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Fellows Find: John Steinbeck’s “ideal woman”

Cover of July 1950 issue of "Flair" magazine.
Cover of July 1950 issue of "Flair" magazine.

Heidi Kim is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She visited the Ransom Center in December 2012 on a travel fellowship to research her monograph in progress, Invisible Subjects: Asian America in Postwar American Literature.

Some archival trips, like my recent trip to the Harry Ransom Center, are highly directed expeditions. I was on a mission to look at the revision of specific sections of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden (1952). But there is also always the pleasure of the archive, given time and an extensive collection like the Ransom Center’s, which draws a researcher to explore the small pieces of an author’s oeuvre that can shed light on the concerns of his more famous works.

One of the detours I took was to look at a piece of Steinbeck’s with which I was not familiar, a minor feature in the short-lived but highly ambitious fashion magazine Flair (the Ransom Center holds a rare, complete set of its run). In Flair’s July 1950 “All Male Issue,” several famous men, including child actor Brandon de Wilde and industrial designer Raymond Loewy, were asked to draw and describe their ideal woman. Steinbeck drew a curvaceous nude, a sketchy, muscular outline emphasizing her attributes. The caption read:

“Novelist John Steinbeck snorted as he drew, sounded off: “Guys that talk about the ideal woman just don’t like women. I don’t want an ideal woman. I just like dames. Anyway, the ideal woman is for kids. I think a couple of centuries from now people are going to look back on these times and think all babies were born from mammary glands…”

For any Steinbeck scholar, this brings up an all-too-familiar debate about his unrealistic or misogynistic depictions of women—certainly a fair critique in some respects. However, through this almost defiantly sexualized sketch, Steinbeck was also exploring a growing concern about the repression, conformity, and over-civilization of the postwar era, popularly identified with the 1950s. In his mind, this was far more perverse than the healthy animal sexuality and physicality he extolled in his 1930s naturalist works, sometimes to a degree that readers found uncomfortable. The best-known example is the ending of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in which the character Rose of Sharon, who has just had a stillborn baby, breastfeeds a half-dead, starving man and smiles mysteriously.

I’m skeptical of Steinbeck’s flippant claim that he was “just” drawing a dame rather than an ideal woman, and that the ideal woman is “for kids” (implicitly only for kids). A domesticized dame who can make a home and family was decidedly his ideal woman, as embodied by Abra in East of Eden. She likes to cook and is also a “straight, strong, fine-breasted woman, developed and ready and waiting to take her sacrament,” that is a sexual awakening from her boyfriend, who is living in an ecstasy of religious purity. Similarly, Suzy, the prostitute with a heart of gold in Sweet Thursday (1954), is no good at “hustling” because she is “too small in the butt and too big in the bust,” a state of body that reflects her state of mind: affectionate, faithful, and nurturing.  Steinbeck’s heroines have generous hearts and generous bodies.

This is not simply objectification; as a naturalist (or post-naturalist) writer, Steinbeck depicts one facet of danger to mankind as the unfitness or unwillingness to bear and nurture in a harsh world where, in Darwinian fashion, fertility of land, women, or even mind contributes to survival. As with animals, human fitness must be shown physically. The purely evil Cathy of East of Eden has a boyish body with undeveloped breasts that do not enlarge even during her unwanted pregnancy, seemingly through sheer willpower. Her body mirrors her stunted moral sense and her deviant use of sexuality as power, and symbolizes how unfit she is to be a force of good in Steinbeck’s myth-inflected narrative. In death, her already insufficient body vanishes from life and human history: “And then her eyes closed again and her fingers curled as though they held small breasts. And her heart beat solemnly and her breathing slowed as she grew smaller and smaller and then disappeared—and she had never been.”

Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains

Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.
Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.

Coming of age on the American High Plains, American novelist Sanora Babb was familiar with the endeavor for dignity among the people living in the poverty-stricken area. With her intimate knowledge of the landscape, she provided access to the daily circumstances of individuals struggling to survive in the Dust Bowl. Babb sought to depict the High Plains as a featureless physical space, while humanizing “the Great American Desert” as the stage on which people’s daily lives unfolded.

The Ransom Center holds the Sanora Babb papers, and some of the materials are highlighted in the Center’s web exhibition Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains. In her fiction, Babb sought to illuminate the stories of those families who left little written account of the unrelenting duress and the socio-economic strife that characterized the American High Plains at mid-century. Materials from this collection are also featured in this Sunday’s premiere of Ken Burns’s new documentary The Dust Bowl on PBS, which draws heavily on Babb’s novels and documentary writings.

Before the stock market crash in October 1929, Babb moved from Colorado to Los Angeles where she found work as a scriptwriter for a radio station and began publishing her literary work in experimental activist magazines. These “little magazines” helped Babb get her foot in the door, and she soon met writers Dorothy Parker, Ralph Ellison, Genevieve Taggard, Nathanael West, John Howard Lawson, Theodore Dreiser, and B. Traven.

Increasingly involved in political activism and social advocacy, Babb worked with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to set up tent settlements for the dispossessed in California’s farmlands. Babb’s employment with the FSA, as well as her own childhood experiences, provided the subtext for her first novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, which chronicles the lives of displaced High Plains families and their struggle to find work as seasonal harvesters in California.

Although Random House accepted Babb’s novel for publication in 1939, the contract was rescinded when John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was published during the same year. According to Random House editor Bennet Cerf, the market could not support two books with similar subjects. Although both Steinbeck and Babb explore the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s, the authors interpret the difficult conditions in starkly different terms. In Whose Names Are Unknown, the intimate world of human relationships relies on testimonial witnessing, while Grapes of Wrath employs symbolic means to represent the condition of “Oakies.”

Disappointed that Whose Names are Unknown was eclipsed by Steinbeck’s work, Babb turned her attention to the manuscript of her second novel, The Lost Traveler (1958). Babb continued to work as a writer and publisher into her eighties, publishing An Owl on Every Post (1971), Cry of the Tinamou (1997), and Told in the Seed (1998). A re-edited manuscript of Whose Names Are Unknown, published in 2004, received critical recognition as a rival to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.