely superior and definitely bad,” and Alfred Kazin criticized Steinbeck’s “calculated sentimentality.” Perhaps the biggest Eastern slap at Steinbeck came when, on the occasion of the awarding of the Nobel Prize in literature to Steinbeck, the New York Times editorialized that he “produced his major work more than two decades ago” and raised “questions about the mechanics of selection and how close the Nobel committee is to the main currents of American writing.” A separate Times essay argued that Steinbeck’s “limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing.”
On the other hand, to this day if you open up a newspaper in California—or in cities like Fort Worth, Kansas City, and Milwaukee—the book critic is apt to praise Steinbeck as one of the great American writers, lumped with Twain and Whitman for his ability to capture some ineffable “American-ness.” Even if you concede that Steinbeck produced his best work in the 1930s, especially during a short hot streak from 1935 to 1939, when he published Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, The Long Valley, and The Grapes of Wrath, that’s better work than most writers ever dream of. And while he has his flaws—to name only one, his characters are often closer to symbols than people, his women always monsters or saints—it’s unfair to criticize him for not writing in the modern style of his superior contemporaries Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, or because his books are too easy to understand.
Besides, even if Steinbeck’s critics are right that he is overrated, that he’s a regional writer and a minor novelist, it’s hard to question Oprah’s selection of him as the writer to launch a book club on the American masters. As Yardley, the Post critic, wrote in an unfavorable essay on Steinbeck’s early books, “This is written with no pleasure. … That in time I made a career for myself on the fringes of the literary world had much to do with the love of literature that his books helped instill in me.” The novelist William Kennedy expressed a similar sentiment, though Kennedy believes Steinbeck’s work still holds up. But even those who disagree with Kennedy acknowledge Steinbeck’s power as a literary gateway drug—something you pass out to people to get them interested in the hard stuff. Oprah wants to create some addicts. Good for her.