John Steinbeck – Prize Winning Author and Social Activist
Steinbeck – One of the Greatest Authors of the 20th Century:
With a gift for storytelling, an ability to make the beauty of even obscure landscapes tangible, and a heart for the downtrodden and disenfranchised, author John Steinbeck was truly one of America’s greatest authors.
One of only eight Americans to have ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Steinbeck was a keen observer of the human condition. In his writing we find characters much like ourselves, subject to the same virtues and vices.
Steinbeck’s mesmerizing descriptions of California are an homage to my home state, a land of rolling golden hills, acres of fertile farmland, stately oaks, and crashing surf. Here are all the reasons I love Steinbeck’s work, and my three favorite novels.
To truly understand Steinbeck, you have to understand what his California was like in the first half of the 20th century. The town of Salinas, where he was born in 1902, was a thriving patchwork quilt of fruit and nut orchards and emerald green fields of crops. The completion of the transcontinental railway in 1869 had suddenly made California’s bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables available to people as far away as New York.
To say that farmers were the backbone of the country at the time is an understatement. Over 40% of the population lived on farms, and many of those farms were larger than 100 acres. Athough California had all the resources and opportunities a man could want, the farmers were still subject to the climate, soil, prices, crops, and water shortages.
Surrounded by farms, Steinbeck developed an affinity for the migrant workers who worked on them. During his frequent breaks from classes at Stanford University, he would take jobs working alongside the workers and they would tell him about their horrible living conditions and the impossible low wages they were paid. He began to write down their stories with an eye towards one day putting them in a book.
Although he wasn’t a stellar student at Stanford (he attended for six years and dropped out), he did pay attention to Professor Edith Mirrielees, who taught creative writing. She encouraged him to write stories that reflected real human emotions and situations. This advice would be some of the best he was ever given.
The Grapes of Wrath:
Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Story.
Are you having a bad day? Car in the shop, more bills than you have money. fight with your spouse? Try reading The Grapes of Wrath – you’ll be grateful that you don’t have to choose between buying soap or food to feed your starving children. Since first reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school, I’ve read the novel four more times times, each time when I was feeling a little sorry for myself. As a mother, I think watching your child go hungry and being powerless to help them must be one of the most heart-wrenching experiences in the world.
Steinbeck was writing for a San Francisco newspaper when he was asked to cover the story of the 3,000 migrants who had poured into Kings County from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. Driving an old bakery truck loaded with supplies, he visited the migrant camps and was horrified with what he saw. Families were living in sheds made of cardboard boxes that would disintegrate in the rain, children were dying of malnutrition, and women gave birth to still-born babies on dirt floors. He wrote articles detailing the horrendous conditions, and those articles became the basis for The Grapes of Wrath.
The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the Joad family, whose crops had been destroyed in the Dust Bowl, resulting in the loss of their farm. They are lured to California by handbills that advertise a fertile land where there is enough land work for everyone. When the Joads arrive in California, they discover that there are far more laborers than work and that the farm owners would rather let their surplus crops rot that to give them to away to the starving families.
No sooner was The Grapes of Wrath published 1939 than an huge protest arose from the Associated Farmers of California who disliked the way they were portrayed in the book. They branded Steinbeck a liar and spread rumors that he was a communist. The book was banned for being obscene due to the last chapter when Rose of Sharon breastfeeds a starving man. Critics panned the novel and Steinbeck for being overly sentimental. The following year, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the critics changed their minds.
What I love most about The Grapes of Wrath is that it reminds me that we’re all interconnected, and what happens to the least of us happens to all of us. As the character Casy says in the book, “Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.”.
Five Facts You Might Not Know About Steinbeck:
Steinbeck was the only author to come to the defense of playwright Arthur Miller when he was imprisoned for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee
It was Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol, who came up with the title The Grapes of Wrath from the Battle Hymn of the Republic
The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas is the only museum in the United States that is dedicated to just one author
Steinbeck was so painfully shy that both of his sons believed that his autobiographical Travels with Charley was a work of fiction, since their dad would have been too shy to approach that many strangers
Steinbeck was a good friend of President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose wife Lady Bird was a classmate of Steinbeck’s third wife, Elaine
The Wayward Bus:
The Book Where Nothing, and Everything, Happens.
Did you ever love a book that no one else seems to appreciate? The Wayward Bus is that book for me. Published in 1947, it was dismissed by critics as ‘”the book where nothing happens”. In my opinion, everything happens, it’s just confined to a small gas station/restaurant. Having spent a lot of time waiting in train stations and airports, I’ve often glanced at my fellow travelers and wondered what their lives were like. I believe that’s precisely what Steinbeck did when writing The Wayward Bus.
The Wayward Bus is the story of Juan and Alice Chicoy who own and operate a small combination store, gas station, diner, and bus company. The story line revolves around Juan and Alice, their two employees, Pimples and Norma, and the passengers on the bus. Each of the characters is profoundly dissatisfied with their lives. Juan is bored with his mundane life, Alice is jealous of Juan and afraid he might leave her, Pimples is desperate to clear his acne and find a girl, Norma is madly in love with Clark Gable and wants to run away to Hollywood to meet him. Add to the mix a family on their way to Mexico, a hot blonde with a mysterious past, and an obnoxious novelty salesman and you have representations of all of us, each with hopes and dreams. Steinbeck goes into incredible detail about each character to the point that you feel you know them.
The Wayward Bus is the perfect short novel to read when traveling. Its beginning references the morality play Everyman and the fact that life is transitory and short, so we’d better chase our dreams while we can.
East of Eden:
The Novel Steinbeck Considered his Greatest Work.
If you think your family is dysfunctional, try reading the story of the Hamiltons and Trasks in East of Eden. True to its allegorical reference, this semi-autobiographical story is a sweeping tale of prostitution, murder, rivalry, jealousy, adultery, and death. There are characters who are pure and angelic, and characters who are dark and evil. The big question is whether they were born that way, or had the free will to choose.
The Hamiltons come from Ireland to California in search of the “American Dream”. They find the answer to their search in the Salinas Valley, a fertile area of much promise. The ideals of this large family are focused on the importance of leading a satisfying and happy life, rather than on material gains. The Hamilton family is based on Steinbeck’s mother’s family, and his relatives were rich fodder for the story.
Adam Trask and his wife Cathy move from Connecticut to California, influenced by literature which states that the Salinas Valley is so beautiful that it is rivalled only by Heaven. They become friends with their neighbors the Hamiltons, and Adam plans on using an inheritance to build a successful farm.
Biblical symbolism abounds as we learn that Adam has a contentious relationship with his brother, Charles, who is jealous of their father’s attention (Adam/Abel, Charles/Cain). Adam’s wife, Cathy, gives birth to twins (after attempting an unsuccessful abortion) and they are named Aron and Caleb (Abel and Cain). Cathy hates her children and her husband, so she shoots Adam and runs away to be a prostitute. Not most women’s reaction, but Cathy proves to be one of the most purely evil and maniacal characters in literature.
Sounds terribly depressing, and it can be. But like The Grapes of Wrath, there are bright spots of humanity throughout the novel as good repeatedly tries to triumph against evil. Steinbeck’s descriptions of the characters are so detailed that you can imagine them standing in front of you. We see them right down to the way their hair curls or the changing color of their eyes. In the end, we feel pity for poor, misunderstood Cal (Caleb) and wonder how different people’s lives could be if they’d had more supportive parents.