A week in books: One hundred years of Steinbeck's solidarity

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The Independent Culture

The prospect of meeting an old but long-separated schoolfriend can trigger far more fear than joy. Did the charismatic soul who thrilled your teenage self evolve into a bore, a prig, an oaf? Worse, did they never possess the virtues you innocently pinned to them? What applies to people applies, in spades, to literature. To re-read a favourite author of one's youth is to court incredulity, and even self-disgust. How could I have rated that pretentious garbage/sentimental schlock?

Around the age of 15, I adored John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath almost more than any other novel. Soon enough, I learnt this was an inadmissible affection. Too folksy, too naturalistic, stylistically immature, politically naïve: the hit squads of academic criticism had dropped down hard on Steinbeck even before his death in 1968. He was born – in Salinas, California – on 27 February 1902, and next week Allen Lane publishes an ample selection of his non-fiction to mark the centenary: Of Men and their Making, edited by Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J Benson (£25). Of course, I opened it with trepidation. Would Steinbeck prove as cringingly embarrassing as every other 15-year-old crush?

I need not have worried. Of Men and their Making is a constant delight, a generous, open-hearted vaudeville show of a book that switches from elegantly crafted memoirs to frivolous pieces on fishing or Fords, from thrilling reportage to sinewy meditations on politics and culture. Not all of it is perfect, or profound. Steinbeck wrote reams of journalism over three decades, and one leading item on the academic charge-sheet states that he squandered too much talent on ephemera. But, all in all, his praise for Mark Twain's "incredible ear and eye and sense of form" as a subjective observer goes for Steinbeck, too.

Here is the democratic American voice in all its glory: friendly, courageous, compassionate, keen to go everywhere, see everything, and capture it all in pacy, spirited prose that can swing between high ideas and street life without missing a beat. The collection teems with hundreds of images and phrases that kick, and bite, and stay – from the childhood memory of a phonograph that "leaped from a shelf and destroyed itself" in the California earthquake of 1906 to the vision of Bob Hope in London in 1943, wisecracking to a hospital ward of maimed soldiers and magically drawing "laughter up out of the black water".

We revisit the beautifully-evoked California towns of Steinbeck's youth; and we follow him into the itinerant workers' camps of the Dust Bowl years, in articles that mount a ringing defence of the dignity of "economic migrants". The editors choose some grittily memorable wartime reportage; some charming accounts of postwar Europe; and portraits of his friends, from Woody Guthrie and Robert Capa to Henry Fonda. (Watching John Ford's fine film of The Grapes of Wrath after 20 years, Steinbeck is galvanised when this "lean, stringy, dark-faced piece of electricity walked out on the screen"). Even the 1966 text of a photo book on America and Americans, written when he had allegedly gone soft, is typically abrasive about his countrymen's taste for narcissism and racism: "from the first we have treated our minorities abominably, the way the old boys do the new kids in school."

Steinbeck was not always prescient (like many other US liberals, he supported the early stages of the war in Vietnam). Yet these 400 pages rattle by without a snide thought, a cheap shot or a dead sentence from beginning to end. At a time when establishment America takes on the sepulchral tones of Donald Rumsfeld (or the silences of Kenneth Lay), this book could achieve more for the nation's prestige overseas than a hundred extra CIA recruits.