Tortilla Flat (Steinbeck)

Tortilla Flat 
John Steinbeck, 1935
Penguin Group USA
224 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780140042405

In Brief
Adopting the structure and themes of Arthurian legend, John Steinbeck creates a "Camelot" on a shabby hillside above Monterey on the California coast and peoples it with a colorful band of knights. As he chronicles the thoughts and emotions, temptations and lusts of the "knights", Steinbeck spins a tale as compelling as the famous legends of the Round Table

The story surrounds a group of young jobless men of Mexican descent living on a hilltop in Monterey, California. Kind natured and loyal to one another, they disregard convention, revelling in their idyllic world of poverty. With the advent of World War I, they enlist in a fevor of drunken patriotism, though none of them find their way into combat. They return to Monterey to learn that Danny has been left two houses by his grandfather, which he shares with the group. Thus begin the "adventures," most of which center around acquiring money.

Eventually, Danny, now the leader, becomes disenchanted, and the story takes on darker tones as he attempts to recapture the pleasures of his youth and freedom from responsibility of ownership. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—February 27, 1902
Where—Salinas, California USA
Death—December 20, 1968
Where—New York, NY
Education—Studied marine biology at Stanford University,
Awards—Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, 1940;
   Nobel Prize, 1962.

John Ernst Steinbeck, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner, was born in Salinas, California February 27, 1902. His father, John Steinbeck, served as Monterey County Treasurer for many years. His mother, Olive Hamilton, was a former schoolteacher who developed in him a love of literature. Young Steinbeck came to know the Salinas Valley well, working as a hired hand on nearby ranches in Monterey County.

In 1919, he graduated from Salinas High School as president of his class and entered Stanford University majoring in English. Stanford did not claim his undivided attention. During this time he attended only sporadically while working at a variety jobs including on with the Big Sur highway project, and one at Spreckels Sugar Company near Salinas.

Steinbeck left Stanford permanently in 1925 to pursue a career in writing in New York City. He was unsuccessful and returned, disappointed, to California the following year. Though his first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929, it attracted little literary attention. Two subsequent novels, The Pastures of Heaven and To A God Unknown, met the same fate.

After moving to the Monterey Peninsula in 1930, Steinbeck and his new wife, Carol Henning, made their home in Pacific Grove. Here, not far from famed Cannery Row, heart of the California sardine industry, Steinbeck found material he would later use for two more works, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row.

With Tortilla Flat (1935), Steinbeck's career took a decidedly positive turn, receiving the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal. He felt encouraged to continue writing, relying on extensive research and personal observation of the human drama for his stories. In 1937, Of Mice and Men was published. Two years later, the novel was produced on Broadway and made into a movie. In 1940, Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Grapes of Wrath, bringing to public attention the plight of dispossessed farmers.

After Steinbeck and Henning divorced in 1942, he married Gwyndolyn Conger. The couple moved to New York City and had two sons, Thomas and two years later, John. During the war years, Steinbeck served as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Some of his dispatches reappeared in Once There Was A War. In 1945, Steinbeck published Cannery Row and continued to write prolifically, producing plays, short stories and film scripts. In 1950, he married Elaine Anderson Scott and they remained together until his death.

Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 "for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and keen social perception." In his acceptance speech, Steinbeck summarized what he sought to achieve through his works:

Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.... Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity of greatness of heart and spirit—gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature...

Steinbeck remained a private person, shunning publicity and moving frequently in his search for privacy. He died on December 20, 1968 in New York City, where he and his family made a home. But his final resting place was the valley he had written about with such passion. At his request, his ashes were interred in the Garden of Memories cemetery in Salinas. He is survived by his son, Thomas. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble, courtesy of the National Steinbeck Center

Book Reviews 
(Older books have few, if any, mainstream press reviews online. See Amazon and Barnes & Noble for helpful customer reviews.)

Steinbeck writes with affection about the group that gradually accumulates in Danny's...little wood shacken shack. "The Paisanos," he says, "are clean of commercialism, free of the complicated system of American business, and, having nothing that can be stolen, exploited or mortgaged, that system has not attacked them very vigorously." Mr. Steinbeck tells a number of first-rate stories in his history of Danny's house. He has a gift for drollery...but we doubt if life in Tortilla Flat is as insouciant and pleasant and amusing as Mr. Steinbeck has made it seem.
Fred T. Marsh - New York Times, 10/2/1935  

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Tortilla Flat:

1. To what extent do you admire or disapprove of the Paisanos and their way of life?

2. What might Steinbeck have been getting at? Does he portray the Paisanos as heroes...or not? (Read Steinbeck's preface.) To what degree is this story a commentary on society's materialism?

3. Disucss the character of each of the Paisanos: Danny, Pilon, Pablo, the Pirate, Jesus Maria, and Big Joe. How does each contribute to the overall group—what qualities does each bring to the others? Do you identify with any character—or any of their qualities?

4. At one point, Pilon stops to watch sea gulls soaring in the sky above him. He becomes immersed in the moment and in the appreciation of beauty. Think there might be some sort of thematic concern here? Any ideas?

5. What is at the root of Danny's disenchantment? What motivates him? Do you think he's a tragic figure? Or a martyr of sorts?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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