In our time of troubles, the comic works of John Steinbeck lifted my spirits. Steinbeck (1902-1968) is remembered for Grapes of Wrath (1939), Of Mice and Men (1937), and East of Eden (1952); but Steinbeck’s comic novels lifted me from the Trump gloom and COVID plague. Sometimes we need to be somber; and sometimes to laugh at our confused existence. Steinbeck’s first triumph was not a organ-toned piece on Depression suffering but Tortilla Flat (1935), a comic novel set in Monterey California just after WWI. Steinbeck wrote Tortilla Flat while sunk in misery; his mother dying and his father drifting towards death. It was, of course, the depths of the Depression, with the fertile valleys surrounding Salinas torn by strikes and reprisals. Portrayals of suffering and struggle made perfect sense; but times of trouble need the comic spirit, a way of looking that eases troubled hearts.
Steinbeck was born to a comfortable family in a town with grinding poverty, especially among Mexican-American farm laborers and their families. He did farm work, toiled in the town’s sugar factory, and was employed as a handyman. He enjoyed working people and paid them to hear their tales. This other world fed his realist works and his comic novels.
Tortilla Flat is based on the Morte D’Arthur. The narrator comments he has “put down [these tales] on paper so that in a future time scholars, hearing the legends, may not say as they say of Arthur and of Roland and of Robin Hood—‘There was no Danny nor any group of Danny’s friends, nor any house. Danny is a nature god and his friends primitive symbols of the wind, the sky, the sun.’” The legends are real; “the old inhabitants of Monterey are embattled as the Ancient Britons are embattled in Wales.”
Tortilla Flat resembles 18th C. British literary “burlesque”, where lower class persons are cast in the roles of exalted characters. Steinbeck’s chapter headings recall Joseph Andrews (1742) and Fielding’s good humor, as in: “Chapter six -- How Three Sinful Men, Through Contrition, Attained Peace. How Danny’s Friends Swore Comradeship.” In this, three loveable drunks burn down their friend’s house, share their wine with him, along with a massive brassiere for his girlfriend. The deeper root is Don Quixote, with its romantic sentiment and comic commentary on life downstairs from lofty ideals and decency.
Tortilla Flat recalls also Canterbury Tales and Midsummer Night’s Dream, where lower class characters aspire to grand social and literary forms. These comedies explore humanity aside from social definitions. Steinbeck’s preface explains: “when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow.” Beyond conventions and decencies, we discover what sort of creature we are, the mixed joy and horror of our existence, and how to get on with it. Comedy is serious business.
In Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), for example, lower class characters adopt genteel disguises. When a crude bulbous woman imagines herself a sylph-like heroine, we laugh at her elephantine daintiness. The workmen in Midsummer Night’s Dream are sweet in their simplicity, their botched verses laughable. Yet, they are never mean-spirited and pose no dangers. While in reality the anger of field hands and mechanics towards their betters threatens communal harmony, Sancho Panza’s rascality poses no threat. These relaxed social notions of comedy fit the spirit of the United States and its insistence on the worth of every person.
Huckleberry Finn (1884) favors the rough and angelic genius of Huck over the bright and scheming Tom Sawyer. When Huck confuses ducks and dolphins for dukes and the Dauphin, Twain isn’t mocking his ignorance but instead the blighted social ascendency for which proper folks hunger. Danny, the hero of Tortilla Flat, ditched his advantages -- “If the growing Danny preferred to sleep in the forest, to work on ranches, and to wrest his food and wine from an unwilling world, it was not because he did not have influential relatives.” The tramps and bums we meet in Danny’s house are clowns in Hamlet’s world; they struggle, in rude language, with the mysteries of being.
The uneducated, ill-kempt, and morally odd dominate Steinbeck’s democratic burlesque, but his narrator knows the great books, wields complex language, rejects the rigged game of social conformity, and invites the reader into an irreverent conspiracy. If Pilon and Danny are thieves and hypocrites, they are not any more so than business folk. Whatever their failings, “the paisanos are clean of commercialism, free of the complicated systems of American business.” For Steinbeck, US society is a war between property’s demands and the quest for freedom, between competitive struggle and communal bonds; a quest for grandeur beyond domestic order and careworn cupboard-keeping. Steinbeck’s humane moralism embraces cycles of error and forgiveness, and the luxurious freedom that belongs to a boy’s dream of pleasant afternoons. His characters evade responsibility; as Mark Twain put it, they “light out for the territories” where a man wipes his hands on his pants, doesn’t tip his hat to the banker, or please his betters to get on in life.
Among Steinbeck’s Monterey trailblazers are R.L. Stevenson (1850-94) and American humorist Josh Billings (1818-1885). Billings assumed the style of the common man, and like Will Rogers (an Oklahoman and Cherokee cowpoke), served up uncommon wisdom in plain talk. Stevenson enjoyed the Pacific west. His “An Apology for Idlers” (1877) recommends: “A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than a five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of goodwill and a practical demonstration of the great Theorem of the Liveableness of Life.” Billings celebrated ease beyond good sense and propriety. He recommended the moral superiority of nature: “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself” -- a sentiment supported by Tortilla Flat and Travels with Charley (1961). This Steinbeck, different from the chronicler of Dust Bowl struggles, heralds humorists like Jean Shepherd, Garrison Keillor, and Kurt Vonnegut, whose small town paradises defy convention that drains joy from life. They protest boredom and the pressures of fitting in and making it.
Danny’s world has felt the shock of the great world beyond it. Encouraged by patriotism and too much drinking, Danny and friends enlist in the war – Danny served as a mule-skinner. Pilon in the infantry, and Big Joe as an inmate in the stockade. On their return, Tortilla Flat, perched on a hillside above Monterey, is unchanged, preserving its antic Mexican-American character before it became California and was subjected to property rights, decency, and rapacity. Tortilla Flat is a bulwark against the practical new world and its threats to human nature, an eternal paradise happily disposed towards good and evil, all differences dissolved by friendship and enchantment. Poverty torments this little world, but restlessness haunts this boyhood paradise, the need to break cycles of routine that lead nowhere. This drive to push life beyond everyday dreariness to something transcendent is natural to those untamed by law, property, and common adjustments. Tortilla Flats, unincorporated, retains the joy and suffering decency does without; a place where art and feeling, risk and irresponsible lunacy, can flourish, and where poetic language wields its magic.
When Danny inherits two derelict houses from his grandfather, he faces the curse of owning property. Before that legacy, he and his friends had been free: “They built a fire and broiled the ham and ate the stale bread. The brandy receded quickly down the bottle. After they had eaten, they huddled near the fire and sipped delicately at the bottle like effete bees. And the fog came down upon them and grayed their coats with moisture. The wind sighed sadly in the pines about them.” Steinbeck’s verbs are energetic: “broiled”, “receded”, “huddled” “sipped” “grayed” and “sighed” -- a paradise where nature and feeling are luxuriously attuned. Steinbeck, a canny story-teller, knows also when to stay silent and let event and dialogue carry the point. When Danny wallows in grievances, a comic prelude to doing as he pleases, he comments: “Here we sit, homeless. We gave our lives for our country, and now we have no roof over our head”. Obviously, Danny has not given his life for his country, but we don’t need the narrator to enjoy the absurdity. If the reader isn’t swift enough, that won’t be the author’s fault.
Danny’s pal Pilon is a master logician, a small town Odysseus. Mrs. Morales raises chickens next door, so Pilon cuts the fence and liberates them to nest and lay eggs for Danny and friends. Pilon cares for his companions: with two dollars in hand and briefly intending to pay Danny some rent, Pilon decides Danny would instead prefer two jugs of wine to share with his friend: “If I give him hard money, it does not express how warmly I feel toward my friend. But a present, now. And I will tell him the two gallons cost five dollars.” Chasing down the rooster next door and killing him for dinner, Pilon saves the poor cluck from the dangers of the road. With wit and imagination, Pilon manipulates a world stacked against him.
Like his character, Steinbeck’s moral reckoning is agile. There are two Pilons – one greedy and self-serving, the other the soul of purity: “Pilon was a lover of beauty and a mystic. He raised his face into the sky and his soul arose out of him into the sun’s afterglow. That not too perfect Pilon, who plotted and fought, who drank and cursed, trudged slowly on; but a wistful and shining Pilon went up to the sea gulls where they bathed on sensitive wings in the evening. That Pilon was beautiful, and his thoughts were unstained with selfishness and lust.” Devilish clever, Pilon invokes Saint Augustine: “A soul washed and saved is a soul doubly in danger, for everything in the world conspires against such a soul. ‘Even the straws under my knees,’ says Saint Augustine, ‘shout to distract me from prayer.’ … the soul capable of the greatest good is also capable of the greatest evil. Who is there more impious than a backsliding priest? Who more carnal than a recent virgin?”
Pilon is complex, but who isn’t? We follow Pilon into his labyrinth of self-justification and, taking an unexpected turn, recognize ourselves. When Danny sends Pilon to purchase a box of candy for a prospective lady-love, Pilon returns with jugs of wine: candy is bad for you, and it would be better to share one gallon jug with his friend and present the second to his Dulcinea. When they down both jugs, Pilon figures Danny has been saved from a dangerous romantic entanglement.
The central religion of these wandering wastrels is the search for the paradise of childhood. Drunk into smiling agreeableness, Pablo and Pilon conclude that only childhood fulfilled their desires. Drinking their jug to the dregs, “Pilon remembered how happy he had been when he was a little boy. ‘No care then, Pablo. I knew not sin. I was very happy.’ ‘We have never been happy since,’ Pablo agreed sadly.” The Pirate, blessed with mystical empathy, takes us even further from rational adulthood.
The Pirate works daily, earns money, and supports the larger community. Although his black beard and fearsome aspect account for his nickname, he is Edenic and free from violence and cupidity. The Pirate earns his two-bits a day gathering kindling from the forest to fuel households, workplaces, and restaurants. He saves his earnings to purchase a gold candlestick for the church and honor St. Francis. He expresses his devotion to St. Francis daily, however, in his familiar relationship with five dogs: “Enrique was rather houndish in appearance, although his tail was bushy. Pajarito was brown and curly, and these were the only two things you could see about him.Rudolph was a dog of whom passers-by said, ‘He is an American dog.’ Fluff was a Pug and Señor Alec Thompson seemed to be a kind of an Airedale. They walked in a squad behind the Pirate, very respectful toward him, and very solicitous for his happiness.” The Pirate places his dogs above himself, feeds them first, and consults them for advice. They know his feelings, respect his needs, and guide him. They are far more kindly, and more useful than his human friends, who try to “succor” their simple friend out of his savings.
In Chapter seven Pilon constructs an elaborate plot to rob the Pirate. Pilon torments the Pirate with tales of misers who buried their treasure only to lose it to theft. The Pirate cannot grasp what Pilon is up to: when he tries to figure it out, “his brain grew gray and no help came from it, but only a feeling of helplessness.” When Pilon invites him to live at Danny’s house, the Pirate turns to his dogs for advice: “And he looked to his dogs for comfort, but they would not meet his glance.” Later, when Danny and his friends fail to discover the hiding place of the Pirate’s treasure, the dogs mock them: “The dogs lifted their heads when Pilon entered, and Pilon thought they smiled satirically at him for a moment.” His canine friends keep the befuddled Pirate from harm. The Pirate is blessed with innocence: each knight possesses a touch of God’s magnificence.
Steinbeck’s comic novels are well crafted, every episode with an adroit opening, careful unfoldings, and a kicker to close. As with the Pirate’s tale, each chapter has a comic twist, a lesson on how this broken world somehow holds together. In Chapter Nine Danny becomes enchanted with “Sweets” Ramirez, arousing the “ugly beast of lust”. When she demurs, Danny bestows on her a gleaming vacuum cleaner, much prized, though Tortilla Flat lacks electricity. Her neighbors envy “Sweets”, pushing the machine across the floor and making humming noises. When Danny tires of Sweets, his friends “repossess” the vacuum, trading it for wine. Torrelli, the bootlegger, believes the machine will please his ever complaining wife, only to find that electricity cannot assist a machine without a motor. Often romance is a shiny object, useless, fostering pride, repossessed by trickery, and finally discovered worthless.
Sometimes, the surprise turn catches sentimentality off guard. Santa Maria Corcoran, a knight who feels things deeply, encounters a youth cradling his sickly newborn on the town’s main street. Corcoran brings the boy and his infant to Danny’s. The young corporal tells a tale of injured innocence; his beautiful wife and mother of his son had been stolen away by the captain of his regiment. Later, a mystic assured the corporal that if he repeated his wish, his son would someday become a general. Sadly, the infant expires, despite all Danny and friends can do, and the youthful father, so devoted to his infant child, will never see him prosper. We grieve for him until we discover his wish was not to have pride in his son but to exact revenge, his son as a general stealing from the captain what he treasures most. Tortilla Flat insists, “It is astounding to find that the belly of every black and evil thing is as white as snow. And it is saddening to discover how the concealed parts of angels are leprous.”
In this comic tradition sex is ludicrous. As in Canterbury Tales and Joseph Andrews, it is great fun when a widow, well past romance, is courted by an unlikely suitor who falls prey to her ardor. When Big Joe stops off, in sandy squalor, for a glass of wine at Tia Ignacia’s house, Joe wants only some gulps of grappa and a warm place to snooze; Tia Ignacia wants more. When Joe falls into a drunken stupor, the lady, old but needy, in her frustration pounds him awake. While grappling to subdue her, Joe discovers love, and the amorous pair are later discovered by the local constable, in the dark, in the middle of the muddy road, in love’s embrace, and in a classic comic tradition.
Tortilla Flat ends in dark tones. Steinbeck’s tarnished knights hope to elude propriety and domestic care -- a boy’s adventure of doing as you please, of enchanted woods, and outrages against civility. As in Travels with Charley, he’s happiest on the road; or, in Sea of Cortez (1941) with his friend Ed Ricketts, sailing the “Western Flyer” into the Gulf of California. Danny’s demise and the titanic combat that destroys him shocks us. It is more Wagner than Mallory, Ragnorok than Lancelot, Gotterdammerung than Camelot, as Danny wars against everyday boredom to which boyish selves are inevitably doomed.
In Morte d’Arthur, Camelot collapses from disease at the heart of courtly romance. Danny’s shatters from his need to feel fully alive. Danny’s purely American lust for trouble leads to the dissolution of his household.
Steinbeck sets the tone: “On Tortilla Flat, above Monterey, the routine is changeless too; for there is only a given number of adventures that Cornelia Ruiz can have with her slowly changing procession of sweethearts.” As amusing as these peccadillos are, in the end they repeat themselves into monotony. As amusing as the paisanos are, they are what they are, repeated in anecdote after anecdote. Stories give out into foolishness and failure, as in the broken tales of Bob Smoke or the courting of the Montez sisters. Sometimes a tale evokes laughter, but of a kind that “squeezes your heart” or offers only unsettled meanings. Though the enchanted forest offers ancient treasures and restless ghosts, Tortilla Flat falls ultimately into its own cycle of repetition: “ … the waves beat out the passage of time on the rocks and the tides rise and fall as a great clepsydra [a water clock].” And so, the world is only what it is and never what the hungry heart could imagine.
Danny’s outlaw commune proves insufficient: “Danny began to dream of the days of his freedom. He had slept in the woods in summer, and in the warm hay of barns when the winter cold was in. The weight of property was not upon him. He remembered that the name of Danny was a name of storm.” The god he serves rides aloft in dark clouds of madness, pain, impulse and transgression. At first Danny disappears, hiding in the forest, rampaging the town, and bedeviling his friends, stealing the Pirate’s wheelbarrow, stealing their furniture, even stealing his companions’ shoes.
Towards the end, Steinbeck amps up the epic dimensions. Torrelli becomes a fairytale monster. Witnessing him sweeping down on Danny’s house, townsfolk lock their shutters against his fury: “his face suffused with a ferocious smile of pleasure and anticipation, the children ran into their yards and peeked through the pickets at him; the dogs caressed their stomachs with their tails and fled with backward, fearful looks …” We enter the horrors of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Old Roca, seeing Torrelli smiling, went home and told his wife, “That one has just killed and eaten his children. You will see!” Danny has humiliated Torrelli and seduced his wife. Torrelli’s fury is diverted by Danny’s friends’ trickery, but Danny has tipped into madness. Pilon concludes: “Truly he is mad. He is running through the woods like an animal.” We have entered a harrowing world, where “the sea gulls circled in the air, screaming tragically.” Danny becomes listless, scarcely aware of his friends. To Pilon he appears old; to Jesus Maria, “sick of fun, with some bitter secret in his heart.”
The narrator addresses his despondent character: “Poor Danny, how has life left thee! Here thou sittest like the first man before the world grew up around him; and like the last man, after the world has eroded away.” Danny enacts an antique drama, beyond history, in the realm of myths and gods. His friends find Danny leaning on the wharf; as Pablo reports: “At first it looked like a black cloud in the air over Danny’s head. And then I saw it was a big black bird, as big as a man.” An unseen world hovers to gather him into darkness. Despite his friends’ efforts at rescue, Danny “turned back to the deep black water. Perhaps he whispered to the gods a promise or a defiance.”
The party to rouse him from his despair decays into a brawl: with “roaring battles that raged through whole clots of men, each one for himself.” Party-goers saw Danny transformed, titanic and belligerent, his head nearly touching the ceiling. Like Melville’s Ahab, Danny calls out his enemy to battle: “I will find The Enemy who is worthy of Danny,” he bellows, and party-goers hear a baleful challenge from “the Opponent” in response, a shout “so terrifying it chills their spines”. When they find Danny’s broken body in the gulch below, he is beyond what doctors and priests and townsfolk and friends can offer.Danny’s Opponent stalked all the mad questors of Hawthorne, Melville, Hemingway and Philip Roth. Tearing loose from household and community, from women and family, from national purpose and history, these broken heroes, alone against immensities, fight and lose their battle against imagination and desire. Danny lives the counter-life of rascality in a boyhood paradise. He must be every moment original and instinctive and self-generating. Danny was a mule-skinner, a vaquero, a free man wandering Monterey’s streets drunk and disorderly, bedding wives and daughters, thieving and conniving, and daring all. Death is the Opponent worthy of his need for the unimaginable. His stately military funeral, gathering the outlaw back into order and decency, mocks the man -- his friends hiding their ragged dress, the dogs howling mournfully, is a more fitting tribute. In a comic coda, ladies, done up in false finery, follow behind the caisson “holding their skirts up out of the indelible trail of cavalry.”
The funereal ending is comic and overblown. Could it conclude with domestic bliss, or sudden riches? Instead, we remember the comradery, colorful stories, and the permissive sense that all this might be possible, against the constraints of what serves as reality. Cannery Row, Steinbeck’s next comic triumph, takes us further into dreaming beyond the bounds. For the reader, it’s good medicine for bad times.
[Steinbeck was married three times, charged by his California neighbors with being a Communist, drank too much, plied his trade restlessly through several careers, advised Presidents (who paid no attention), despised the automated world suffocating the US, and wrote as if his life depended on it.