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Chapter 3 - Race and Revision: “The Vigilante” and “Johnny Bear”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 July 2021

Gavin Jones
Affiliation:
Stanford University, California
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Summary

On November 27, 1933, in San Jose, California, two white men were lynched by an angry mob for allegedly kidnapping and murdering a local celebrity. This chapter traces Steinbeck’s interest in the event and the difficult process of writing about it that would culminate in his short story “The Vigilante” in The Long Valley--a story largely faithful to the historical events but that changes the racial identity of the lynching victims from white to black, and tells the story from a lyncher’s point of view. Drawing on manuscript evidence, on Steinbeck’s developing theory of group psychology (what he called the “phalanx”), and on the history of lynching--and lynching photography--in the United States, the chapter argues that the power of Steinbeck’s short story emerges from its disturbing participation, like a souvenir, in a moment of racist violence. Steinbeck’s problematic play with the short story form is reversed in his story “Johnny Bear,” which employs unreliable narration to undermine the authority of white power by exposing the interracial sexual affairs that lie at its heart.

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Reclaiming John Steinbeck
Writing for the Future of Humanity
, pp. 54 - 72
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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