How much was Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck inspired by Robert Burns?
On Tuesday, Scots at home and abroad celebrate the legacy of our greatest son. There is no denying the global reach of Robert Burns. The Robert Burns Center for Studies at the University of Glasgow, established in 2007, undertakes a variety of projects relating to the legacy, life and work of Burns. My own research, undertaken in conjunction with the center, has largely focused on one aspect of his legacy in the United States.
To provide insight into Burns’ popularity in America, it is important to understand how the poet was perceived in this emerging nation. An edition of his poems was published in a Philadelphia newspaper shortly after his poems were published in Scotland, mostly in the Scottish dialect (popularly known as the Kilmarnock edition) in 1786. A New York edition of his work followed soon after and his fame spread across America. It is clear that many prominent figures in American history have been inspired by the poet’s work, especially his themes of freedom and democracy. Many 19th-century politicians, writers, and abolitionists, for example, were admirers.
Abraham Lincoln regularly quoted the poet and was known to toast during Burns Night celebrations. Across the Civil War divide, Confederate President Jefferson Davis even visited the Alloway cabin where Burns was born. American writers such as Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman greatly admired Burns. John Greenleaf Whittier, the “Quaker poet” from Massachusetts, went so far as to adopt Scots as his poetic language. Burns’ portrayal as a “Democratic poet” was appealing to those in the nascent United States. Thus, Burns was popular among well-known abolitionists such as Gerrit Smith, Henry Ward Beecher, and William Lloyd Garrison. The most prominent abolitionist of the time, Frederick Douglass (below), visited Alloway and met the poet’s sister, Isabella Burns Begg.
Burns’ popularity in America continued into the 20th century. On a scientific level, a man who, in his obituary, was called “the greatest authority of the twentieth century on Robert Burns” was the American John DeLancey Ferguson. In popular culture too, Burns’ popularity in American life was evident. In 1933, there were 19 Burns clubs across the United States and numerous statues from coast to coast. Prominent 20th century writers such as William Faulkner, Willa Cather, and Arthur Miller were deeply influenced by Burns. Poet Robert Frost, whose mother was Scottish, was introduced to Burns’ works as a child and became fascinated with the Scottish poet. Frost spent a long career as a teacher and is said to have had his students memorize and recite Burns’ poems. Burns’ image was also regularly seen in newspapers around the country, advertising “Robert Burns cigars” or Harris tweed. His words are quoted proverbially, suggesting widespread knowledge and awareness of his poetry. Newspapers, for example, regularly refer to the “best tricks of mice and men.”
Consequently, the Scottish poet exerted an influence on a large number of important personalities, undoubtedly more than previously thought. The transatlantic significance of Burns is an area of research that has become more prominent over the past 10 or so years. The “Best Laid Projects of Mice and Men” brings me to Burns’ influence on American writer John Steinbeck (below).
There has been a tendency, both cultural and academic, to assume Burns’ influence on Steinbeck given the latter’s use of Burns’ phrase from To A Mouse for the title of his 1937 short story, Of Mice. And Men. But more often than not, those who refer to this link do not delve into why Steinbeck used Burns’s words. Since Burns’ work is ubiquitous in the America Steinbeck grew up in, he was certainly exposed to the Scottish poet. Growing up and developing his writing career in the early 20th century, Steinbeck was part of a larger culture that had an abiding interest in Burns and a particular view of him as a man and a poet. Burns’ appeal for his support of American democracy is very evident in the popular magazines of the time, magazines to which Steinbeck’s family subscribed and young John read with enthusiasm. Steinbeck had been exposed to Burns’ work in his youth. Although there is no direct influence from Steinbeck mentioning the influence of Burns, he was undoubtedly aware of his works and had a good knowledge of the themes on which Burns wrote. For example, in the case of To A Mouse, he knew enough to understand that the short story he would call Of Mice And Men dealt with similar themes, including the ultimate futility of preparing for a future you don’t know about. you have no control, be it mouse or traveling worker.
There were similarities in political ideology between Burns and Steinbeck even though the worlds they lived in were very different. The two writers share “fundamental human values”. Both wrote with compassion about ordinary people and cared about accurately portraying ordinary people’s speech. The politics of both were tied to the landscape – they shared a passion for the land and small farming communities. It could be argued that the pastoral element of Steinbeck’s work was influenced by his knowledge of Burns and poems such as The Cotter’s Saturday Night.
Both Steinbeck and Burns were sentimental, and at times their sentimentality was portrayed negatively by critics. However, this aspect of their respective productions was authentic, honest and very representative of the ideology of both. The humble, rustic people Steinbeck wrote fondly about, for example, can be seen in the paisanos of Tortilla Flat or the characters in his Dustbowl trilogy of In Dubious Battle, Of Mice And Men, and The Grapes Of Wrath. Burns, recognized and admired by William Wordsworth, wrote with affection for ordinary people, from specific characters such as Souter Johnnie and Tam o’ Shanter to his more general call for universal brotherhood in A Man’s A Man For A’ That. Steinbeck and Burns also wrote about the relationship between all living things, represented by the breakdown of “nature’s social union” for Burns.
The lives of the two are still linked by their more radical politics. Inspired by revolution in America and France, and by figures such as Thomas Muir in Scotland, Burns faced significant risk to his position and livelihood by supporting the cause of freedom, a seditious act in the ‘era. Was Steinbeck influenced by Burns’ radical views? Probably not, but it’s an interesting exercise to compare the similar reactions of the authorities in response to their respective radical views and to compare the responses of Burns and Steinbeck to the censorship they faced. For much of his career, Steinbeck was in conflict with authority and suspected of being a communist by the FBI. Steinbeck’s radicalism cooled somewhat after his great social conscience novels of the 1930s and, one might say, his commitment to the cause of radicalism was not as deep as that of Burns. However, Steinbeck maintained a democratic ideology throughout his life and, like Burns, believed in equality and opposed prejudice.
Many of Steinbeck’s contemporaries were familiar with Burns’ work. Additionally, artists from his own circle of friends, such as Woody Guthrie, were influenced by the Scottish poet and no doubt exerted at least an indirect influence on Steinbeck. Guthrie openly admired Burns. His songs about Dustbowl America and the struggles of everyday people inspired others, including Bob Dylan. In the 1930s, Steinbeck and Guthrie had the same friends and attended the same parties during this period of Steinbeck’s flirtation with communism. It is likely that Guthrie’s enthusiasm for Burns had an effect on the novelist at a time when Steinbeck was writing about democratic ideals and the trials of the common man.
It should also be noted that Steinbeck had a more general knowledge of Scotland and its politics. In response to a letter he had received from Jacqueline Kennedy, in which she spoke about her late husband, John F Kennedy, and the subject of lost causes, Steinbeck responded to a particular point she had offered: “I thought about what you said about lost causes. And it’s such a strange subject. It seems to me that the only truly lost causes are the ones that win. Only then do they shatter into nasty little fragments. You spoke of Scotland as a lost cause and that is not true. Scotland is an unearned cause.
Whether Steinbeck’s interest in Scotland and the cause of national self-determination came from an acquaintance with Burns or from another source, he was certainly of the opinion that Scottish independence was here to be. socket.
John MacKenzie is a researcher at the University of Glasgow who studies the links between Burns and Steinbeck. His complete thesis can be consulted on: theses.gla.ac.uk/82549