By Fan Liu
Frederick P. Rehmus Family Professor of the Humanities Gavin Jones is reviving the works of novelist and former Stanford student John Steinbeck in his spring course, “American Studies 146A: Steinbeck.”
Steinbeck, a reluctant Stanford student who dropped out altogether in 1925, has been called a “simplistic writer” despite his Nobel Prize win in 1952. Jones is offering a more critical approach to Steinbeck’s works by placing them in context of the social, economic, ecological and artistic trends of his time — all of which informed Steinbeck’s writing, Jones said.
“As a writer, he was formed at Stanford,” Jones said. “He developed an interdisciplinary way of thinking here, one that fused the sciences and the humanities.”
At Stanford, Steinbeck took creative writing courses under English professors such as Edith Mirrielees ’07. A budding marine biologist, he also enrolled in courses at the Hopkins Marine Station and went on scientific expeditions.
Jones argues that Stanford allowed Steinbeck to develop his craft as an activist as well as a writer, shaping the humanistic perspective he later brought to scientific challenges in his works.
“Many scholars argue he was an environmentalist speaker before people were thinking about the planet and developing a post-human perspective,” Jones said.
Jones’ course revisits many of the texts students read in middle school and high school, but provides a framework through multiple lenses such as ecological, biological, humanitarian, racial and philosophical views.
“A generalization about Steinbeck’s work is that if you’ve read one Steinbeck book, you’ve read them all,” said Jenna Garden ’20, a student in the previous offering of Jones’ class. “I don’t think this is true. Every book we read in the class was a completely different experience from the vastly generalized Steinbeck I knew from my earlier years, and Professor Jones gave a new context to each new lens.”
Abby Bauer ’20, a student from Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, returned home to work at the Steinbeck Center the summer after taking the course. She said the course changed her view of Steinbeck’s works, which she did not feel particularly connected to throughout high school.
“I came to appreciate how he rendered place, as when I read him in high school all of his descriptions seemed lengthy,” Bauer said. “When I revisited his works, I realized he did a great job of representing areas I was familiar with related to Californian landscapes. Being able to revisit all those places made me feel more connected to Salinas and gave me a sense of place.”
As a part of the course, students paid visits to the Stanford Special Collections that gave students the chance to visualize the world that Steinbeck depicted. Madison Coots ’19 said the images clarified the work, such as its connection to social class.
“In his works, Steinbeck gives voice to the American working class — a social group that, for the most part, exists in the American subconscious,” Coots said. “I believe that not only the outcome of the last presidential election, but also the issues it surfaced, are a sign of the unrest that has been churning within this part of our society.”
Ultimately, Jones said he hopes to illuminate the complicated and important relationship between literature and history in Steinbeck’s works, with the complex nature of Steinbeck’s politics influencing his experimental writing style.
In addition to teaching, Jones is currently writing a book that aims to reveal the relevance of Steinbeck and his works to the social and economic problems of today.
“I want students to understand that through Steinbeck we get a window into the West on issues such as race, poverty and inequality,” Jones said. “These are some of the great issues that Steinbeck faced, which are still relevant today.”
Contact Fan Liu at fliu6 ‘at’ stanford.edu