Saturday, February 24, 2018

Lit Matters: John Steinbeck and the reality of a hangover

February 18, 2015 by Keagan Hawthorne, contributing writer


“All great and precious things are lonely,” said John Steinbeck, best known as the author of books like The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.

But Steinbeck also wrote many shorter works, including travel memoirs, modern fables, and hilarious novels like Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, which turn Monterey, California into an early 20th century Camelot filled with characters whose lives are bursting with good intentions ruined by bad luck.

What is remarkable about Steinbeck’s characters are their many endearing imperfections. Mack and the boys, who live in the Palace Flophouse on Cannery Row, are lazy hobos who get drunk in the middle of the day. Danny and his friends, who live in Tortilla Flat, fight often, pass out in ditches, and sleep with the wine merchant’s wife to swindle a free bottle of booze.

But they’re all driven by an impulse for doing good that transcends the poverty of their everyday lives and gives the larger story of their lives a noble purpose.

They show us that life doesn’t always have to be fair to be good, that misfortune is not a personal statement of divine disapproval, and that while personality adds flavour to life, it’s character that really counts.

American author Joan Didion once said, “Character is taking responsibility for one’s own life.” This is precisely what Steinbeck’s characters do in his novels.

In his own life, as in his novels, Steinbeck embraced this philosophy. His reputation as a selfish, all-consumed artist may have been well deserved, but at least he took responsibility for who he was.

He once said, “I have always lived violently, drunk hugely… worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness… made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.”

John Steinbeck must-read:
Tortilla Flat
(Lansdowne library code: PS 3537 T3234 T65)

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