To a God Unknown (1933) has typically been viewed as one of John Steinbeck's most problematic works, not least because of the novel's apparently jarring mixture of realistic and fantastic elements. This article reevaluates Steinbeck's early novel by placing it in the context of emergent ideas about race and about climate—and indeed, about the links between race and climate—in the American West. To a God Unknown is best understood not as a failed early novel but as 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 from the 1920s, and flowered in Latin American writing from the 1960s. By exploring Steinbeck's thinking during his composition of the novel, particularly his interest in “race psychopathology” and his reading of Ellsworth Huntington's Civilization and Climate (1915), we discover how To a God Unknown's magical realism marks 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 “civilization” it can sustain. Through formal analysis in historical context, the essay attempts to lay the groundwork for further considerations of Steinbeck as a writer of the Anthropocene whose works are continuous with the environmental and racial critique associated with later writers of the Global South.

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