Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 July 2021
To a God Unknown has typically been viewed as one of John Steinbeck’s most problematic novels, not least because of the its jarring mixture of realistic and fantastic elements. This chapter reevaluates Steinbeck’s early novel by placing it in the context of emergent ideas about race and climate in the American West. To a God Unknown is an experimental work that attempts to fuse realist and symbolic modes in ways parallel to the genre of magical realism, which first developed in post-Expressionist art of the 1920s. By exploring Steinbeck’s thinking during his composition of the novel, particularly his interest in “race psychopathology” and his reading in early climate science, we discover how Steinbeck’s magical realism is a pioneering attempt to understand and represent the aridity and drought that define the climate of the West and have profound implications for the kind of human society it can sustain. Through formal analysis in historical context, the chapter lays the groundwork for considerations of Steinbeck as a writer of the Anthropocene and of environmentalist critique.