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John Steinbeck

American author originally from the Salinas Valley, California.

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A writer with the common, but subtly subversive, touch

  • Aug 9, 2010
Steinbeck's hard to classify ideologically. His populist novels and naturalist stories mark him as a people's rather than a professor's writer. After being exposed to his works often in school, few study him in college. After my teens, I never heard his works mentioned or had any assigned in university courses as an English major, all the way through my Ph.D. Now, my specialty wasn't American lit., but the comparative neglect Steinbeck's endured from academics says a lot about their own expectations about what a fiction writer should take on ideologically.

I suspect as with Jack London or even John Dos Passos, he may have been admired more abroad over much of the past century for his workingman's sympathies than here at home, where he was regarded as subversive. I think he is, but in a manner that can be more subtle than a lot of clunky, obvious, school-board approved moralistic narratives marketed to schools to assign to teens today. 

"Of Mice and Men" still gets calls once in awhile to be banned from libraries or reading lists in classrooms today. But it's a teachable, readable, and accessible parable that as with many of his works connects more easily with everyday folks than socially engineered texts aimed at more of a specialty niche, a sensitive constituency, or an overly pat presentation of complex ethical issues.

That is, Steinbeck eludes easy summation. Perhaps I note in him a kindred spirit for my own eclectic political views and reading tastes. For example, "In Dubious Battle" portrays a fruit-picker's strike in Watsonville but shows "the Party" (Communist) to be as much to blame as to acclaim for their role.

Maybe he helped shape my own perspective. He was the first "serious" writer I found. For, I first stumbled upon a strange, minor novel of his in seventh grade on the shelf of my small public library.

"The Wayward Bus" caught my eye as Steinbeck was on a list of writers we could choose from to do reports about. I liked its ramshackle quality, its cast of characters thrown together in that familiar scenario of disparate types stuck bickering or romancing or communing in a predicament. I also liked his depiction of the rural Californian landscape that was fast receding as I grew up around where I lived. Perhaps not Steinbeck's best, but it inspired me to check out every other work of his I could, even buying some Penguin paperbacks with my scant allowance.

"The Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden" succeed as epics; the Dust Bowl-to-Oakies sweep of the first and the Cain & Abel adaptation of the second make these stories easy to get lost in, and the fact both were made into fine films adds for many no doubt to their enduring appeal among schoolchildren looking for book reports! Also, "The Red Pony" and "The Pearl" often stay in print perhaps due to their brevity among alert students assigned a "novel" to read, but they are decent if not spectacular efforts.

Readers of his bestsellers may not know of his wider contributions. "The Moon is Down" is a play about the Nazis entering a Norwegian town; "Travels with Charley" is about the trip across America he took circa 1960 with his dog in a camper shell trailer. He adapted the Arthurian legends of Malory into Modern English and wrote Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," although he asked his name be removed from the film's credits. He won the Nobel Prize in 1962, which angered critics.

I especially liked his short stories such as "The Chrysanthemums." That and the novella-length "Red Pony" appears in the collection "The Long Valley" (1938); for me, it and "The Pastures of Heaven" (1932) stand out as my favorite books by him. "Pastures" tells in a dozen tales of those in a long, remote valley (Carmel Valley?) near Monterey, where his "Tortilla Flat" also takes place, a more lighthearted effort. Monterey's cashed in on his reputation along the street front along the bay renamed Cannery Row, where no fishermen remain but where a franchise of Bubba Gump's sits near the elegant Aquarium.

Salinas, his birthplace, further inland, is grittier. Few tourists go there, but some may now. Its agribusiness growers opposed for a long time the National Steinbeck Center which finally opened in 1998. There you can see his tiny trailer shell camper, dubbed "Rocinante" after Don Quixote's horse, displayed.

Steinbeck took on the growers, siding with the workers as he had worked beside them at Spreckels Ranch, just south of this city. He ran into trouble for supposed radical sympathies after championing the migrant workers in his fiction. He later covered the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where his son served, and surprised some for his fair-minded portrayal of the common soldier sent over there.

His common touch may seem sentimental or agitprop to today's readers. But as Steinbeck showed his first readers in the Depression, he reminds us of a message worth repeating. He alerted audiences to the dangers to human dignity and family cohesion brought about by the onslaught of factory farming and animal agriculture--that since this era have driven out nearly all the small families who in his lifetime made a more modest living in such California locales. So, he's still teaching some of us by his legacy today, even as he entertains long after our school days may have ended. Perhaps you'll pick up one of his books from a shelf yourself.

(P.S. Read my review of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" for an exposé of how much agribusiness has boomed since the days when local boy Steinbeck worked on a ranch.)
A writer with the common, but subtly subversive, touch

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More John Steinbeck reviews
Quick Tip by . June 15, 2010
everystory has a different viewpoint,very good books that never run out of style
review by . December 12, 2008
Being the liberal leftist that I am, Steinbeck's books and writings have a special place in my heart. I am a huge can of California- not just its geography, but its history and its people. Steinbeck mastered the art of describing California's allure and how and why hundreds upon thousands of people have made this state their home.    But Steinbeck goes beyond California in his novels to describe the power of fate, economic circumstances, and human nature can often render hard …
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John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #48
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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John Steinbeck III is an American author originally from the agricultural Salinas Valley area of California. Born February 27, 1902, Steinbeck is often regarded as one of the greatest American authors of his time. Of his 25 books, two have won the Pulitzer Prize, and the writer himself was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

Steinbeck's novels often contain themes of poverty, dreams, unfortunate economic circumstances, and the power of fate. Many of his books have been banned from local schools and libraries because his writing is seen by some as leftist and socialist. Nonetheless, many of his books, such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden,  are standard reading in American schools, and seven of his books have been adapted by Hollywood into film.

Steinbeck died on December 20, 1968 after suffering from a massive heart attack. His remains were cremated and lie with those of his grandparents at a cemetery in Salinas, CA.
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