Kingsolver, Steinbeck and Me

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by Ed Davis on March 29, 2013

At Montage

“Do you want to know the two writers your work puts me in the mind of?” was the first comment I received from the audience after my reading last Friday night, March 22nd, at Montage Café in Greenville, Ohio. The answer:  “Barbara Kingsolver and John Steinbeck.”

Note that she did not say my work was as worthy as theirs, just that I reminded her of them. It made me wonder, in retrospect, what characteristics I might share with two of my literary heroes—and what it might mean for my own writing.

The Physical World

Barbara_KingsolverI think I share with Steinbeck and Kingsolver a passionate interest in the physical world. I re-read Grapes of Wrath at the end of 2011 and East of Eden a year later for the first time. I can’t imagine an American writer with more appreciation for the natural world than Steinbeck. Whether it’s the hard road from Oklahoma to California or the incredible beauty of a Salinas Valley homestead, Steinbeck paints his canvas in bold, primary colors. And whether it’s Africa of the 1950s or present-day Appalachia, Kingsolver’s keen eye and training as a biologist translate into unsentimental, realistic portraits of the natural world she knows and loves.

One of my jobs in writing The Measure of Everything was to capture to the best of my ability why Ohio ground was worth saving from development. In my novel-in-progress Between Home and Hardwoods (6,000 words of which I shared with the Montage audience),  I try to dramatize how land in southern Ohio has been removed from the economy to save its diversity of species. Trees are the novel’s featured species. Will my readers accept that a human being can so powerfully connect with a couple of 500-year-old oaks that they seem sentient? We’ll see . . .


It’s hard to think of two American writers more concerned with social issues than Kingsolver and Steinbeck. Grapes of Wrath definitely showed how hard it is to make a living off the land, but it’s not the ravages of nature during the dust bowl that finally defeated the Joads as much as it was the anti-unionist corporate farming machine they encountered once they arrived in California. Kingsolver powerfully showed in Prodigal Summer (her best, in my humble opinion) why economics isn’t the only measure by which species (for example, coyotes) should be allowed to survive. And her most recent, Flight Behavior, tackles the greatest current challenge to the planet’s existence, suggesting society’s failures.  (Please read it, if you haven’t.)

I tackle suburban sprawl and unsustainable economic activity in, respectively, The Measure of Everything and Between Home and Hardwoods. But, unlike my betters, my focus is micro rather than macro—I lack their broader national if not international scope, tending to focus on what’s right in front of me.

Family:  Seeds of Identity

East of EdenAmerican novelists have always turned a keen, critical eye on the family, usually  the dysfunctional family, and I agree that it’s inside this basic unit where many if not most of the Grand Dramas are worked out. How better to show the destruction capitalism hath wrought than to show it killing, literally and figuratively, the characters we’ve come to know and love in Grapes of Wrath. Likewise, the family is the best vehicle for re-telling East of Eden’s Cain and Abel story, in which we meet possibly the best embodiment of the evil anti-mother in literature.  Kingsolver matches Steinbeck’s portrait of evil with the obsessed, abusive father-minister at the heart of Poisonwood Bible.

I suppose it could be said I write about little other than the family. I Was So Much Older Then dramatized a poor West Virginia kid’s attempt to find a family other than the one biology gave him; The Measure of Everything’s Billy Acorn’s relationship with his father has been poisoned by his father’s focus on the same greed motivating some of the developers. Between Home and Heartwoods concerns a city woman who shucks the culture in which she was raised in order to join a rural Appalachian family.  For me, family—dysfunctional and functional, nuclear and extended—is where the seeds of identity are both sown and grown.

World Without Soul?

These two writers give all of us a high standard to aspire to.  They help me assess the performance of my peers, my country, myself—and let me know how far we all fall short of the principles, of say, Lincoln and King. They depict evil, yes, but they also give us towering characters to measure our own lives against:  Grapes of Wrath’s Ma Joad, East of Eden’s stereotype-busting philosopher-nanny-cook Lee and Flight Behavior’s entomologist-ecologist Ovid, who asks, “What [is] the use of saving a world that has no soul left in it[?].”

Literary Parents

Their ultimate value to me as a writer is to offer guidance, as a parent would, by example rather than exhortation. Steinbeck comes across as a gentle father and family man in Journal of a Novel:  The East of Eden Letters,  which he wrote alongside the novel. Kingsolver is, by her own admission, a shy person who prefers her computer to crowds of admirers. It’s the passions, fears and joys conveyed through their characters and conflicts that inspire me to be the best writer I can possibly be. In the end, it’s an impossible standard but one I’ll aspire to, anyway, as I consider the next extensive revision of my latest book and the revision after that and maybe even the one after that.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoffrey Porter March 29, 2013 at 5:55 pm

I don’t think you are inferior to those people. I don’t think that’s fair. I miss your classes. I write pretty much every day, and I apply what I learned in your classes. I think you’ve done more as a teacher than either of those people.

Maybe you should consider writing a tutorial on writing? It seems like there are a million books out there on writing, so maybe it would be a waste. Maybe a side project?


Dede Wissman April 2, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I am the woman at Montage in Greenville who asked the question regarding which writers your own work reminded me. It was good to read your thoughtful insight into their writing and yours. To your readers, Ed was speaking at Author’s Night, sponsored by the Greenville Public Library Friends of the Library. We offer three evenings in the dreary winter months, usually Jan., Feb. and March. Too late for you to join us this year, but not too late to come to one of biggest and least expensive Used Book Sales in the area. March 17 and 18 at PAWS Bingo Hall, 848 Martin St., Greenville. This year we have a predominance of hardback adult fiction at 50 cents each! Ed and friends, come on up and have lunch at Montage.


Ed Davis April 2, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Thanks, Dede. And your invitation is very tempting. Montage is simply a fabulous place with lots of atmosphere, fine food and good people! It’s a good reason to visit Greenville.


Susi Halley April 9, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Just finished your first book “I Was So Much Older Then” which I purchased at Author’s Night at Montage in Greenville. I’m very very impressed. Now looking forward to reading your second novel! I think you can certainly site Kingsolver and Steinbeck as influences but you definitely have your own wonderful style. I know a book’s good when I lose sight of the author and become absorbed in the story from the character’s point of view. Having said that, there are also moments when the wording is so good I come out of the story to appreciate the craft. I’m sure it would have been a great experience to have been in one of your classes! Thanks!


Ed Davis April 10, 2013 at 12:48 pm

So generous of you to give yourself to my books! You’re the kind of reader that writers hope and pray for. Thanks so much for helping to make Authors’ Night such a great success.


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