John Steinbeck is the author I was most looking forward to reading when I arrived in California on my fiction road trip. I love Steinbeck. I’ve read Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men (several times), and I was eager to explore another of his titles. Because if anyone can write California, it is John Steinbeck.
Before I got to Steinbeck though, while I was waiting for Cannery Row to become available at the library, I saw that The Dharma Bums was there for the taking. And it is also set in California. I had read On the Road a few years back and was not super impressed, but everyone goes on and on about Jack Kerouac and how rhthmic and innovative and hip and beat he was, so I thought I’d give him another shot.
It is true that he wrote some lovely descriptions of his hikes –
Everything up there had smelled of ice and snow and heartless spine rock. Here there was the smell of sunheated wood, sunny dust resting in the moonlight, lake mud, flowers, straw, all those good things of the earth. – Jack Kerouac
but, beyond that, I found myself gritting my teeth a lot. I wrote in my notebook, “Is it just me or does Jack Kerouac think he’s the shit? #IAmCoolSoMuchCoolerThanYouIHaveAllTheAnswersIHaveFiguredItAllOut.”
Throughout The Dharma Bums I made notes to myself, “hang in there – maybe Ray will become humble, maybe the sanctimonious self-righteousness is part of his character arc.” Yeah, no. Perhaps it is Kerouac’s exhuberance that so many people love – I can see that – but he and I do not jive. His characters were self-absorbed and self-centered, and despite their quest for enlightenment, I saw no growth in them – they sit around and get drunk and spout their right way philosophies, thinking they have all the answers, looking down on everybody else who hasn’t figured it all out like they have (i.e., they think they’re the shit) – while women make no appearances except as naked bodies or beautiful faces for Ray and the boys to use when they like. Female enlightenment was judged by a single trait: a woman’s willingness to dispense free love, and women appear in the narrative for sex and parties but not as poets, philosophers, Buddhists, nature-lovers, and all the other cooler-than-thou, holier-than-thou, more-enlightened-than-thou roles the manboys assume in the book.
I was not a fan.
Now Steinbeck, on the other hand, he gives us a similar group of bums, also in California – Mack and the boys – who drink and philosophize and plan parties and hang out in nature and do all the same things that Ray’s gang does in The Dharma Bums, but somehow Steinbeck made it work for me in a way that Kerouac did not. For one thing, his women have personalities. But it was more than that. There is a subtlety to Steinbeck, and a humility, that Kerouac lacks. Kerouac wants to show you how cool he is, while Steinbeck is interested in exploring more universal themes.
And that’s what I said to myself, “I am now on the road to Heaven.” – Jack Kerouac
Our Father, who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums. – John Steinbeck
Cannery Row is filled with poetic descriptions,
The sun came up and shook the night chill out of the air the way you’d shake a rug. – John Steinbeck
The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second. – John Steinbeck
If a man ordered a beer milk shake, he thought, he’d better do it in a town where he wasn’t known. – John Steinbeck
and when I read through my notes on Cannery Row, I want to pump my fist for Steinbeck’s sentences. I laugh and I admire and I cry and I am moved. Because Steinbeck really is the shit.
I am a fan.
I guess what it comes down to for me is humility. In The Dharma Bums Ray and the boys seek only their own enlightenment, and Kerouac’s ego is always there, making itself known in the background. With Cannery Row, the entire premise is that Mack and the boys are trying to do a kindness for someone else, and Steinbeck gets out of the way and lets his sentences tell the story, lets his characters tell the story, shows us remorse and regret but also playfulness and mirth, and he doesn’t show off about any of it. He doesn’t parade himself, he doesn’t say, “Look at me, I’ve got it all figured out. Look how innovative I am, look how well I can write.” He just writes, and it’s beautiful, and it totally works for me.