Thursday, March 10, 2011
John Steinbeck - 207 pps.
There are three main aspects to John Steinbeck's myth-making: 1) The "non-teleological thinking" of his characters 2) The self-contained worlds his characters find themselves in and 3) His allusions to major works of Western literature. All three of these aspects are present in Tortilla Flat, if not yet fully realized.
"Non-teleological thinking" is a type of thinking (seemingly unique to the philosophy of Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts) defined by not being concerned about "the why" of an action. Steinbeck's characters not only embrace this way of thinking themselves (seemingly explaining their socially unacceptable drinking, sexual, and work habits) but so does the narrator seem to embrace this type of thinking: we are never told why Danny and his friends do anything, nor is the narrator interested in any sort of psychological probing. The paisanos drink a lot because that's what they do, and why would anyone think that they would do otherwise?
By embracing this type of thinking, the narrator portrays characters very similar to those of ancient myths and folk tales; characters who do what they do because what they do is quite literally who they are. While this style of storytelling will likely come across as unsophisticated to most "serious" readers, it seems to be quite effective (we still read the myths, we still read Steinbeck)--and, we should note, the same method was adopted to some degree by the existentialist writers of the 20th century.
Steinbeck, like his contemporary Faulkner and quasi-influence Sherwood Anderson, is an author associated strongly with a particular place, namely Salinas and, more generally, southern California. While Tortilla Flat takes place in Monterey, more importantly it takes place within a well-defined social world where each character's needs are satisfied by some other character within his world. We are forced, therefore, to meet the owner of the supermarket, Torrelli, the many lustful women of Tortilla Flat, and the various vagabonds that are counted as friends of the paisanos. In this world, not only does everyone have their role (because of the non-teleological thinking aspect) but they can never abandon that role because that would require them to leave their world (which usual signals a major event in a Steinbeck novel).
Again, we find similarities with myths and folktales where the characters are tied to their roles in their community and interact almost exclusively with other community members. This approach has many benefits (which is why authors often use this technique) as it allows for recurring characters, naturally establishes relationships between characters, and facilitates the use of local color. Most importantly (and the aforementioned characteristics derive from this principle), however, it allows the author to define the world in which the story takes place in any manner he chooses: Faulkner creates his world in the deep South, in a community populated by eccentrics--wealthy and poor--which closely resembles the modern world in terms of the psychology, actions, and circumstances of the characters. Steinbeck's world is a bit more fanciful: a place where food is easy to come by, not working is the preferred way of life, jail sentences are a vacation, and nobody stays angry for more than twenty-four hours. Both approaches, however, share that self-contained approach of myths and folk tales; when the world is self-contained the author can set any rules he wants, and the reader, not knowing any better (and wanting a fun ride anyway), accepts them.
The final aspect is naturally more common of contemporary writing than of older myths but it is all part of the larger tradition of storytelling, that is, the allusions to the canon present in Tortilla Flat, namely to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. As a composer quotes older works in his pieces but still creates something new, so does Steinbeck check up on Malory in Tortilla Flat. The main plot quite obviously borrows from Malory: the paisanos (the knights) are united around Danny (Arthur) at his house (the round table) and once united go on various adventures with one another. Both stories end with the death of the leader and the disbandment of the knights. Yet, though still there, the other references to Malory are perhaps not as direct and Steinbeck is reported to have done this on purpose. Steinbeck, it seems, alludes to King Arthur in Tortilla Flat not just because of the excellent and enduring story of Arthur but also to place Tortilla Flat on that same timeless plane as King Arthur while still creating something new. Why should an optimistic and confident author do anything less?
The three aspects discussed here are present not just in Tortilla Flat but also in two of Steinbeck's other works, The Pastures of Heaven and Cannery Row. By incorporating these aspects into his work, Steinbeck attempts to place his efforts in the realm of timeless literature--and imitating other timeless works is no bad place to start.