John Steinbeck, the great but often maligned American writer, wrote more about people than stories or ideas. His stories live with his great empathy for the average man, reflecting his great admiration for working class people. He dedicated his life to discovering and documenting these people in his stories; stories which later brought him great acclaim.
But he was attacked for his views on poverty. He was famously criticised for restoring dignity and sympathy to the working class of America with the Grapes of Wrath.
Those criticisms defined his anxieties as a writer, leaving deep scars on his psyche that he battled to push away. His stances pushed him into exiles away from the cosmopolitan lifestyles of his peer’s literary circles that exalted his contemporaries. But it is ultimately in his writings we find one a great artist; an honest man who came to define the American Identity.
Over time, he won the hearts of the multitudes of readers. And his critics were silenced by the time his sweeping voice completed the East of Eden. The Nobel committee awarded him “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.”
My journey with Steinbeck began as a young boy reading The Pearl as a school set-piece. It was the book that was my Eureka moment as a writer; the book that made me realise that I wanted to write. Every writer has that moment when they read a book and say to themselves, “I can do better than that!”
As I turned The Pearl’s last page, in the silence that followed, I whispered, “Now I must write.”
What makes John Steinbeck a literary genius? Is it in The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, or Of Mice and Men? Or is it in all things John Steinbeck, a man I wish I had known?
A man, I imagine, who would have the best answers for a young writer in these strange and dark times.
Let’s find out.
The type of story that John Steinbeck wrote
Steinbeck’s choice of story contrasted with his upbringing. He grew up in the home of a middle-class family in Salinas, California, the setting for many of his stories. The meals at the dinner table would have defined his story sense. A good American education might have afforded him an easier life as a working professional in one of the cities.
But the rural life gave him first-hand experience with the local farm labourers. Many were migrant workers escaping the meltdown of America’s Dustbowl Midwest. All of them were refugees of the collapsing American economy.
Steinbeck also experienced near-poverty in his early adult life. All of these events informed him of an idea that would encompass his works; man is only a component in the great web of life.
His characters are always the focus of the story. They are all heroic and dastardly in their sometimes quiet but explosively expressive ways. His recurring theme is that people struggle to live their lives against forces far larger than themselves. They are us against the insurmountable forces that govern the world.
We are those experiencing the poverty of the pearl divers on the Mexican coastline. We breathe in the harsh prejudice experienced by the Midwest economic refugees. In the multi-generational sins of a family bound to repeat its failures, we see our own legacy and inheritance. And in the desperate wanderings of the Depression-era labourers, we are solemn.
His characters suffer not for art’s sake. They suffer because they are real people. And they have modern analogues, for Steinbeck’s writings are allegories of the nature of humanity and its many identities; a theme as old as history itself.
Steinbeck’s The Pearl (1947), a novella set in a Mexican fishing town, plays out like a parable. It follows the discovery of a grand pearl by Kino, an impoverished pearl diver. But when his son, Coyotito, is stung by a scorpion, he and his wife, Juana, seeks the aid of the town’s doctor.
Being a greedy and opportunistic man, he first refuses to treat Coyotito. But after hearing of Kino’s great find, he rushes at the chance of gaining Kino’s newfound wealth.
Yet, he is not alone, as soon the entire community comes to know of Kino’s good fortune. And in their greed, the story sets out to meet its bitter and tragic conclusion.
The Pearl is an allegory for the power of greed in perverting the whims of all men. Kino’s hopes for a better life for his son and wife escalate into ever-larger but unattainable desires. The presence of the pearl disrupts the enforced classes, with all men clamouring for the prosperity it promises. The pearl, once filled with great song and praise, morphs as the events of the novel unfold. And at the end of the story, it has become sinister in tune.
It is the symbol for the evils of men in the face of desire. The pearl itself is a lifeless and inanimate object. But it destroys those who covet it, even those with the greatest of hearts.
The Pearl plays out a simple story with its real but extraordinary characters. He delves into many emotions of the conflict by giving us honest characterizations. His prose is infused with colourful observations of both the Pearl’s characters and its story world. In doing so, Steinbeck elevates their ordinary lives to the realm of suspense and drama.
It is a storytelling trope underlining every one of his works, including his most famous novel.
The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) was the turning point for him as a writer and an activist. Before this novel, his stories received mild critical acclaim and modest sales. But before writing this novel, Steinbeck had set out to live with the people who would later populate his story. He was sympathetic to the cause of the migrant labourer to his home-state of California. And so, Steinbeck wanted to craft a book that would encapsulate the spirit of these people.
He believed that the inhumane treatment of these refugees was a crisis point for the American Identity. The refugees themselves were Americans, victims of the Great Depression and the failing lands of the Dustbowl Midwest. Businesses were exploiting the opportunity of cheap labour with under harsh working conditions. Politicians were demanding their removal and segregation from established society, propagandising their activities, and inciting public uproar at the influx.
These politicians were also those who benefitted from the kickbacks received by businesses. And the businesses who exploited the migrants needed to maintain profits in the Great Depression. Thus, the cycle was self-reinforcing. The conditions of the migrants continued to be precarious, leaving them vulnerable to incredible levels of exploitation and victimisation.
This abuse of humanity resulted in a deep anger within Steinbeck. He, like many Americans, believed in the generous and caring nature of his people to new migrants. The crisis of identity still exists up to this day in America. Many perpetrators and victims of the modern American Identity crisis will find themselves at home in the Grapes of Wrath.
John Steinbeck wanted to “put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.” He created a novel that is ageless and critically enduring; saying, “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”
The book follows the extraordinary story of the poor but resilient Joad family. They flee from their failed farmstead in Oklahoma to the rumoured boundless lands of California. They take the arduous journey of Route 66 in their rundown behemoth of a truck, breaking down constantly. And doing so, they encounter many other such travellers in their epic and disastrous journey through the American heartland.
The Joads come to represent all who leave their homes in despair but hopeful optimism. They are not leaving to find financial prosperity, personal security or ideal family life. These are the things that every willing immigrant hopes for. They are leaving because there is nothing else left to do but run.
The tragedy of the Joads mirrors the ones shared by millions of forced migrants and refugees across the world. These are all people who leave their beloved homes for reasons out of their control. They mournfully look back at their homes as they continue on, with all they were fading into the distance. And finally, they turn away, with nothing remaining but the road and the land beyond the fields.
Steinbeck’s novel informs us of the great empathy required by writers in writing about the real world. Life is cruel but hopeful, beautiful but tragic, and vibrant in love but slighted by malice. He tells us stories that sit firmly in our hearts and minds, unfolding across the pages in his sweeping prose.
This is what gives the Joads their timeless appeal. It is not that they embody stereotypes or even well-defined character archetypes; they are real people, living and breathing not only on the page but in our mind’s eye. And that sweeping vista that meets them as they finally reach California takes our collective breath away. We too are sitting in their rumbling truck. We too are watching the great American landscape roll by.
And thanks to Steinbeck’s storytelling, we too become a Joad listening to the family’s tales of endurance and love.
And we are firmly by their side through the dark and sombre events of the novel’s close. But it is here we witness a simple act of kindness in the face of sheer and brutal adversity. It informs us of what Steinbeck has forever been shouting from the hilltops of rolling green fields; it is by our own hands that we can be cruel and devastating. But it is also by those same hands that we can be vital and uplifting.
East of Eden
Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) was his most ambitious work. He considered it to be the culmination of his career. At the time of writing it, he believed it took everything he had learned to craft it. Steinbeck based the story on his own family and their multi-generational tales.
The epic follows several generations of the Hamilton and Trask families in Salinas, California. It is a story spanning across the history of America from the Civil War to the Twentieth Century. The story tells of the nature of consequences; of how actions taken by people can have lasting impacts on their progeny.
It is also an allegory for the biblical notion of sin and forgiveness. The characters were inspired by the archetypes of the Book of Genesis. The influence was so strong that the final word spoken in the novel, Timshel (thou mayest), is also the story’s theme. The lives of several characters lay interspersed with each other. They flow in and out with the devastating consequences of sinful actions. But ultimately, the novel ends with the last descendants redeemed by the finality of Timshel’s bittersweet forgiveness.
Thou mayest informs that the rules of behaviour prescribed by the religious texts are, in the end, only guidelines one may choose to follow. But the freedom of that choice comes paying heed to the consequences that will follow.
As such, Timshel expresses the literary notion of free will versus fate. The characters are free to live their lives as they choose. But their actions have deep consequences; consequences that trap their descendants into tragic fates.
Steinbeck’s novel seeks to aspire to the grandness of the biblical epic. Its overarching themes and detailed storylines play into a final and resonant conclusion. The story divided his critics, those who craved a retelling of the Grapes of Wrath.
But Steinbeck had realised that all stories about people are a part of the greater world. He found that we all exist in the great global ecosystem; our actions have lasting and often permanent consequences for the people and the world around us.
Timshel is both a redemption and a warning to us as people. We are free to live our lives as we see fit. But the consequences of our actions will have lives outside of our own. Steinbeck was aware that his novel would be about the bigger conundrum that humanity faces — what is our role in this world?
And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good. – Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
Of Mice and Men
Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) is the finest example of his ability to deliver the sharp and consequential power of the allegory. It follows the story of George and Lennie, a pair of travelling labourers struggling to own a piece of the American Dream.
The unlikely pair are unequal friends; Lennie, mentally disabled but physically endowed, relies on the quick-witted George for emotional and financial stability. George, for his part, is a hard man working to save enough for a home for them to live off. He is responsible for the duo’s survival. But his quick temper and constant annoyance with Lennie’s simplicity hide his desperation for them to escape their poverty.
He views Lennie as his ward but loves him like family. At his heart, George is a good and kind man. For all his chastising of Lennie, there is always a moment of tenderness for his friend, as he seeks to make amends with the gentle giant. But he is aware that Lennie’s size and slow mind are dangerous under the wrong conditions. He is all too aware of the disaster looming inside his gentle friend.
They come across a farmstead offering work. George takes it with hesitation; the pair have fled their previous town as a consequence of Lennie’s making. This is what George is constantly afraid of. Lennie does not understand how inappropriate his innocent actions can be when they’re combined with his extreme physical ability. He is prone to shutting down under panic, gripping tightly to whatever he has in hand. Many small creatures have died in the accidental iron grip. George is mindful of this but he is desperate for work. George may be Lennie’s his self-appointed protector, but his child-like nature puts them on a knife’s edge. And ultimately, it puts them into tragedy once more.
The story plays out in a short and deceptively simple novella. In it, we find ourselves having great sympathy for the pair’s plight. They are great and kind souls trapped in an era that destroyed such qualities with its oppressive financial instability. The world around these men is brutal to those suffering from the consequences of the men controlling it.
Of Mice and Men is perhaps Steinbeck’s greatest achievement by modern writing standards. It encapsulates enthralling suspense with deep thematic meaning. The characters are graceful but raging, filled with many flaws but all striving to do better. These elements work together to infuse the story with a play-like narrative and a Shakespearean-sense of tragedy. This short book serves as the reference guide by which all his works are understood and admired; it is the brisk and hard-hitting hallmark of Steinbeck’s style and his literary legacy.
On John Steinbeck’s style and his literary legacy
All of Steinbeck’s works focus on the nature of humanity and its many identities. His characters live and breathe in the storytelling worlds born from our own real world.
Steinbeck’s writing style can be best described as grand, sweeping and empathetic. His detailed and honest characterizations live and breathe in their own right. And it is in his characters that we find ourselves; they reflect us struggling to survive a beautiful but dangerous world.
His stories have lasting significance for those enduring the plights of modern times. Our world still has the same great problems of survival that devastated humanity nearly a century ago. His characters suffer not for art’s sake, but for all our sake. They are us at our most desperate and our most heroic; diving deep into the ocean for the promise of prosperity; fleeing across the land to ensure a family’s survival; dealing with the consequences of familial actions taken across time; or holding onto each other at the roadside, wishing for a piece of land to live off.
His works endure as entertainment for those willing to enjoy them. But they also serve as timeless lessons for us seeking to find our way forward. They came at a critical time of self-evaluation for all peoples; the Earth was gripped in the terrors of World War. His legacy can be felt in the millions who grew up having one of his books as a set-piece; they instil a sense of empathy that can change the world, no matter the size of the individual seeking to do so.
I wish I had met the man. I can see his hands wringing together with anxiety over if he was being heard loud and clear. It would have served as an opportunity to ask him about our current world. It now once again stands on the knife edge. I would ask him if we were going to be okay; if we could see ourselves through the great socio-ecological disaster now looming over our blue and white horizon.
All I have instead are his works and that may just be good enough for all of us. Literature enables us to reach out to worlds and times long past or yet to come. Through books, we hear the voices of multitudes versus the wishes of a handful. It is our greatest invention and our greatest informant of who and what we are as a species. Steinbeck understood that significance. He spent his entire life adding his meaningful voice to the world, no matter how times it was shouted down.
And so, with all this in mind, we end with his famous quote on the humility needed to endure the hardships of being an unknown writer. Write well, all those who dare to embark on this great and daring adventure.
“Of course the hundred page manuscript flopped heavily. Just now I am busy on another one. Eventually I shall be so good that I cannot be ignored. These years are disciplinary for me.” – John Steinbeck.