Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

“It did not occur to me that [paisanos] were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish. They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat … good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes. If I have done them harm by telling a few of their stories I am sorry. It will never happen again.” (Steinbeck “Foreword,” 1937) promised American novelist John Steinbeck, talking about the response to many of his novels, and Tortilla Flat in particular. He felt that many of his readers had “taken these people up with the vulgarity of duchesses who are amused for and sorry for a peasantry.” When he talks about “these people,” he is talking about something that occupied him through most of his writing career—common laborers in the poorer parts of America. Steinbeck was consistently irritated with the reception of his books. He often felt that people had missed the point of his writing. This is not uncommon for authors, but it was a particularly intense experience for Steinbeck; most interpretations of Tortilla Flat, for instance, describe its characters as “not quite human beings” (Wilson “New Republic”), which enraged the author, and even the response to arguably his greatest novel, The Grapes of Wrath, had the strange effect of creating a backlash against him for representing the plight of farm workers. To explain this dramatic difference between what Steinbeck wanted his books to do and how people actually reacted to them—and his depression that resulted—observations of the deeper themes of his works has to be made as well as finding out how Steinbeck felt that his audience had failed him. He wrote about common people, not just meaning “poor,” but actually “common” in their appetites, needs, and loves. His characters are poor, but they can use their connections to other people and the land to stay happy and sane even with nothing else going for them. In Steinbeck’s view, that is the most common thing of all. The readers who differed from Steinbeck’s own interpretation of his novels, particularly Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men, are not merely failing to pick up this idea, but also failing at a deeper level, by not acting out the connection to “common” things that Steinbeck felt was absolutely necessary.

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One of Steinbeck’s first widely acclaimed novels, Tortilla Flat, is fictional in nature but the general message applies to the real world. Danny and his fellow paisanos (countrymen of Spanish, Caucasian, Mexican, Indian decent) – Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria, Pirate, and Big Joe Portagee live in a shabby hillside known as Tortilla Flat located above Monterey, California. Returning after World War I, Danny inherits two houses from his grandfather in which eventually becomes the living quarters of these jobless thieves and adulterers. Throughout the novel, each of these men is confronted with financial issues, drinking habits, conflicts dealing with various women, violations of the law, and betrayal. Ultimately, this troubled lifestyle leads to the tragic death of the main character, Danny, as he escapes from his home to venture on a one month crime spree. Danny’s friends nevertheless sincerely care for him so they plan a big event to help relieve Danny of the depression he is undergoing. Finalizing the novel, Steinbeck describes the sadness of Danny’s funeral and the accidental burning of the last house in which the fraternity of Danny, Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria, Pirate, and Big Joe Portagee sprung from. Each man goes their separate ways as a result of the destruction of the house. The plot of the novel is familiar to what people experience during life; there will always come a point of camaraderie and separation.
Tortilla Flat exemplifies the extraordinary beauty of simplicity inspired by desolate living conditions and environment. The novel takes place during the Great Depression, when the hopes of the common people are at their nadir. However, the main characters of this particular story are enjoying their life the fullest, carpe diem as some would say, despite the fact that they are living on scraps and moral debt. Steinbeck makes a specific allusion to King Arthur and his knights at the Round Table to his characters Danny and company, which illustrates their inseparable bond and dependency upon one another and mutual hedonistic beliefs that they all cherish. “The paisanos, who do not bother with such trifles as electronic gadgets, lead simple lives, free from the burden of pointless possessions, and Steinbeck portrays them as happier because of it: ‘Happiness is better than riches’ said Pilon. ‘If we try to make Danny happy, it will be a better thing than to give him money’” (Steinbeck 63). Steinbeck considered this type of idea to be extremely valuable and should apply to every individual because pretty much everyone excluding the small portion of the upper class had been hit by the Depression and they all needed this kind of lesson.
Steinbeck expected the novel to connect to readers’ sympathy but people saw it as a simple narrative story. Steinbeck opens Tortilla Flat with a fable-like introduction, preparing the reader for a “story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three become one thing…when you speak of Danny’s house you are to understand to mean a unit of which the parts are men” (Steinbeck 1). The simplicity of the nature of this novel and its main characters are suggested with the straightforward diction used. It also emphasizes the importance of one character, Danny, as a representation of his entire circle of friends, acquaintances, etc. This promotes the theme of unity alongside the rare beauty that comes with simplicity “from which comes sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow” (Steinbeck 1). The way that Steinbeck writes this introduction—as the beginning of a fable or simple narrative—ended up having the opposite effect as what he wrote. People assumed that it was just a simple story, like a fairy tale, with no serious implications, which is the exact opposite of the unity that Steinbeck is arguing in the introduction.
Though the book may have appeared to be a tremendous success for its author, Tortilla Flat also received widespread criticism as practically all of Steinbeck’s audience generally misinterpreted or missed the moral/purpose of the book. Readers enjoyed the novel because they believed that it was an “escape into a world simpler and poorer, yet happier, if more quaint and curious, than their own …” (Simpson 223). However, Steinbeck intended to capture the intense relations between men who didn’t own much in their lives but had each other for the sake of proving the idea that happiness can still be achieved with simplicity. He wanted his readers to see that the connection made between the characters in Tortilla Flat was the key to reaching their source of happiness.
According to literary critic, Arthur Simpson, “In spite of Steinbeck’s concern (and/or efforts) to see that the structure and theme of Tortilla Flat be understood, he was to be disappointed. The instant reaction of reviewers and critics was generally negative; they saw the book as a celebration of the animal side of man and as an unstructured escapist insult to traditional forms of prose fiction” (Simpson 217). It seems as though Steinbeck’s audience was more focused on criticizing the paisanos’ shameful actions and saw the book as an “unreflective praise of primitive humanity” (Simpson 217) rather than judging the novel based on significant themes that Steinbeck tried so hard to get across. Another example of this common misconception of the novel stated that:
What amused me was the evident irritation of the reviewer at Mr. Steinbeck’s failure to draw a moral from his story. Here are five men, living by their wits on the thin edge of society,’ as the reviewer puts it. And here is Mr. Steinbeck; totally ignoring the social implications of this sad state of things. (Jackson 43)
Reviewers wanted Steinbeck to delve deeper into the implications of the sad state of a society that could hold such poverty, but didn’t realize that the author already was: he was arguing that the unity and simplicity of the pasiano’s lives was already the ultimate lesson in how to fix society. Jackson also said that:
“Apparently the characters of the story are just as bad as the author, too. Poor fellows, they also are indifferent. Living ‘on the thin edge of society’ (by implication because of our present faulty social and economic setup), they just don’t seem to care … And they utterly refuse—as does their creator—to realize that they are rife as rife can be with ‘possibilities’.”
Jackson’s perceptions here are important; they show how much people wanted to bend Steinbeck’s mode of storytelling away from fable-like simplicity into something that could wrestle with the larger society’s problems on an obvious level. Steinbeck, though, had already moved past specific criticism of society into a deeper level of solving those problems. He was trying to get his readers to feel the unity that would heal the nation through identification with his characters.

In addition to the comments made about the paisanos’ way of life, critics also aimed at Steinbeck’s accuracy of portraying real Monterey paisano men – “Few Mexican Americans of Monterey today see themselves in Tortilla Flat any more than their predecessors saw themselves in it thirty-four years ago.” Steinbeck, on the other hand, was outraged because he was sincerely recording the adventures of real life paisanos he had met. “I wrote these stories because they were true stories and because I liked them. But literary slummers have taken these people up with the vulgarity of duchesses who are amused and sorry for a peasantry. These stories are out, and I cannot recall them” (Steinbeck “Foreword,” 1937) Again, critics were assuming that the story was a fable, and that accuracy was the most important thing about it, while Steinbeck was focusing on getting the emotional connection through.
Same motifs, landscapes, and characters from Tortilla Flat also appear in Of Mice and Men, another one of Steinbeck’s famed literary pieces. George and Lennie are two common men, specifically migrant farmworkers, wandering around the countryside to look for a job during the Great Depression around the 30’s. The two serve as a foil character for another; George being short, intelligent, protective, and hot tempered while Lennie is tall, muscular, and mentally retarded. Throughout the novel, both characters constantly bring up their dream of tending their own farmland one day. George and Lennie have escaped their previous job at a farm near Weed because Lennie was falsely accused of rape but they come across another job opportunity at a ranch near Soledad. At this new ranch, Lennie comes across more danger when the ranch owner’s son, Curly, appears to dislike larger men. In addition to this new profound danger, Curly’s flirtatious wife seems to attract Lennie so George, being the protective friend he is, warns him to stay away from her. Unfortunately for Lennie, he again, gets in trouble as he unintentionally strangles the ranch Curly’s wife to death. Once again, Lennie mistakenly jeopardizes his and George’s employment at the ranch as they flee for their lives. Curly and the men at the ranch chase after the two and out of mercy, George tragically shoots Lennie to save him from being lynched by the other men.
Similar to Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men also emphasizes the importance of having a strong bond between people. Though George and Lennie may experience economic setbacks, they depend on each other for not only escape from solitude but also commitment to pursuing their shared American dream. Conclusions that critics have drawn from the story was that it is “the simple story of two migrant workers’ dream of a safe retreat, a ‘clean well-lighted place, ‘ becomes of a safe retreat, a ‘clean well-lighted place, ‘ becomes itself a pattern or archetype which exists on three levels” (Slater 144). Although George and Lennie may work hard to try to pursue their dream of owning this farm, they never get the chance to reach their goal due to Lennie’s tragic death at the finale of the story. Critics were slightly more capable of understanding the multiple levels of the story—it was a simple fable, a grand myth, and a call for unity between people, all at the same time.
According to the American Library Association, “The novella has been banned from various US public and school libraries or curricula for allegedly “promoting euthanasia”, “condoning racial slurs”, being “anti-business”, containing profanity, and generally containing “vulgar” and “offensive language”. The controversy over banning the book because of its apparent “vulgarity” and “promotion of euthanasia” is exactly what Steinbeck was refraining from. Vulgarity used in the novel was most likely intended to give a more accurate interpretation of how migrant farm workers and ranch owners communicated with. Again, readers are oblivious to the significance of the book; they are blinded by the fact that Of Mice and Men contains profanity and refuse to acknowledge the important moral of the story. In both of these stories about “common men,” Steinbeck went out of his way to tell stories that he thought would be easy to connect with emotionally, and was surprised to find that readers thought of them as just simple little stories rather than cries for common brotherhood during the hard times that so many people were facing.
Although many famous authors during this period also received a plentiful amount of criticism, Steinbeck faced this issue more because he was making such a straightforward attempt to get the reader’s sympathy for his characters by telling their stories and not jumping in as an author to make moral judgments. He felt that it was absolutely necessary that he inform the public that he wasn’t romanticizing his stories neither did he perceive the common men in his novels as shameful people. Steinbeck did so in his foreword to a later publication of Tortilla Flat in 1937. He wanted people to feel, along with his characters, that the only way to live a happy life (especially considering the Depression) was to band together in emotional harmony. People were not really used to drawing life lessons from such simple stories, though, and reacted more as if they were reading old, weird myths or curious fairy tales than true-to-life stories of people Steinbeck basically knew.
Through extensive research, I am able to conclude that Steinbeck’s general audience failed to comprehend and act out the moral of Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men. Before reading his foreword to a later edition of Tortilla Flat, I was convinced of the critics’ opinions about his works. However, after careful observation of his response to the banning of his book and many examples of harsh criticism, I started to focus more on the deeper themes he elaborated on in both novels. Also, his background reveals his extreme sentimentality towards common men and the interactions he had with different types of these common men throughout his lifetime. Steinbeck also seemed to be quite upset that his books were famous for the wrong reasons because he specifically wanted his audience to realize that even the most common people are able to pursue happiness through friendship with one another. It is this “connection” that his readers are missing or misinterpreting which leaves him aggravated since the moral of his stories are not being fully appreciated. Personally, I think that Steinbeck did a tremendous job of developing both Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men by incorporating examples of common men, emphasizing influential themes, developing intense male bond, and writing such tragic endings. In my opinion, critics were more concerned with the little details such as accurate portrayal of real pasianos or migrant workers when they should be focusing on the sole purpose of the two novels.

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