John Steinbeck presents us with the peculiar situation of an author who knew the Bible well, who ransacked it freely for allusions, symbolism, and themes in his work, and yet who made it clear that he held no personal beliefs in the Bible’s teachings. Just how this situation came about, and to what ends it led, is the subject of this essay.

Steinbeck’s use of these biblical allusions appears already in his early 1933 novel To a God Unknown. His names for the tribes and for the individuals, such as Joseph and Benjamin, support the theme of a sojourn to a new land and Joseph’s discovery of sacredness. The difficulty in an early work such as this is that Steinbeck is wholly random in his allusions and that they are conflated with other sacred narratives. Consequently, the allusions are indiscriminate and do not form an essential thematic typology of the story itself.

All that changed, of course, with the publication of The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, for here biblical patterns are essential to understanding the tale itself. The novel closely follows the tri-part structure of the Israelites in captivity, in exodus, and in the Promised Land. Certain characters echo and have behavior patterns of biblical personae. Jim Casy dies with the words of Jesus (“You guys don’t know what you’re doing”) on his lips. Rose of Sharon is named after Jesus and finally learns to act like him, providing the milk from her own breast to feed the starving man. Perhaps nowhere, however, is the rich interplay between the Bible and text more pronounced than in the title of the novel, selected by his wife, Carol.

Steinbeck wrote to his agent, Elizabeth Otis, that “as you read the book you will realize that the words [from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”] have a special meaning in this book” (1975, p. 73). Indeed, they do at several symbolic levels. The first level, of course, derives from the song itself. “He is ‘trampling’ out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” encapsulates the rage of the oppressed, the overthrow of suppression, and envisions a strong freedom. The most familiar biblical analogue, at a second level of symbolism, occurs in Revelation 14:19–20: “And the angel thrust his sickle into the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.” Someone who has read the Bible as carefully as Steinbeck would observe that the actions of the avenging angel, sent by the Lamb, follow the oppression of the Beast detailed in previous chapters. Pressed grapes are used symbolically as prefiguration of divine retribution upon the oppressor.

Similar patterns of allusion mark Steinbeck’s mid-career works, The Pearl, a novella, and East of Eden. In the latter, Steinbeck presents an extreme portrait of a character living in a modern civilization east of Eden. Cathy Ames’s self-destructive and all-consuming evil is the negative pole in relation to which we understand the good and evil of other characters.

So, too, in his last major work, The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck uses the pattern and themes of Easter weekend to structure the novel. In particular, Ethan Hawley’s tragic capitulation to modernism occurs on Easter Saturday, the presumed day of Jesus’s descent into hell. If anything, and in keeping with Steinbeck’s general perception of the moral climate of his age, the Easter weekend represents a moral center from which humanity has strayed. Salvation by chicanery replaces salvation by propitiation.

Such examples present an overview of Steinbeck’s use of the Bible in his fiction, and many more examples could be provided. Still left open, however, is the issue of Steinbeck’s personal faith and relationship with the orthodox Christian church.

Until recent years, Steinbeck scholars have had to rely almost exclusively upon Steinbeck’s fiction to extrapolate the author’s personal attitudes toward religion and the Bible. Such enterprise is fraught with critical danger. To observe an author’s characters believing or behaving in certain ways and to ascribe the belief or behavior to the author is, of course, a critical error of the worst kind. With the aid of Steinbeck’s published letters and recent biographies, however, one may more clearly understand Steinbeck’s own attitudes toward religion and, to the point of our study here, toward orthodox Christianity and the Bible.

The first point to make here is that Steinbeck himself knew the Bible well. In Steinbeck’s Reading (1984), Robert DeMott lists three modern translations of the Bible in Steinbeck’s reading library: Good News for Modern Man, Robert Ballou’s The Portable World Bible (RSV abridgement), and The Reader’s Bible. The King James Version, however, was clearly formative for Steinbeck both stylistically and for specific allusions. DeMott writes:

"From his early childhood onward, John Steinbeck was exposed to the Bible…; “I absorbed it through my skin,” he said in retrospect (ACTS, p. xi). His favorite books of the Old Testament were Genesis…Exodus, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and Isaiah; of the New Testament, Matthew, Corinthians 1 and 2 and Revelation.… Though he was not orthodoxly religious, John Steinbeck responded powerfully, with an artist’s temperament, to the Bible’s spirituality, poetical rhythms, symbolism, characterizations and moral dimensions, perhaps never more fully than in GOW [The Grapes of Wrath]. (p. 134)"

While discussing The Winter of Our Discontent, DeMott observes that “besides Shakespeare’s Richard III, which supplied his title, Steinbeck ransacked the New Testament (especially Matthew and Luke)” (p. L). When it came to the Bible, his thoughts were not hearsay or secondhand.

That is not to say that Steinbeck’s beliefs themselves are altogether clear. In fact, in any final assessment they may best be described as ambivalent. In his effort to see the total life environment, the nonteleological “is,” of his characters, he also saw religion as an undeniable force in their lives. Furthermore, his own fascination with the Christian story—as opposed to theology—remained keen. Jesus was for him one of the great heroes—on the order of Zeus, perhaps. Steinbeck once considered writing a film script based on the life of Christ, but whether through busyness or supersession by other interests, he never attempted it.

Jesus was for him a man for all seasons, a supreme embodiment of human nature and values, a bit like Joseph Wayne’s saturation of the human and mythic in To a God Unknown. To Jacqueline Kennedy at the time of the president’s assassination, Steinbeck wrote:

"As we all do—I have need, and consider the New Testament many times. And it has seemed to me that Jesus lived a singularly undramatic life—a straight line life without deviation or doubt. And then we come to that heart-breaking moment on the cross when He cried “Lama sabachthani.” In that one moment of doubt we are all related to Him. And when you said you had questions to ask, please remember the terrible question Jesus asked: “My Lord, wherefore hast thou forsaken me?” In that moment He was everyone—Everyone!" (1975, p. 795)

This is a thoroughly humanized view of Jesus, free of the claims of doctrine, free also of Jesus’s claims for himself and the claims of the New Testament about him. Theologically, Steinbeck’s view of Christianity would provide a proof case for Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologization: an existential encounter with mythology.

If we understand myth to be the means by which people explore the mystery (the etymological roots of “mystery” and “myth” are shared) of their relation to the world and the divine, then essentially religion was for Steinbeck a mythic structure, and Christianity was one way of accounting for that mystery—a powerful and reasonable way. Although Steinbeck’s religious attitude was developed by early reading in the works of Carl Jung, filtered sometimes through the thinking of his friend Edward F. Ricketts, and reading of the Tao Teh Ching (“What can [a man] say that he will not find in Lao-Tse or the Bhagavad-gita or the Prophet Isaiah?” [DeMott, 1984, p. 67]), his attitude seems to have been confirmed by reading Erich Fromm’s Psychoanalysis and Religion. Robert DeMott reports the work as a part of Steinbeck’s reading and includes this comment of Steinbeck’s in a letter dated 19 December 1950, to George Albee: “I find it a brilliant piece of analysis. It is all the things we have thought about, but stated clearly and well” (1984, p. 44). Fromm’s work analyzes the religious impulse common to man as a search for security and, after a comparative study of the views of Freud and Jung on the religious impulse, contrasts “authoritarian” and “humanistic” expressions of that impulse. His particular appeal to Steinbeck may have been his even-handed treatment of Jung, to whom Steinbeck was clearly favorably disposed and who, several scholars have argued, exercised considerable influence upon Steinbeck’s fiction. Furthermore, passages from Psychoanalysis and Religion echo in several of Steinbeck’s works after 1950, particularly in East of Eden, Journal of a Novel, and The Winter of Our Discontent. Consider one such passage from Fromm:

"Humanistic religion, on the contrary, is centered around man and his strength. Man must develop his power of reason in order to understand himself, his relationship to his fellow men, and his position in the universe. He must recognize the truth, both with regard to his limitations and his potentialities. He must develop his power of love for others as well as for himself and experience the solidarity of all living beings. He must have principles and norms to guide him in this aim. Religious experience in this kind of religion is the experience of oneness with the All, based on one’s relatedness to the world as it is grasped with thought and with love." (1950, p. 37)

Samuel Hamilton and Lee of East of Eden echo these words, and conceptually they undergird The Winter of Our Discontent. One might argue, furthermore, that it is a religious expression of the nonteleological thinking championed in The Log  from the Sea of Cortez.

Regardless of the formative philosophical materials, Steinbeck remained fascinated by religious services and recounts in Travels with Charley, with perhaps too warm a recollection, the fire and brimstone sermon he heard in New England. The minister, Steinbeck wrote, “spoke of hell as an expert.” He evidences no reluctance in accompanying Elaine to Sunday services, writing in a letter from England: “Yesterday, Easter, we went to services in the Bruton Church. I found it nostalgically moving because I knew it all from my childhood, but also I found again that there is nothing in it that I need or want. Elaine both needs and wants it and so she may have it. But I’ll take my birds any day and the processional of the sun” (1975, p. 623).

The master key to Steinbeck’s own belief may reside in the final sentence quoted above. However accepting he was of religious expression in others, such was not his expression or profession. His clearest statement of unbelief occurs in a late letter dated 5 March 1964, to Dr. Denton Cox, in which he fleshes out what he calls his “mortal record called a medical passport.” There Steinbeck states: “Now finally, I am not religious so that I have no apprehension of a hereafter, either a hope of reward or a fear of punishment. It is not a matter of belief. It is what I feel to be true from my experience, observation and simple tissue feeling” (1975, p. 857). This is not a view his life led up to, like a conclusion on the basis of evidence experienced; it is one he held all his life. The language in The Log from the Sea of Cortez differed, but the idea is similar, as Steinbeck states:

"Certain communicants of the neurological conditioning religions practiced by cowardly people who, by narrowing their emotional experience, hope to broaden their lives, lead us to think we would not like this new species. These religionists, being afraid not only of pain and sorrow but even of joy, can so protect themselves that they seem dead to us." (1951, pp. 117–118)

The attitude expressed here would be in accordance with Steinbeck’s attitude for much of his life. When religion serves to shut one off from life and to repress human instinct and emotion, it is a pernicious thing.

Steinbeck’s ambivalence toward Christianity, acceptable for others but not accepted by him, seems unchanged throughout his career. In his youth he had walked away from his own religious tradition, including his regular boyhood attendance at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (now, ironically, the East of Eden Restaurant), catechism sessions, and youth choir. He never walked back into the full embrace of a religious tradition.

Despite the ambivalence, however, the Bible, which he knew well and read throughout his life, exercised a profound influence upon his creative artistry, providing shape for thematic structures as well as a storehouse of archetypal patterns that he utilized freely in symbolism and allusion.

[See also FICTION, BIBLICAL and MODERN LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

  • Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking, 1984.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf, and Five Critics. Kerygma and Myth. Edited by Hans Werner Bartsch. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.
  • Crockett, H. Kelly, “The Bible and The Grapes of Wrath.” College English 24, no. 3 (December 1962): 193–199.
  • DeMott, Robert. Steinbeck’s Reading: A Catalogue of Books Owned and Borrowed. New York: Garland, 1984.
  • Ditsky, John. Essays on “East of Eden.” Steinbeck Monograph Series, no. 7. Muncie, Ind.: John Steinbeck Society of America, Ball State University, 1977.
  • Fromm, Erich. Psychoanalysis and Religion. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1950.
  • Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958.
  • Ray, William. “John Steinbeck, Episcopalian: St. Paul’s, Salinas.” Steinbeck Review 10, no. 2 (2013): 118–140.
  • Steinbeck, John. The Log from the Sea of Cortez. New York: Viking, 1951.
  • Steinbeck, John. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Edited by Robert Wallsten and Elaine Steinbeck. New York: Viking, 1975.

John H. Timmerman