The Realist Fable: John Steinbeck and Harper Lee

“The Epic Battle for To Kill a Mockingbird in this month’s Vanity Fair tells the story of how a literary agent allegedly (and just put “allegedly” before all the statements here) convinced Harper Lee to sign papers that would remove control of her copyrights from her and grant them to the agent. John Steinbeck’s sons and their heirs had also had dealings with this agent, and, as a side note, had signed over powers of attorney to Elaine Steinbeck, Steinbeck’s third wife, who willed the copyrights to her own heirs and away from Steinbeck’s sons, Thomas and John. Elaine Steinbeck died in 2003,  and they have contested the provisions of her will.

The legal battles in the article made me segue into thinking about Harper Lee and Steinbeck, both of whom had written what might be called “realist fables” about American social problems of race and class. Both wrote books that are still schoolroom classics and good reads, too. To Kill a Mockingbird, which in 2009 generated a jaw-dropping $1.68 million in royalties for six months, might be more universally taught, but Steinbeck’s The Pearl, The Red Pony, and Of Mice and Men must still be taught in secondary schools. The Pearl, through which generations of students were introduced to symbolism, is a good example of the realist fable, and so is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, although Papa would surely have hated hearing it called that. It would be interesting to teach Tortilla Flat alongside his last, unfinished The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, too, both as historical and as realist fables.

If you’re talking about the complexity of Steinbeck’s novels, however, he’s at his best when he can temper the “realist fable” part of his writing with the more straightforward and direct address of what, for want of a better word, you could call “moral commentary.”  This sounds more negative than I mean it to be, but the books of Steinbeck’s where he does both–the fable and the lecture, alternating back and forth–are those that have held up best: The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent. 

In Grapes of Wrath, there are the stark scenes of desperation and fruit picking followed by commentary from Jim Casy and to a lesser extent Tom.  In East of Eden, the distinction is clearer between the allegorical Cain and Abel/Charles and Adam/Cal and Aron storyline and the dual strands of commentary by two “outsiders,” the philosophical Chinese servant Lee and the mystical Irish neighbor Samuel Hamilton. The Winter of Our Discontent has Ethan Allen Hawley’s first-person reflections on the series of moral tests that he encounters and the symbolic nature of the objects and the figures who tempt him (talisman, masks).

The alternation between “realist fable” and “moral commentary” sounds heavy-handed, but it’s not. At least for me, it’s what makes those books worth revisiting.

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