The Winter of Our Discontent

BOOK: The Winter of Our Discontent
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Table of Contents
JOHN STEINBECK (1902-68) was born in Salinas, California, in 1902 and grew up in a fertile agricultural valley about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast—and both valley and coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without a degree. During the next five years, he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City and then as a caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate, all the time working on his first novel,
Cup of Gold
(1929). After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California fictions,
The Pastures of Heaven
(1932) and
To a God Unknown
(1933), and worked on short stories later collected in
The Long Valley
(1938). Popular success and financial security came only with
Tortilla Flat
(1935), stories about Monterey’s
. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. The powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class:
In Dubious Battle
Of Mice and Men
(1937), and the book considered by many his finest,
The Grapes of Wrath
(1939). Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with
The Forgotten Village
(1941) and a serious student of marine biology with
Sea of Cortez
(1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing
Bombs Away
(1942) and the controversial play-novelette
The Moon Is Down
Cannery Row
The Wayward Bus
The Pearl
A Russian Journal
(1948); another experimental drama,
Burning Bright
(1950); and
The Log from the “Sea of Cortez”
(1951) preceded publication of the monumental
East of Eden
(1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history. The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include
Sweet Thursday
The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication
Once There Was a War
The Winter of Our Discontent
Travels with Charley in Search of America
America and Americans
(1966), and the posthumously published
Journal of a Novel: The “East of Eden” Letters
Viva Zapata!
Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
(1976), and
Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath”
(1989). He died in 1968, having won a Nobel Prize in 1962.
SUSAN SHILLINGLAW is a professor of English at San Jose State University and scholar-in-residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. She has published several articles on Steinbeck and coedited
Steinbeck and the Environment, John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews,
“America and Americans” and Selected Nonfiction.
Her most recent book is
A Journey into Steinbeck’s California.
She is completing a biography of Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck.
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in the United States of America by The Viking Press 1961
Published in Penguin Books 1982
This edition with an introduction and notes by Susan Shillinglaw published 2008
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Copyright © John Steinbeck, 1961
Copyright renewed Elaine Steinbeck, Thom Steinbeck, and John Steinbeck IV, 1989
Introduction and notes copyright © Susan Shillinglaw, 2008
All rights reserved
A serial version of this work appeared in
Steinbeck, John, 1902-1968.
The winter of our discontent / John Steinbeck; introduction and notes by Susan Shillinglaw.
p. cm.—(Penguin classics.)
Includes bibliographical references.
eISBN : 978-1-4406-3867-1
1. Grocery trade—Employees—Fiction. 2. Conduct of life—Fiction. 3. Domestic fiction. I. Shillinglaw,
Susan. II. Title.
PS3537.T3234W5 2008
813’.52—dc22 2008018574
Printed in the United States of America
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The Winter of Our Discontent
is John Steinbeck’s last novel, the book that occasioned his 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature. On the eve of the ceremony, the
New York Times
published an editorial by Arthur Mizener questioning the wisdom of the Swedish Academy’s decision: “Does a Moral Vision of the Thirties Deserve a Nobel Prize?” The article seared Steinbeck’s soul, no doubt, and placed once again before his American readers the enigma of his reputation. How to define this most American of writers, the engaged artist of 1930s California? And how to describe this last novel, certainly not a howl of social protest in the vein of his 1939 classic,
The Grapes of Wrath
, but neither the twilight reflections of an aging writer. For many readers
The Winter of Our Discontent
is a dark morality tale about the fall of a blue-blooded American hero, Ethan Allen Hawley, who succumbs to the temptations of wealth, power, and prestige. But this final novel defies categories. If it’s a parable of corruption and redemption, as Steinbeck suggests in his epigraph, it’s also a lesson in Darwinian survival. The novel insists on a symbolic and highly ironic framework—the first half takes place on Easter weekend in April 1960 and the second on the Fourth of July weekend that same year. Yet the book is also realistic, set in Steinbeck’s own Sag Harbor, New York—New Baytown in the novel—and influenced by the moral quagmires of contemporary America. And while the work tips its hat to Steinbeck’s love of the Arthurian saga, with Ethan a latter-day Lancelot, it’s also true that Ethan’s voice seems almost postmodern, speaking a language that is highly wrought, artificial, self-reflective.
The Winterof Our Discontent
is, seemingly, a patchwork of intentions, all meant to shake a reader’s complacency.
Since its publication in April 1961, this “curious” novel has baffled many readers. Carlos Baker’s review for the
New York Times
sounds a characteristic note of dissatisfaction:
This is a problem novel whose central problem is never fully solved, an internal conflict novel in which the central issue between nobility and expediency, while it is joined, is never satisfactorily resolved. For this reason, despite its obvious powers,
The Winter of Our Discontent
cannot rightly stand in the forefront of Steinbeck’s fiction.
Far from being the source of the novel’s creative failure, its irresolution and allusiveness are, in fact, central to its meaning. “If this is a time of confusion,” Steinbeck had written a few years earlier, “might it be best to set that down?” That was his challenge in
The Winter of Our Discontent.
Ambiguous threads and ethical knots are woven into each page of the narrative—and apparent in the first pages, starting with the perplexities of Ethan’s ancestral heritage, part pirate, part Puritan, and his own name, Ethan Allen, both a Revolutionary War patriot and a man charged with treason. After two chapters in each section of the novel’s two sections, point of view switches from third to first person.
Indeed, the text’s evasive strategies and perplexing characters suggest Steinbeck’s profound unease with Cold War America, where his real fear for his country centered not on Sputnik and Russian armament but on “a creeping, all-pervading, nerve-gas of immorality which starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices, both corporate and governmental.” Steinbeck sent that observation to his close friend, politician Adlai Stevenson, in November 1959, and the letter was subsequently published in
sparking a national discussion: The question “Are We Morally Flabby?” was debated by four educators and writers in a February 1960 issue of the
New Republic,
and the next month
published “Steinbeck Replies.” Steinbeck’s answer was a resounding yes, and more than anything else
The Winter of Our Discontent
explores the contours of that affirmative response. From 1960, when he composed this novel, to the end of his life eight years later, Steinbeck stood as America’s moral compass, pointing to Americans’ virtues and lapses in three unflinching books:
The Winter of Our Discontent, Travels with Charley
(1962), and
America and Americans
BOOK: The Winter of Our Discontent
3.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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