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December 28, 2010 > The Rebel Figure in American Literature and Film: The Interconnected Lives of John Steinbeck and James Dean

The Rebel Figure in American Literature and Film: The Interconnected Lives of John Steinbeck and James Dean

A book review by Robert A. Garfinkle

John Steinbeck and James Dean met only once in real life. However, San Francisco Bay Area author and teacher, Dr. Audry Lynch, intertwines their lives in this interesting look at their remarkably similar backgrounds and why she considers them to be rebel figures in literature and film. I am not aware of any biography of these two men in which the biographer has compared the lives of these two icons of American art during the last century. This book is not an in-depth biography of either man, rather a serious look at the commonality of the rebellious lives, loves, and work of John Steinbeck and James Dean.

Steinbeck and Dean met on the movie set of Steinbeck's "East of Eden" while Dean was being tested for the leading role of Cal Trask. Reportedly, Steinbeck did not like Dean, but gave the director and producer of the movie, Elia Kazan, authorization to use Dean for the part. Did Steinbeck recognize something in Dean that reminded the best-selling author of his own past, fictionalized in Cal Trask? We will never really know.

For most of us, there is something in our personal history that holds a strong influence over our lives - a book, movie, sports hero, political leader, or family member. For both of our subject men, it was a book that each man read in early life that stayed with him and, to some extent, dominated his actions. For Steinbeck, the book was a version of Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur. He was introduced to this work as a child and in several of his books, Steinbeck would return to the themes of chivalry and the code of knights. Morte d'Arthur is about life in the court of King Arthur. One only has to look at the character of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath to see knightly action in defense of the defenseless, skillfully used by this master of words.

For Dean, the book that had great influence in his life was the children's classic The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery. He was introduced to the book as an adult and kept a well-marked up copy with him until the end. Dean would recite lines from the book to friends at almost every opportunity. He was mesmerized by the book's profound philosophical observations about human nature. Dr, Lynch proposes that in Dean's imagination, he may have identified with the little prince.

Both men were fixated on reaching their goals: becoming a writer in the case of Steinbeck and Dean's pursuit of acting stardom and fame. Ambition influenced their lives and loves. Steinbeck was known as a womanizer but failed in most of his relationships with women. He had trouble with faithfulness and cheated on his wives when the opportunity presented itself. Dean also had problems with keeping relationships not only with women, but his male lovers as well. Dean used relationships to further his goal, usually resulting in a breakup. Both men, lacking solid relationships, tended to be loners for most of their lives.

Dr. Lynch unites Dean and Steinbeck by covering their childhood family influences. Both men were apparently close to their mothers but had trouble relating to fathers who gave them little attention or support. Small town mores and the bigotry of their neighbors also played parts in defining these men. They rebelled against perceived injustices and were labeled as "outsiders or as rebellious and defiant about accepted societal norms" by the people around them.

Although both tried to leave their rural hometowns, each ended up being buried in the places of their birth. Steinbeck wrote about Salinas, California in such negative manners in his defense of the farm workers, that he was reviled in his hometown by the owners of those farms. The knightly Steinbeck was simply defending the defenseless with his words and paid a heavy price for it. It is ironic that now, after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature and his passing, he is celebrated in Salinas. The home where he was born is now a museum and the National Steinbeck Center is located a few blocks away in the city's downtown. Fans still drive a short distance out of town to his grave and visit Canary Row in Monterey. They yearn to feel the presence of Steinbeck.

Likewise, Dean tried to escape from his rural upbringing in Fairmont, Indiana, only to be returned there for burial. Lynch mentions that many people in Fairmont were glad to see Jimmy Dean leave - to go live with his father in Santa Monica, California. They disliked the motorcycle-riding troublemaker. Like Steinbeck, the Midwestern rebel is also now celebrated in his hometown. Both men received the trappings of fame after their deaths.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves to read the works of Steinbeck and wants to learn more about the Nobel Prize winning author or fans of James Dean who want to know what drove him to become such a powerful and beloved actor. These two men achieved goals that most can only dream of. Maybe that is why we want to learn more about them.

"The Rebel Figure in American Literature and Film: The Interconnected Lives of John Steinbeck and James Dean" By: Audry Lynch, 109 pages; index, $89.95 (The Edwin Mellen Press; hardback; ISBN-13: 978-0-7734-4662-5)

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