This story of easygoing, thirsty paisanos was an immediate hit with readers who found the characters ‘quaint’, and made the author regret his creation
Tortilla Flat? This John Steinbeck’s is not for ‘literary slummers’
John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat is not for ‘literary slummers’
Tortilla Flat was the book that made John Steinbeck’s name – and his fortune. By the time it was published in May 1935, he’d managed to publish four other books, but they had been poorly received.
He was in his 30s, close to the breadline, living in a house his father had given him and largely dependent on his wife’s paychecks.
And then the reviews started rolling in for Tortilla Flat.
The San Francisco Chronicle called it “exceptionally fine”. “Not since the days of WW Jacobs making his charming characters out of scoundrels has there been a book quite like this one,” said the New Republic.
The Spectator suggested that the book might make “a wet afternoon wetter for its readers”, as they cried both with laughter and sadness. The Saturday Review admired its “facile style and the whimsical humour underlying its sharp and clear-cut presentation of character”.
And so it went on. The book sold in huge quantities, the film rights were bought and Steinbeck was properly launched. Soon he would produce classics including Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.
Surprisingly, he was also soon regretting writing the story of central character Danny and his bibulous housemates. “When this book was written it did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish. They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat,” he wrote in a 1937 edition foreword.
“Had I known that these stories and these people would be considered quaint, I think I never should have written them.”
The problem was that the paisano inhabitants were, as Thomas Fensch explains in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, judged “to be bums – colourful perhaps, eccentric yes, but bums nonetheless”.
Steinbeck continued: “I wrote these stories because they were true stories and because I liked them. But literary slummers have taken these people up with the vulgarity of duchesses who are amused by and sorry for a peasantry. These stories are out, and I cannot recall them. But I shall never again subject to the vulgar touch of the decent these good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes, of courtesy beyond politeness. If I have done them any harm by telling a few of their stories, I am sorry. It will not happen again.” Perhaps mindful of drawing even more attention to the paisanos, Steinbeck soon withdrew that foreword.
His upset seemed strange to me when I read Tortilla Flat last week.
Like other “literary slummers” before me, I worried about those innocent and honest saints, their strange moral code and their lack of ambition. Perhaps I even saw “bums”.
These weren’t such big concerns for me when I first read the book in my early 20s.
I remember delighting in the paisanos’ ignorance of the scourge of work, their heroic dedication to sharing ever more wine together, and their ability to live under the same roof in simple harmony.
This time around, I found myself worrying about their hygiene and their livers and how they were going to support themselves in retirement. I still laughed at the episode where a woman proudly pushes around a vacuum cleaner that isn’t attached to any electrical circuits. I enjoyed the eventual revelation that the machine didn’t even have a motor.
I took Steinbeck’s point about the absurdity of overvaluing material possessions. But I also worried about the dust in the house and the fact that the woman still had to tidy by hand.
Through such concerns, I realised that the book held up a mirror to my own ageing.
I wasn’t entirely delighted. It was hard not to feel a pang for the younger man who would have enjoyed staying up all night with Steinbeck’s paisanos – and who also would have been as receptive to the pleasures of the world.
Would I still be able to let an afternoon grow on me “as gradually as hair grows”? Would I be as overcome by the simple beauty of my surroundings as these men often are – and count seeing other people going about their business as fulfilment enough for a day?
But the second reading also brought its compensations.
I wasn’t as spellbound as I was before: sometimes the book seemed crude and silly. And I wouldn’t be a Guardian journalist if I hadn’t worried about its sexual politics, and the few horrible moments of casual racism. But I also saw new depths.
Then, I mainly saw the book as a funny celebration of life outside the mainstream; now, I couldn’t help thinking that while Steinbeck wanted to deny that his characters were bums, he doesn’t celebrate their lives quite as wholeheartedly as he suggests in that 1937 foreword.
Similarly, while the book may (as Thomas Fensch says) have offered “escapism and entertainment” during the Great Depression, it also has sadness at its heart. It is not, as some have suggested, a happy book with a surprisingly tragic ending.
It’s one that pushes inevitably towards darkness. Right from the start, Danny is on the run from responsibility, horrified by the idea of house ownership, settling down, or even living within the constraints of the law.
His friends help distract and shelter him from reality, but cannot keep him from it for ever. Clocks may be eschewed in Tortilla Flat, but time marches on. Danny is still ageing. And now I’ve gone through more of my own journey into adulthood, I saw his fears more clearly.
I also felt I had a better understanding of his tragedy. As a younger reader, I understood the sadness of the book’s final chapters and Danny’s decision to fly roaring into the depths of the gulch near his house. But my older self also knows what he’d be missing thanks to that decision. It gave the book a poignancy I hadn’t felt before. Even if Danny is a bum, he’s also a complex and haunted man.