The Long Valley - Critical Reception
As John H. Timmerman points out in his "Introduction" to The Long Valley, the text's contemporary reviews are marked by "a curious miscellany of praise and condemnation" (xxiv). Though Stanley Young of the New York Timesasserted in 1938 that the stories are neither "profound nor passionate," the American reading public seemed to disagree, keeping the text on several best seller lists for many months, which was quite unusual for a short story collection (89).
According to several critics, in sum, the text's chief strength is Steinbeck's concise and powerful prose. Even Young, who criticized the collection, admitted the stories are characterized by "[. . .] a directness of impression that makes them glow with life, small-scale life though it is" (89). Lewis Gannet of The Washington Post commented in 1938, "John Steinbeck can pack into a few paragraphs what many novelists stretch out over a whole book" (11). The Virginia Quarterly Review concurred, reporting in 1938, Steinbeck writes "with great economy and tremendous incisiveness" giving his short stories powerful and lasting impact (viii).
Other critics compared The Long Valley to earlier works like Of Mice and Men and In Dubious Battle and noted similarities in character and setting. Set primarily in the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck writes in The Long Valley about the people he knew best: ordinary people lacking emotional fulfillment in their very ordinary lives. Young remarked, "He is writing about people, beautiful and nauseating, as they come. He knows his people and his scene without being bogged down by realistic detail. Beyond that he has a tremendous and abiding sympathy for human beings on all levels of experience" (89). That sympathy is expressed in his deft treatment of unhappy spouses, people willing to die for a cause, the mentally handicapped, and those simply unable to find fulfillment or satisfaction in life. The Virginia Quarterly Review commented that Steinbeck's treatment of his subject matter in The Long Valley "clearly establishes the author's right to be considered one of the foremost practitioners in the field of the American short story" (viii).
As interest in The Long Valley grew among literary scholars in the 60s and 70s, more and more essays began to appear discussing gender and sexuality in the text, especially in reference to "Flight," "The White Quail," "The Murder," "The Snake," and "The Chrysanthemums"—the most written about story in the collection. Gregory Palmerino's discussion of the "The Chrysanthemums" provides a helpful overview of the questions that have intrigued readers over the past several decades:
Many of the questions surrounding John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums" over the years have centered on issues playing themselves out behind the numerous guises of gender and sexual warfare. Is Elisa an "embryonic feminist," as Charles Sweet has suggested? Or, as Leroy Thomas argues, is she a "sexually frustrated woman" whose release comes only from gardening? Are the chrysanthemums "a substitute for children," which the Aliens [sic] are apparently without, as suggested by Mordecai Marcus? Finally, is Henry "rendered effectively sterile" by a wife who "secures herself within a fortress of sexual reticence and self-withholding," as indicated by Stanley Renner?
There is much debate over whether Steinbeck's portrayal of Elisa Allen is misogynist, or an empathetic portrait of a woman seeking satisfaction through self assertion in a confining and oppressively male world.
The problem of self assertion is a primary theme in nearly every story in The Long Valley. Besides Elisa, there is Mary in "The White Quail" who asserts control over her disordered psyche through her garden. Pepé dons his deceased father's kerchief in "Flight" and asserts he is a man. Root, in "The Raid," must assert himself in the face of physical violence. Peter in "The Harness," throws off his harness and proclaims he will be a freeman. Mike in "The Vigilante," struggles between self assertion and having the self subsumed by the powerful force of a mob. Jim, in "The Murder," is driven to exert his will on his wife through violence. As an introduction to Steinbeck's short fiction points out, "Throughout the collection, the majority of the characters are tormented people who are unable or unwilling to confront what Steinbeck has termed the 'tragic miracle of consciousness'" ("Steinbeck, John: Introduction"). Most of the characters are incapable of even identifying or articulating what they actually want or need, and therefore they have no idea of how to go about getting it. The result is several lonely, disconnected, and seemingly powerless individuals whose plight and suffering has appealed to readers for many decades. As Timmerman concludes, "It is primarily there, in the hearts and minds of individual readers, that the significance of these stories persists" (xxvii). As in much of his fiction, Steinbeck makes the ordinary extraordinarily poignant and appealing to his readers in The Long Valley.