Posted in Short Stories

John Steinbeck: Junius Maltby

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It’s week 13 of my 2014 Deal Me In project (Sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis).  That means we are a quarter of the way through the year – which in some ways is hard to believe.

This week I drew the four of diamonds which brought me to John Steinbeck’s short story “Junius Maltby”.  While the story flowed relatively well, for me it was divided into three parts.

For the first part, Steinbeck introduces the reader of the story to Junius and his family, making the point that Maltby is a reader and a reader of fiction at that, specifically enjoying Robert Louis Stevenson.  Steinbeck proceeds to connect Junius’ reading to his laziness.  Maltby is somewhat of a free spirit and while the garden needs weeding, he tends to have his nose in a book and his feet in the pond.  Tragedy strikes part of his family – while he’s reading.  In some ways, I bristled at this first part because I really wanted Steinbeck to paint a man who reads in a better light – but he didn’t.

In the second part, Junius’ free-spiritedness rubs off on his young son, Robbie and his hired hand, Jacob, who doesn’t work and isn’t paid.  The three of them enjoy pretending they are characters in Stevenson stories until the school board decides it’s time Robbie gets an education.  Robbie’s imaginative activities make him the envy of the other kids and Robbie himself becomes quite the little man on campus.  Robbie’s teacher even begins to enjoy the Maltby farm.  At this point, it appears Steinbeck is making a case for children playing and using their imaginations.  However, those pesky things like food and clothes, or the absence, thereof, become emphasized to a great degree by the school board – and in some ways, by Steinbeck.

Here’s part three: As though Maltby had never noticed their lack of food or clothes, at the urging of the school board, he suddenly realizes that he should be providing for Robbie in a more material manner and so they set off to San Francisco.  At which point, Junius indicates to Robbie’s teacher that for twenty years prior to the farm, he had been an accountant.  AN ACCOUNTANT!?

There is always that proverbial book club question “How did this book resonate with you”?  I have to say that reading and hanging around the “farm and pond” as an alternative to accounting resonates with me significantly more than I want to admit.  Thanks, Mr. Steinbeck.

11 thoughts on “John Steinbeck: Junius Maltby

  1. How strange. Accounting, really? I can see why he’d want to get away and find somewhere pastoral to read, but it seems strange that an accountant would take to a farm and then stop thinking about even basic financial practicalities. Perhaps he had simply slipped too far into his imagination? What an interesting character!

    1. Candiss, I think you are right that he “slipped too far into his imagination.” Steinbeck could have been making the point that anyone who spends twenty years as an accountant is going to crave an imaginative life – but then Steinbeck depicts the imaginative life in a less than glowing manner. It was one of his earlier stories, so perhaps Steinbeck was thinking in terms of his own lack of “means” at the time it was written. Lots to think about!

      1. I don’t think Steinbeck depicts Junius’s life in a “less than glowing manner”. He was happy. Robby was happy.
        True, he had no material possessions but where does happiness rank in life? I’m sure most of us , could we choose, would choose happiness over wealth. And when moving back to SF, Junius surly died. He knew he would but his love for Robby was greater than any personal concern.

      2. I see your point! When I read it , I saw the contrast between the reading/fun-loving/happy idea and the responsible/working-hard/accountant idea as leaning more towards the latter than I thought Steinbeck would lean. To me, it’s sad even if it is realistic that fun and happiness can’t last.

  2. An Accountant?! I think I like him more and more… 🙂 I read this once about twenty years ago, as it was part of a slim volume that also contained Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. I’m surprised at how little I remember today of both those stories. 😦

    A new book club I’m “auditioning” is reading Tortilla Flat for about two weeks from now. I’m looking forward to revisiting that Steinbeck story too.

    1. Jay, my version was also with The Red Pony which I read last year. I also read Tortilla Flat last year. I think you will like it for the most part. I go back and forth between The Grapes of Wrath and The Winter of Our Discontent as my favorite Steinbeck novel.

      If they are reading Steinbeck, it sounds like it could be a good book club.

  3. I’d say my parents and in-laws probably have a similar view of my husband and me. Eric was a engineer and is now a writer. Neither of us have been employed in over six years. But, we did sock away savings before becoming full-time writers and only have ourselves to care for. There’s definitely a line to be walked when trying to follow imagination, but still, you know, eat.

    1. I’m very impressed by anyone who is able to write full time.

      I think that fine line is what Steinbeck was getting at.


  4. I read the book in 1971 and knew 2 types of people who lived like Junius. One were various hippies trying to live off the land. Eventually money became an issue, they got jobs where they thought their work had meaning and/or benefit to others. Social workers, health professionals. The second type were slightly unusual country people. No full time job. Garden, chickens, barter, illegal poaching deer, odd jobs and food stamps.

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