US novelist John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968).   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Born in Salinas, California, John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968) was an American writer, who is perhaps best known for his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, alongside East of Eden (1952) and Of Mice and Men (1937). He is known for his characterization, which is always detailed enough for the reader to feel as though they’re part of the story, as opposed to reading about others. All of his works have numerous themes, but were predominantly focused on morals, good versus evil, the human spirit, the psyche, emotions, etc., which were common of that particular time in which most writers’ writing style was the stream-of-consciousness. As stated in an earlier article, the stream-of-consciousness writing style was heavily influenced by psychologists and philosophers of that time, such as Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche.  

Steinbeck went to Stanford University in 1919.  He did not attend classes regularly, but when he did, he would enroll in literature and writing classes. He left Stanford in 1925 without obtaining a degree. During his time at university, he started his first work, Cup of Gold, which was published in 1929, which was not successful, just as his two subsequent novels, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and .To A God Unknown (1933) received little attention. It wasn’t until 1935 that he received great acclaim with his novel Tortilla Flat.

Next came Of Mice and Men in 1937, which is about two outsiders looking for a place to belong to in an unforgiving, cruel world. The themes explored in this work are a sense of belonging, friendship, and harmony. It’s aim, according to the author was to give a voice to America’s lonely and dispossessed. After “Of Mice and Men” was published in 1937, Steinbeck’s style changed. His style went from being revolving around the psyche and stream-of-consciousness style of that time period to being more straightforward and he somewhat followed the Hemingway way of less is more.

What critics claim to be his best work is The Grapes of Wrath, published two years later in 1939, was set during the Dust Bowl Oklahoma and Californian migrant life.  It followed the Joad family, who were forced to flee their homes in search of a better life, or the American dream. At the time of its publishing, it was considered to be quite controversial by many, who went as far as banning and burning the book, because he attacked social and political matters of the time. Steinbeck, who was known for hands on research and experimenting what he wrote about, visited the camps he described as inhumane in this novel.  This, however, angered many of his readers, who accused him of exaggeration.  This novel explored themes such as false hopes, broken dreams, and suffering in general, and the endurance and dignity of the human spirit. Regarding The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck said the following, “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success … in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

The Grapes of Wrath received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

In his 1962 Nobel Prize speech, Steinbeck said, “Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches – nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tinhorn mendicants of low calorie despair. Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed…  Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal fear so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about. Faulkner, more than most men, was aware of human strength as well as of human weakness. He knew that the understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer’s reason for being.”

East of Eden was said to be Steinbeck’s favorite novel, and he believed it to be his best; however, critics will argue that The Grapes of Wrath was his signature masterpiece. East of Eden was considered to be a very ambitious saga in which Steinbeck explored themes such as good versus evil, the ability to be good, the mystery of identity, and the inexplicability and the absence of love.  Furthermore, this book was not a biography, but it is said to have talked about his family history and his hometown of Salinas, California.  East of Eden documents the life of the Trasks and the Hamiltons, who reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the rivalry of Cain and Abel.

The following is an excerpt from East of Eden:

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man… And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for this is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.”

Why do I believe more people should read John Steinbeck’s works? Well, for one, one of the greatest things about him is that he never repeated himself. Furthermore, he was always hands on when it came to writing in the sense that he lived what he wrote. He didn’t just write about any scenario that came to mind and he certainly didn’t just read about the subjects of which these scenarios are pertaining to. For instance, he was a war correspondent when he published his 1942 novel Bombs Away and the events he described were made realistic through his being an eyewitness to similar events. Steinbeck, alongside writers of his time like Virginia Woolf, knew far more truths about humanity than many of us do today. Somehow, they managed to share these morals through writing regardless of the controversy that may have followed at times. The unwritable was written by several writers of that time, even though each writer had a different and unique way of getting these morals across. Steinbeck even said that a good writer shouldn’t shy away from what is labelled as unwritable, as seen in the following, “The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through — not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible. There is another kind who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing.”

By Maya Abou El Nasr