A strange and mightily obsessed book

I just finished rereading To a God Unknown, John Steinbeck’s second novel. I first read it many years ago when I was fifteen and it made a huge impression–not quite the book that started me writing, but close. I decided to reread it to find out why it had such an influence on me.It’s not regarded as one of Steinbeck’s best or even a particularly good novel.

Criticism ranged from lukewarm to scathing.  The New York Times called it “a symbolical novel conceived in mysticism and dedicated to the soil” which “attempts too much” and “achieves too little” and hence “fails to cohere.” A reviewer for The Nation judged the novel “pitifully thin and shadowy.” The New York Herald Tribune called it a “strange and mightily obsessed book.”In reading it, I could see the roots of Steinbeck’s voice, but not enough to explain its impact on me. Thin plot, over-the-top writing and characters.So why did it impress me so much? At first, I thought it was the larger-than-life and deeply passionate protagonist, Joseph Wayne. I’m a believer in passionate protagonists (see blog entry on character). But then I realized what I so admired was that the book was original and ambitious.

The young Steinbeck had taken risks.Years of living and writing have hopefully tempered my writing with craft. But in an age when originality, ambition and risk are frequently viewed with caution (how many movies today are remakes of old TV shows and comics?), perhaps aiming high should be part of the equation as well. After all, when did attempting too much become so out of favor.

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