Reception History Overview 1947-1977

by Shanda 


It has been sixty years since The Pearl was published. Among the numerous reviews there were many who favored The Pearl. The earlier reviews were not as favorable of the story until it was published in book from in 1947.  One such critic, Woodburn Ross, writes of the story when it was first released, “His latest work, Pearl of the World, published in The Woman’s Home Companion for December 1945, is not important, but reflects once more his love of the primitive life” (Cooper 187). John Steinbeck responded to the earlier criticisms of The Pearl in a letter to his editor, Pascal Covici, “It didn’t do so well at first either, but it seems to be gathering some friends or at least acquaintances” (Lisca 40). In 1947, when The Pearl was released as a novella, most of the reviews were written between the months of November 1947 to April 1948. At that time, seventy percent of the criticisms wrote favorable reviews of The Pearl, twenty percent of the reviewers were neutral or had mixed reviews and ten percent wrote negative criticisms.

The positive reviews focused on Steinbeck’s clever use of music and description to evoke emotions in his readers. Stanley Cooper explains Steinbeck’s clever use of picturesque descriptions instead of continuous dialogue in order to present a unique blend of musical themes and physical descriptions.

The Pearl, however, is even more tightly structured, for with this book Steinbeck concentrated on visual and musical elements, and the effect is that of a film scenario rather than a stage play. In place of dialogue, so essential to any “live” presentation of drama, Steinbeck uses musical themes, along with physical descriptions so clearly defined as to seem instructions-for-camera; the prose, indeed serves as the lens of a camera – and this is why the technique itself (also used by Ernest Hemingway) is often termed “cinematic prose” (Cooper 16).

The Pearl was released after The Wayward Bus and many of the critics had harsh things to write about The Wayward Bus. Thus, The Pearl was a refreshing improvement for the critics and they stated this by writing, “It was a good novelette, infinitely superior to the wretched novels which Mr. Steinbeck was writing at about the same time and which have done so much to damage his literary reputations” (Prescott). Professor Yanitelli agrees that Steinbeck made a vast improvement in his writing The Pearl. “From the boxcar cargo of The Wayward Bus to the cleanly wrought intaglio of The Pearl, from the brutal cacophony of cattle to the clean white canticle of man, John Steinbeck has modulated his talent from its most despicable worst to its most excellent best” (Yanitelli).

While seventy percent of the critics enjoyed The Pearl, the other thirty percent provided negative or mixed reviews. The mixed reviews stated the facts of the book and its release date while others wrote their like and dislike of the book all in one sentence.  “In parts The Pearl is magnificent Steinbeck – in others it is of the poorest” (World Herald). Surprisingly, many of the unfavorable criticisms were specifically about the Orozco drawings and grammatical structure of the novel. “I find The Pearl indifferent Steinbeck, but I think the five drawings by Orozco are downright bad Orozco. It may be that they are not illustrations of this retelling of the folk story, but of a more crude and violent and less literary Mexican tale” (Weeks). Professor Brady of Canisius College agreed with the negative reviews and the poor grammar of the novel in his November 1947 review. “If one chooses to consider this declension as represented  by the grammatical comparison, false (but charming), falser, falsest, then Cannery Row and The Wayward Bus would mark the nadir of our graph and The Pearl written in 1945, the mid-point….Oh yes. As a final depressing detail, the aforesaid phony primitivism has extended to the crude line daubs of Illustrator Orozco” (Brady).

Other critics did not find much talent in Steinbeck’s retelling of an old story. One such critic, Kester Svendsen, was disappointed in The Pearl because Steinbeck took a simple tale and retold in an archaic and artificial way. Svendsen also criticized the amount of coordinating clauses used by Steinbeck. “The effort at a folk-poetic style to convey the developed sense of evil results in a distressing succession of co-ordinate clauses connected by “and.” The best parts are those in which Steinbeck comments on the action or the motivation, not those in which he tells the story.” (Svendsen)

With a plethora of criticisms (good, bad or mixed) concerning his work, Steinbeck wrote few responses to the critics. However, the few times he did respond showed his fear of the critics and also the growth of his writing from reading those criticisms. In a letter to Dook (Carlton A. Sheffield, Steinbeck’s lifelong friend) Steinbeck wrote about his frustration concerning the development of his writing as well as the many criticisms his work endured.

…it never gets any easier. Starting a thing still brings the same helpless desolation it always did. I do believe that just the practice has made me less likely to make the old errors in form and so forth. But I have learned new errors To make [sic]. The process of writing a book is the process of and growing it. That is the dreadful fact. Each one is completely new. Now criticism dwells on your muscles in other words critics can tell you what not to do but they can’t tell you what To do [sic]. If they could, They would be doing it rather than criticizing [sic]. I am just as scared now as I was 25 years ago (Steinbeck).

Another rare response to a critic was in Peter Lisca’s book, Steinbeck and His Critics: a Record of Twenty-Five Years. He was pleased with the amount of research Lisca put into the book and he was surprised at what some of the critics had written.  Here, Steinbeck wrote to the author and responded to the book’s content.

I have read with very much interest the book, Steinbeck and His Critics, particularly since I have not seen most of the material before. It is always astonishing to read a critique of one’s work. In my own case, it didn’t come out that way but emerged little by little, staggering and struggling, each part alone and separated from the others. It gives me the pleased but uneasy feeling of reading my own epitaph (Lisca 307).

Though The Pearl was not to be one of Steinbeck’s most famous works, at the time it was published, it was a piece of literature that was thought provoking and profound. It brought Steinbeck back into the critics’ reviews in a more favorable light than he had experienced just a few months earlier. It may not be listed as one of his greatest stories but it does go down in history as one of his more reflective stories.

It takes thought to read The Pearl. Many readers nowadays do not like to think. They want the writers to do all the thinking. So they don’t like The Pearl. But if they care to think they can find in it lessons as old as time, and as undeniable. They may find in it more than Steinbeck intended. That is the way with parables. But Steinbeck will not bother to remind them of all this. He lets his writing speak for itself. Thus far it has spoken with considerable force (Bedell).

In his usual way of communicating, Steinbeck used his written work to speak for himself rather than verbally defending his work. He used criticisms as way to improve his writing and mature as a writer. However, the criticisms, good or bad, were not the driving force behind his writing; it was the enjoyment of what he did. “My work is and has been fun. Within myself, I find no hunger to inquire further.” (Lisca 309)

The Pearl Reception History Overview 1977-present