Literary Devotional: John Steinbeck

One of the best-loved American novelists of the 20th century, John Steinbeck (1902-1968) infused his works with the local color of his native California.  Though many critics dismissed his writing as less elegant and groundbreaking than that of his contemporaries, he has long been a favorite among readers.  At any rate, Steinbeck’s talen for crafting moving, richly symbolic, and socially relevant stories is indisputable.

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, the heart of the agricultural region between San Francisco and Monterey.  After several years at Stanford University and various stints as a manual laborer, he began writing in earnest in the late 1920s.  Steinbeck’s first few efforts failed both critically and commercially, but he finally found success with his novel Tortilla Flat (1935), about Mexican paisanos in Monterey during the Great Depression.  He followed with the novella Of Mice and Men (1937), the heartrending story of Lenny and George, two migrant workers on a California farm.

Steinbeck’s masterpiece and most famous work is The Grapes of Wrath (1939), his novel about a family of Dust Bowl “Okies” who flee the drought-stricken Midwest to seek a better life in California.  A desperately poor, salt-of-the-earth clan, the Joads endure great hardship during the journey but draw strength and hope from their mutual generosity and unbreakable family ties.  The novel was a huge sensation and drew unprecendented attention to the plight of the Depression-era poor.  It has remained both a popular favorite and a staple of English curricula ever since.

Later in his career, Steinbeck experimented ambitiously with different genres and forms, with varying degrees of success.  Best known from this era are Cannery Row (1945), a picturesque tale of vagrants in the industrial neighborhood of Monterey, and the sprawling East of Eden (1952), a retelling of the book of Genesis in the setting of the Salinas Valley.  Though Steinbeck considered East of Eden his best work–and it was an undeniable bestseller–critics saw it as preachy and heavy-handed.  It does, however, offer a rich, detailed portrait of the people and history of the region, cementing Steinbeck’s reputation as California’s foremost literary interpreter.

In 1962, Steinbeck recieved the Nobel Prize in Literature for “realistic and imaginative writings, combining…sympathetic chumor and keen social perception.”  This rather unique feat–the combination of a brutal, unflinching depiction of poverty with an ultimately optimistic outlook–has accorded Steinbeck an enduring place among American novelists.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

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