It is interesting to speculate about what John Steinbeck, whose birth centennial was in 2002, and Ernest Hemingway, who would be 107 this year, would have thought about the big space age show – the enormous advances in science related to our concept of the cosmos – that followed shortly after their deaths.
Neither author is known to have written science fiction, but there are numerous references to things cosmological in their works. While Steinbeck and Hemingway both wrote more about the sea than things celestial (and unlike Arthur C. Clarke and the other members of the science fiction writing community), Hemingways’s and Steinbecks’s main interests were not in the big universe and its possible residents out there, but in the immediate world around us. However, Steinbeck wrote many confounding things about the celestial, and I recently ventured to read almost all of his work in order to figure out what exactly he was trying to say about this difficult topic. Steinbeck satirized characters that were interested in the subject, and what he said about contemporary American writers who addressed the cosmological was not always complimentary.
In In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck writes that “The bright, hard stars were out, not many of them, but sharp and penetrating in the cold night sky.” Similarly, in his famous story “Chrysanthemums,” the author also writes:
Elisa’s voice grew husky. She broke in on him, “I’ve never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark – why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there’s quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and lovely.”
There is also the scene on the porch between brother and sister, in the most sordid of Steinbeck’s works, East of Eden: “Tom got up and went outside. He looked up at the summer stars, at blue Venus and red Mars. His hands flexed at his sides, closed to fists and opened. Then he turned and went back into the house. Dessie had not moved.”
In The Short Reign of Pippin IV, about a fictional amateur astronomer who becomes the temporary ruler of France, Steinbeck writes: “M. Heristal’s celestial hobby was carried on at night and silently. The passions of astronomy, however, are no less profound because they are not noisy.” Some of Steinbeck’s references are even threatening. In Pippin IV there are a number of minatory references to sex, such as: “Please don’t allow her on the terrace, Marie,” he said. “My telescope might leap at her.”
Hemingway’s published fiction included less musings on the subject of the celestial, and in his fiction he never explores the subject in detail, but it is a compelling question to wonder what he and his contemporaries would have thought about the space age, in retrospect, from beyond the millennium. Steinbeck died in 1968, and Hemingway in 1961; William Faulkner died in 1962, and F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1940. These “Big Four” authors of American literature were from a different era, and their documentarian oeuvres were shaped in a time before we landed astronauts on the moon, sent space probes to the far reaches of the solar system, or the success of the television show Star Trek.
Darkness – suggestive of the night sky – has long been a modernist literary symbol and metaphor, as illustrated in such works as Dubliners by James Joyce, Night Rider by Robert Penn Warren, and the novella Daisy Miller by Henry James, but so have been the bright celestial objects. But although some references were descriptive, or were part of the setting, the telescope (and the acknowledgement of the cosmos for Steinbeck) as Richard Panek writes in Seeing and Believing (How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens), gave us a different understanding of our place in the big scheme of things:
The relationship between the telescope and our understanding of the dimensions of the universe is in many ways the story of modernity. It’s the story of how the development of one piece of technology has changed the way we see ourselves and of how the way we see ourselves has changed this piece of technology….
It would be difficult for a contemporary writer, writing a contemporary story, to compose the scene on the raft with Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, wherein Mark Twain (for Huck) writes: “We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened – Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.”
Beyond the fin de siecle and the millennium we now know much more about the stars than our recent ancestors could have imagined. Contemporary children have been influenced by the galactic tales of science fiction on television and in the movies, and by video and arcade games. Steinbeck, on the other hand, in an early letter to a friend, wrote that he was scared of the night, as were some of the characters in his fiction. Like Steinbeck, who concurred with those who believed the moon could turn people into “Lunatics,” Hemingway also wrote about the “wild” influence of the moon. These authors’ work seems to show the thinking of an age very different from our own, one where nature still seemed distant and unfamiliar, and not something to be considered from the Hubble telescope, but from the empty night of the American west.
Lunar influence, in Steinbeck’s wartime play/novella The Moon is Down, is a symbol of violent military action that has not yet occurred. The moon is also a symbol of fertility and violence in Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees, where he writes about violence under the moonlight. In Across the River and Into the Trees one character says to another: “I don’t care about your losses because the moon is our mother and father. And now let’s go down to dinner.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald also seems to refer to the celestial as a symbol of fertility in Tender Is The Night (which was Hemingways’s favorite of Fitzgerald’s books): “It was a limpid black night, hung as in a basket from a single dull star.” In the story “Love in the Night” from 1925, Fitzgerald also wrote: “He could have told no more about it than that there was a lovely unknown girl concerned in it, and that it ought to take place beneath the Riviera moon.”
Similarly, in All the King’s Men Robert Penn Warren writes: “…she knew what was up; she knew you didn’t sit in parked cars with boys to play checkers in the moonlight…” In one of Hemingway’s first published stories, the controversial piece “Up in Michigan” (which Gertrude Stein said was “un-publishable”), as the moon rises a man becomes possessed and takes advantage of a woman. The woman does not wake him before she returns to the house, leaving him to sleep through the night outdoors. In Hemingway’s early story “The End of Something,” the rising moon signals or perhaps influences a break-up between characters Nick Adams and his girlfriend Marjorie: “She was afloat in the boat on the water with the moonlight on it. Nick went back and lay down with his face in the blanket by the fire. He could hear Marjorie rowing on the water.”
In one of the rare references to the astronomical in his letters, Hemingway begins a missive to fellow journalist Guy Hickock on the 27th of July 1928:
Whenever I begin to miss Paris there is always some little item in the paper about how Professor Ritchey will be able to see the men on Mars (if there are men) with his new telescope. Of course he doesn’t think there are men but if it will please the A.P. he will look for them and if they are there he will see them.
Years later Hemingway referred to a file in a letter to Charles A. Fenton: “Thanks for the two letters and the clipping. Let’s file it all under Ad Astra Per Aspera or To The Stars (sic) The Hard Way.”
Pilot William Faulkner wrote a confounding, complicated and convoluted story called “Ad Astra” (1918) about adventures in The Royal Air Force, which has in parts a cosmic New Age sentiment: “Why can’t we all get along?”, even though it does not address the subject of space exploration in any obvious or clear way. One could say the same of Faulkner’s book about pilots, Pylon.
Hemingway doesn’t write to or write much about John Steinbeck in Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961 (edited by Carlos Baker), but he was sufficiently bothered by The Short Reign of Pippin IV to write to L.H. Brague, Jr. of the Scribner publishing house on February 22, 1959:
…I could give him a book every year like [John] Steinbeck composed of my toenail parings (i.e. reprints of war correspondence), little fantasies about King Poo Poo or other author toe jam. But that is all shit and just the byproducts of egotism or avarice or both. Charlie doesn’t need that stuff from me and doesn’t want it and neither of us would do it anyway.
Hemingway wrote nice and not so nice things about his fellow writers and friends. From Hemingway’s letters one gathers that the big event of 1957 for Hemingway was not Sputnik (which Steinbeck seems to have noticed), but trying to free American poet Ezra Pound, who helped Hemingway early in his career, from an insane asylum.
Around this time, Steinbeck, “the realistic modern novelist” though he was, was acknowledged by the science fiction community. Judith Merrill, the editor of The 4thAnnual Volume of The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy, which published stories from 1958, calling it “speculative fiction,” included a story by Steinbeck called “The Short-Short Story of Mankind.” The year before Merrill’s collection included an article about Sputnik.
While also reading almost all of Hemingway’s fiction, I grew almost wary when the moon was mentioned. The stars also shine in some of his night scenes, but the most memorable reference to the celestial is from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea when fisherman Santiago looks at the stars in the constellation Orion. He focuses on Rigel, the knee of the hunter, and considers the stars as our friends:
The first stars were out. He did not know the name of Rigel but he saw it and knew soon they would all be out and he would have all his distant friends.
“The fish is my friend too,” he said aloud. “I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars.”
Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away. But imagine if a man each day should have to try to kill the sun? We were born lucky, he thought….
I do not understand these things, he thought. But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.
Unlike Steinbeck, who has dozens of references to the stars and a funny astronomers and astrologers (see Sweet Thursday, for example), Hemingway does not seem so fixated on the subject. Steinbeck, according to his biographer Jackson J. Benson, celebrated our place in the Universe. The cosmological often set the stage for many of his night scenes, but he was more concerned with social conditions. Steinbeck’s oeuvre was shaped by the depression, his deep knowledge of rural California, and social problems. Steinbeck wrote much on poverty, sometimes on war, and most of the time on moral malaise. But he was also a scientist’s fiction writer who believed that science could solve larger human problems. Like the rest of the “Big Four,” Steinbeck was most famous for his realistic literary documentation: Hemingway’s oeuvre was concerned with the artistic, military and political fate of Europe (and Cuba), and his interests as an outdoorsman. Hemingway also had a firsthand view of war, from his time as an ambulance driver in the First World War, as well experiences as a sailor, fisherman, and big-game hunter. Of the two authors, after reading almost all of their fiction, published letters, biography, etc., I believe Hemingway – who never ceased to seek out adventure – was the more likely to have become an astronaut had he been born in more recent times. It would be something he wouldn’t have wanted to miss. Steinbeck would have been likely to argue that all the “starbucks” would be better spent to help the poor or explore the ocean, but the scientist in him would probably have been interested in the recent findings of astronomy and cosmology.
After reading and rereading fiction, non-fiction, letters, biography, and literary analysis, despite the satirization and the taboos present in the work of both men, I think they would have both come around to appreciating the results of the space age. No offense intended, but if they had still been alive there may have been a different name in the blurb on the back cover of what became James A. Michener’s 1982 work Space: “It is Space. It is Michener. And it is the most dramatic story of our time.” One of the “Big Four” probably would have gotten the assignment. A recent close reading of their fiction, letters and biography certainly suggests so.
One should get the sense from proletarian Steinbeck, the author of the deeply socially conscious The Grapes of Wrath, that astronomical pursuits were not for the working class, and some of his astronomical references may be to the stars in Hollywood. In In Dubious Battle Steinbeck writes: “Jim looked up at the sky for a moment. ‘Lord, I’m excited. Look at the stars, Mac. Millions of ‘em.’”
“‘You look at the road,’ [union organizer] Mac growled.”
But years later Pippin, in Pippin IV, says “Why, I guess – I guess it was when the comet appeared in my reflector and I knew I was the first human ever to see it. I was – I was filled with wonder.”
Steinbeck alsoco-wrotein The Log from the Sea of Cortez that mankind would find a place among the stars. In the same book, he and his marine scientist friend Ed Rickettsco-wrote:
For in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the trait of hope still controls the future, and man, not a species, but a triumphant race, will approach perfection, and finally, tearing himself free, will march up the stars and take his place where, because of his power and virtue, he belongs…. From which majestic seat he will direct with pure intelligence the ordering of the universe.
Hemingway, also a naturalist, may have been jealous of those who went on to explore space without him. Hemingway was also an admirer of the night sky. Hemingway’s last wife Mary Welsh Hemingway in Under Kilimanjaro is said to have also had an interest in stargazing. Ernest would stargaze with her and other members of his family. In a letter to art historian Bernard Berenson (La Finca Vigia, 20-22 March 1953) Hemingway wrote:
Lately we have had the curious juxtaposition of Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Mercury in the sky. I have never seen Venus so wonderful in my life and no one will again for a long time…. Mary and I will sleep on board tonight and we will go down the coast for a week or ten days and look at the stars at night and not worry about stupid things.
The “Big Four”: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, were from another age. We are indebted to them for documenting their times. The “Big Four,” I would argue, would have reacted intensely to the space age that followed their deaths; one can certainly find the interest in the night sky that would become more known to us in the intervening years within their literary works. For them the night was when men and women, sometimes influenced by seemingly celestial forces, engaged in actions heavy with emotion, which like many such activities could include an element of danger. The writers meant a number of things by their references to the cosmological, evocative of both an inner and outer life. We are fortunate to have the work of such talented artists, who so successfully documented the moving and often sad experiences that so truly pull us to the Earth like the force of gravity.
-Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961. New York: Scribners, 1981.
Benson, Jackson J.
-The True Adventures of John Steinbeck: Writer. New York: Viking, 1984.
-As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage, 1930, 1990.
-Pylon. New York: Signet, 1935, 1968.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott
-“Love in the Night”
-Tender is the Night. New York: Scribners, 1933, 1982.
Hemingway, Ernest M.
-Across The River Into the Trees. New York: Scribners, 1950, 1978.
-“The End of Something”
-The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribners, 1952.
-“Up in Michigan”
-Under Kilimanjaro, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2005.
-Dubliners. New York: Signet, 1967, 1991.
Merrill, Judith the editor of the
-3rd Annual Volume of The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Dell, 1958.
-4th Annual Volume of The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Dell, 1959.
Michener, James A.
-Space. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1982.
-Seeing and Believing (How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens). New York: Penguin, 1998.
Steinbeck, Elaine and Wallsten, Robert
-John Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. New York: Viking, 1975.
-East of Eden. New York: Viking, 1952.
-In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam, 1936.
-Sweet Thursday. New York: Viking, 1954.
-The Grapes of Wrath. New York, Penguin, 1939.
-The Log from the Sea of Cortez (with Ed Ricketts). New York: Penguin, 1951.
-The Moon is Down (The Short Novels of John Steinbeck). New York: Viking, 1953.
-The Short Reign of Pippin IV. New York: Bantam. 1958.
-“The Short-Short Story of Mankind”
-Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1885, 1977.
Warren, Robert Penn
-All the King’s Men. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace, 1946, 1996.
-Night Rider. New York: Bantam, 1939, 1968.
Ryder W. Miller is an environmental reporter, independent scholar, critic, and eco-critic who writes about Nature, Astronomy, the Sea, Academic books, Art, American Literature, and Genre Literature. He also writes short stories (usually genre stories) and poems. He is the editor of From Narnia to a Space Odyssey and co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He is currently looking for a publisher for a book of Nature Writing/News Columns called An Ocean Beach Diary (published in The West Portal Monthly and Redwood Coast Review), and a collection of genre stories (many already published in Mythic Circle and The Lost Souls website). He has published on the web what could be a book collection of essays about science fiction and fantasy. He is also working on a anthology of Environmental stories called Green Visions. Following the dictum of C.S. Lewis he has come to believe that it is easier to criticize than understand, but not every book is worthwhile or a contribution.