"If all the dew were diamonds," Pablo said, "we would be very rich. We would be drunk all our lives."
But Pilon, on whom the curse of realism lay uneasily, added, "'Everybody would have too many diamonds. There would be no price for them, but wine always costs money. If it would only rain wine for a day, now, and we had a tank to catch it in."
John Steinbeck died out of favor with the left, but it had never understood him very well. The left’s ideal cities, as Steinbeck saw them, were like Pablo's dew become diamonds: they went toward the end by routes so tortuous and indirect that they went nowhere at all. They were utopias in the literal sense: no place. If one indulges a dream, Pilon informs us, it makes sense to dream directly; diamonds are useful only to buy wine, and it is as sensible to dream of wine from the sky as dew become gemstones. And, Steinbeck might have added, as sensible to dream of brotherhood simply as to pursue it by expropriating the expropriators.
No one felt that ancient prophet's dream more strongly than Steinbeck did. Fraternity is the constant theme of all his books, the vision somehow never quite captured. Conning the devious ways of man with his fellows, Steinbeck followed all the old mysteries, the dark and bloody by-paths of the human spirit, and repeatedly he found fratricide where he would have found love. Even then, however, he kept to the prophet's way; he found a loving fratricide in Of Mice and Men, and in East of Eden his misrendering of Scripture may be truer than the texts: "thou mayest prevail..." He gave a dozen answers and the question never left him: given the fact that man may prevail, against what enemy?
Women sometimes appeared as the daemon, and some of his best works are tales of womenless men—or men and that perennial "one of the guys," the good prostitute. More often, it seemed to him ambition, the drive for dynasty and durability, the passion for possession of the earth and power. In the end, he would come full circle, returning to his earliest novels, and would find all men's temptations and delusions to be a flight from death, man's oldest companion, "the enemy who is worthy of Danny," brother death whom man must embrace if he is to meet his human brothers without fear and envy. And then the mystery would intrude and the circle would begin again. But he never lost the hope that the sky would one day rain wine.
Steinbeck was never a utopian because he was always a man with a place. He was a Californian, and his writings never succeeded very well when he tried to walk alien soil. Yet his California was a very special one, a narrow strip embracing Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties, sleepy California that time passed by. He ignored the great cities except in glimpses and if he wrote of other places, it was likely to be the New England village of Winter of Our Discontent or the Northwest orchards of In Dubious Battle. In a literal sense, he was a conservative, a man who valued and even clung to the old America; the real power of Grapes of Wrath is the savage anger at the impersonal process that uproots men from the land and rapes it, substituting rattletraps and highways for place and kindred.
In that sense, he was a romantic, sure that past times were far from perfect and yet possessed of virtues and qualities now lost, human even in their cruelties and stupidities as the industrial age is not. On Steinbeck, though, "the curse of realism lay uneasily." It was that very realistic romanticism that sent him into the depths of human passion, fear and hostility. It made him see the sad, folly of Jim's "dubious battle," which he took up because "I feel dead. I thought I might get alive again." Joining a revolution to find a self, Steinbeck knew, is perverse: revolutions which matter can only be made by men who have selves. In fact, those who would find a self in revolt are only seeking to lose a self, to find a surrogate immortality in "working for something," for the party which will endure. And so it ends: "Comrades! he didn't want nothing for himself...," the party orator intones over the corpse. The dew has turned to diamonds and the bottom has fallen out of the market.
Conservative and romantic, Steinbeck stuck to the sturdy rationalism that insists that the old questions will not be wished away, that the old virtues cannot be dispensed with, that the rule of first things first still applies. The direct route is the best, because the best cannot be captured unaware or bought cheap.
That did not make him lapse into quietism, or leave him indifferent to social reform. Far from it: compassion and concern lie on the direct route too. So, for that matter, does violence, and Steinbeck knew that there is a love which must take up the knife to slay another, because it is the same love which leads to a knowing willingness to sacrifice the self.
John Steinbeck doubtless wandered many times off the path, for the riddles he sought to answer are hard to read, and man at his best misses the way. But sooner or later he always seemed to find the way back—a good thought for his recent critics to hold, not only because it may reconcile them to Steinbeck but because it may cause them to wonder whether the same can or will be said of them.
Pilon complained, "It is not a good story. There are too many meanings and too many lessons in it. Some o/those lessons are opposite. There is not a story to take into your head. It proves nothing."
"I like it," said Pablo, "1 like it because it hasn't any meaning you can see and still it does seem to mean something, I can't tell what."
This essay originally appeared May 9, 1969.