Tortilla Flat - Contemporary Reviews
Pen and ink drawing by Ruth Gannett from the first edition of Tortilla Flat (1935), depicting Danny: "And so for one month Danny sat on his cot in the Monterey city jail. Sometimes he drew obscene pictures on the walls, and sometimes he thought over his army career. Time hung heavy on Danny’s hands there in his cell in the city jail" (19).
Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, provided John Steinbeck his first commercial success as a novelist, as readers were eagerly entertained by the adventures of Danny and his group of friends, who lived in a carefree manner that most readers could hardly even imagine. Published during the Great Depression, it is easy to see how Tortilla Flat could entice readers with its deceptively simple comedy. In an introduction to Tortilla Flat,Thomas Fensch explains that during the Great Depression, "Reading and the movies were escape, pure and simple. Escape from grinding poverty, escape from worrying about how to pay the rent, escape from worrying about how to find a job (or keep a menial one), even escape from worrying about where money for the next week's groceries could come from" (viii). Tortilla Flat's idyllic setting where "money is seldom needed," and all the characters desire is "[. . .] enough food, a warm place to sleep, wine, and – occasionally – women and parties" provided a perfect escape (Fensch x). The characters ofTortilla Flat were poor, but pleasantly so; they never suffer much from their poverty or want for much of anything. Depression era readers could take comfort in such a portrayal of want.
Critics, too, enjoyed Tortilla Flat as entertainment, even when they found problems with the story line. The New YorkWorld Telegram describes the reading of the book as a "grand time" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 31), even though the reviewer also felt that Steinbeck "has realized Danny only partially [. . .] and the tragic end of Danny seems a trifle too casual to be moving" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 32). The incongruity of the sad ending with the rest of the book appears to have troubled reviewers at the time of the novel's publication, and even today, critics are still not sure what to make of it. Some critics also questioned the authenticity of Steinbeck's setting. A reviewer for The New York Times doubted that "life in Tortilla Flat is as insouciant and pleasant and pleasing as Mr. Steinbeck has made it seem" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 39). Nonetheless, the reviewer simultaneously praised the novel as "first rate" and credited Steinbeck with having "a gift for drollery and for turning Spanish talk and phrases into a gently mocking English" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 39). Though these critics found Tortilla Flat to be flawed, they nevertheless greatly appreciated certain aspects of it. At the very least, reviewers enjoyed the comedy of the novel, even if they did overlook some of its more serious and complex content.
Some reviews found virtually no fault with Steinbeck's work at all, such as Joseph Henry Jackson's glowing review in The San Francisco Chronicle, which proclaimed:
The problem with a book like this is that you can't describe it. The best you can do is to indicate it – faintly, in the sketch book manner, at best leaving out all the intangibles that really give it its quality. I can't reflect the charm, the humor, the pathos, the wit and wisdom and warm humanity which illuminate every one of Mr. Steinbeck's pages. (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 33)
He urges readers, "Don't, please, miss it" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 33). The New York Herald Tribunewrote that only Steinbeck could have written this novel and created these characters: "It takes the wondering gentleness, the wide-eyed and extremely skillful naïveté, the clear precision of Mr. Steinbeck's writing [. . .] to give them their special life and sharpness" (37).
In more recent times, Tortilla Flat has been criticized because of Steinbeck's characterization of the paisanos. Critics argue his portrayal of Mexican Americans is highly inaccurate and the paisanos epitomize racial stereotyping. Arthur Pettit attacks Tortilla Flat as "the prototypical Anglo novel about the Mexican American. The fact that it has spawned relatively few imitators," he argues, "enhances its isolated position while highlighting the fact that the novel contains characters varying little from the most negative Mexican stereotypes" (191). In marked contrast, biographer Jackson Benson argues to the contrary, calling the novel a "tour de force" (279). Rather than being based on simple racial stereotypy, Benson asserts, "Tortilla Flat is a folktale peopled by semimythic characters, its effectiveness comes from a strong undercurrent of truth and sympathy" (364). As a folktale, it enlarges upon authentic characteristics of a locale and people in a very exaggerated and grandiose manner in order to celebrate, rather than demean them.
Arthur Simpson points outs that Steinbeck himself believed that readers who were offended by his characters missed the point. Steinbeck criticized the critics for finding the paisanos "quaint and curious" and seeing them as "a simplistic glorification of the animal side of man," which he argues was not at all his intention (Simpson 223). Despite Steinbeck's own defense against charges of racism and stereotyping, certainly in light of the contemporary political and cultural struggle of Mexican Americans and Hispanic immigrants in the United States, it is easy to see why Tortilla Flat, with its shiftless and drunken Mexican-American characters, would come under such scrutiny.
Besides his controversial characters, critics have also questioned the merit and purpose of Steinbeck's comparison between Danny and his friends and the Round Table of King Arthur. Some argue the parallel is not clear enough, or strained and forced, and that the attempted comparison detracts from what Simpson characterizes as more "important elements of the novel's theme and form," like the "conflict between the values of Danny's paisano fraternity and those of 20th century civilization" (Simpson 223). He asserts that the novel ultimately lacks an "important story or argument" and needs "something to hold it together" (Simpson 215). On the other hand, long time Steinbeck critic Louis Owens cautions readers not to allow the Arthurian parallel to distract them from the evident, central focus of the novel. He concludes that the novel is most importantly about "the unity which formed about Danny and his house [. . .] the Arthurian materials are significant only insofar as they reinforce this central theme" (Owens 167).
Fensch eloquently sums up the importance of friendship in the novel and concludes that the Arthurian parallel plays an important role in elevating Danny and the paisanos out of the negative realm of stereotyping and into the celebrated realm of legend and myth: "In short, Steinbeck values the Arthurian legends and the paisanos too highly to demean either. By adding the language of the paisanos and their convoluted moral code to his novel, he elevates them toward Arthurian status, without demeaning them or the tales of the knights that he was so captivated by throughout much of his life"(xxiii). Thus, Steinbeck imbues the novel with a strong and virtuous undercurrent of trust, loyalty, and friendship, giving it both shape and focus, despite what Steinbeck argued was critics' inability to understand the purpose of the Arthurian parallel.
Regardless of its shortcomings, Tortilla Flat has generated much conversation among critics over the years and has remained a steady favorite of Steinbeck fans since its publication. Its sometime raucous, sometimes ironic comedy amuses readers, while its flippant portrayal of poverty and alcoholism perplexes. Tortilla Flat both entertains and calls into question the emerging values of the 20th Century. Readers will find both something to laugh at and more seriously reflect upon in the novel—a winning combination.