Academic journal article The Comparatist

The Portrayal of Otherness: John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat and Frank Hardy's the Great Australian Lover and Other Stories

Academic journal article The Comparatist

The Portrayal of Otherness: John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat and Frank Hardy's the Great Australian Lover and Other Stories

Article excerpt

Critics such as Marian Galik have stressed the importance of drawing literary parallels between literatures either of the same or different epochs, and sometimes traditionally and spatially very distant from each other (Lin 65). According to Galik, such study is necessary and productive because it not only provides us with new knowledge and allows for "deeper understanding in various areas of literature, its history, theory, and criticism," but it also enables a more comprehensive insight into the study of related literary facts across cultural boundaries (Galik 99). In light of this view, my essay offers a comparative analysis of John Steinbeck's accounts of "paisanos"--as the American 1962 Nobel Prize winner refers to the mixed-blood inhabitants of California in the novel Tortilla Flat (1935)--and a collection of anecdotes about the Australian "battler," The Great Australian Lover and Other Stories (1967) by the Australian novelist and story-teller, Frank Hardy. (1) By focusing on the similarities between the writers' characterization in these works, which differs significantly from the positive portrayals in their central novels in that both of them stress the protagonists' laziness, stupidity, parasitism and even promiscuity, I attempt to ascertain the grounds for reconciliation of these two different sides of Steinbeck and Hardy. In this sense, this discussion aims to provide additional evidence that reading literature comparatively leads to new insights and recognitions.

Perhaps because it was published during the depths of the Depression, when readers were eager to learn about people "happy with even less than they had," Tortilla Flat was a success and the first book to bring Steinbeck public and critical acclaim (French 53). It has to be recalled that it depicts all kinds of unusual and amusing adventures of a group of misfits living on the margins of society. Today, and although Steinbeck is renowned for his siding with the downtrodden and the deprived, this novel is frequently pointed out by those who concur that reading Steinbeck may provoke "essential dialogue about ethnicity" (Shillinglaw 49). Reinaldo Silva, for example, has noticed Steinbeck's jaundiced portrayals of the Portuguese American, referring to the passages featuring Big Joe Portagee and Rosa Martin (both of them Portuguese Americans) as "filthy, lazy and sexually promiscuous" (101). Mary Theresa Silvia Vermette has gone so far in her questioning of Stein beck's "sensitivity to otherness" in Tortilla Flat as to claim that the Portuguese in California responded to Steinbeck's problematic attitude to their ethnic group with the erection of a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator who in 1542 discovered California (Silva 95). Several other critics (e.g. Michael Hansen, Karen Brodkin, Noel Ignatiev, Mathew Frye Jacobson, etc.) have taken pains to prove that Steinbeck's stereotyping of the fictional Portuguese Americans in Tortilla Flat shows his patronizing and ethnocentric attitude toward minority groups.

Similarly, and although Hardy was "the scourge of capitalism, whose pen had to be suppressed at all costs," the Borker stories, as his The Yarns of Billy Borker and The Great Australian Lover and Other Stories are frequently called, were well received and publicized (Beasley 73). After all, observes Jack Beasley, one of Hardy's harshest critics, "they are often, when they aren't artificial, the sort of yarn men tell in fond remembrance leaning against a bar" (73). However, this is not to deny that they have not aroused resentment. On the contrary, Hardy's fellow communists, in particular, who would have preferred he continue to produce works with the social necessity and documentary integrity of Power without Glory (1950), reprimanded him that some of his stories were not only distasteful, but "anti-working class in conception and execution" (Beasley 74). Understandably, peopled with all kinds of fraudulent bums who live on other people's labor and shun work, the stories could not be a picture of the working class, but rather--as Beasley denounced them--of "a social stratum historically known as the lumpen proletariat" (90). …

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