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John Steinbeck’s power as a story teller is rooted in his portrayal of the working people of America. Its Steinbeck’s understanding of the common man that gives his books universal appeal and keeps them in print all over the world. Rather than being a writer of the 1930s, Steinbeck speaks directly to man’s present concerns, he too was ahead of his time in developing an ecological view of man’s place in the universe. He brought to the American dream the idea of self-improvement, the idea that the American conscienceshould also contain tolerance and compassion and above all a democratic view of life.In works such as The Grapes of Wrath, OfMice and Men,and Cannery Row, Steinbeck illustrates his worldview, his social vision for America. He witnessed the political and social upheaval of the 20thcentury, and places readers in the middle of this turmoil and allows them to see first-hand, the period that shaped American history. John Steinbeck remains a significant cultural voice—as novelist, dramatist, social visionary, and lasting commentator on twentieth-century American values and ideals.
John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” told the remarkable story about the intolerance that parallels economic adversity, the novel held up a mirror to Americas own shameful, abusive neglect of its own people. Upon its release at the end of the 1930s, the novel had a dramatic effect, it was loved by some and hated by others. In many ways the immense popularity of “The Grapes of Wrath” distorted Steinbeck’s reputation, however, his range was all encompassing and his work prolific. He was one of the great writers of the American landscape creatinglastingmyths around the lives of ordinary Americans whose lives were the figures in those landscapes pummeled by the forces of nature and politics. In “The Grapes of Wrath” Steinbeck illustrates the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl as a catastrophe of biblical proportions, but he also focused on the economical clasp that is threatening survival. It was all about turning agriculture into big business and Steinbeck had no question who the villains were, it was the banks that were pitilessly forcing the closing of the small farms.
Steinbeck says, “The Bank— or the Company— needs— wants— insists— must have— as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time” (The Grapes of Wrathpp. 36-37). His use of imagery and description depicts the unhuman lack of compassion and ravenous greed that lies behind the decision to expel so many tenants from their land. Steinbeck through this symbolic portrayal shows his critical view of a materialistic and capitalistic society that is focused on growth alone.
The NY Times published a letter Steinbeck wrote in 1953, to a student at Columbia University, in which he describes the purpose of his writing, “Now the purpose of a book I suppose is to amuse, interest, instruct but its warmer purpose is just to associate with the reader. You use symbols he can understand so that the two of you can be together. The circle is not closed until the trinity is present – the writer, the book, and the reader” (Steinbeck). Steinbeck saw himself as a writer with a single purpose that purpose being to open the closed eyes of the readers to a better understanding of the conflicting duality that exists within human nature. In a letter to George Albee, Steinbeck says, “Man hates something in himself. He has been able to defeat every natural obstacle but himself he cannot win over unless he kills every individual. And this self-hate which goes so closely in hand with self-love is what I wrote about” (SLL p. 98). Steinbeck’s purpose, in short, is to connect with readers through the conceptual understanding of self.
Steinbeck’s characters shared physiological rather than autobiographical similarities to himself. In the figure of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, the anti-hero changes dramatically from a figure of failure to one who inspires hope in the beaten down masses. Steinbeck’s characters commonly depict his vision of collective harmony within society and his own sense of frustration at the failure to realize this vision. In Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath dreams, hopes, and plans are the very substance that makes life worthwhile, these concepts go beyond realistic ambitions, they function as a way to survive life in the Depression. Steinbeck’s frustration is mirrored in the similar struggle the characters have to fulfill their visions, seemingly the closer they come to fulfilling their dreams, the closer they come to disappointment. However, Steinbeck makes it clear that despite the general unhappy futility that seems to characterize this era of American history,there is an element of happiness-by-denial man’s attempt to keep a positive outlook despite the many depressing circumstances.
InOf Mice and Men, Steinbeck shows readers the negative side to fate — the cruel and uncaring side of life. The novel ends with the death of a principle character, the victim of a cruel inevitable fate. The final importance of the novel, however, is not the death of Lennie, but by George the failed protector of Lennie; around Lennie, he built a dream world that protected them from their unpleasant realities. When George must kill Lennie himself to save his friend from a death by lynching, he must also destroy his own dream. Warren E. French, describes this as“a kind of living death, since [George] has been forced to destroy what had made his life worthwhile” (Beyond Boundariesp. 69).However, dreams weren’t the only thing that made life worthwhile for these characters, friendship also made their lives meaningful. George says, “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake and then they go into town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to” (Of Mice and Men pp. 13-14). For the lonely and isolated figures that dot the American landscape, Steinbeck describes a loneliness worse than poverty. For Lennie and George, their inherent inability to be free is pure tragedy, as they both continue to make poor decisions. It’s a lonely story about two men who dreams exceed their potential, who are destined by their misery never to enjoy true companionship and happiness. In effect, the novel remain thematically pure following man’s quest for self and meaning carefully.
Steinbeck through his friendship with Ed Ricketts, developed a philosophy on how man fits into the whole ecosystem. In The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck says, “[…] it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical out crying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable […] all things are one thing and that one thing is all things” (1941). Steinbeck often incorporates philosophies devised within The Log from the Sea of Cortez into the themes of many of his novels. He masters in his works the philosophy of ecology—the interrelationship between people and environment and the attainment of universality.
Steinbeck applied this ecological position to the characters in Cannery Row, depicting the outsiders and the nonconformists. Steinbeck opens the novel by connecting both human relations and landscape: “Cannery Road in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Road is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps […] the inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gambles, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing” (Cannery Row p.5). Steinbeck uses the relationship between people and place to suggest that truth is relative to the position from which a person is standing. More than any of his other works, Cannery Row suggests that the key to life is taking on the chaos and the vast contradictions that life presents, one must contain the chaos in order to contain it.
By the time most students graduate high school they are familiar with some of Steinbeck’s work, including Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. He is questionably the most frequently taught American writer in the high school curriculum, and as Arthur Applebee notes in his study, Literature in the Secondary School, Steinbeck after Shakespeare and Dickens is the most anthologized author in high school curriculum across the United States (1993). One reason for this popularity is his novels’ approachability and eloquent prose. Another is the thematic relevance of his works present in the importance of friendship and family, of Americans migrating west, of the poise of ordinary people, and of the coated significance of landscape—John Steinbeck’s vision is characteristically American.
Yet, his literary place in American literature has been much debated and often dismissed by literary critics. Steinbeck is often written off as a 1930’s social commentator—and thus his ecological awareness, his political and social views, and the astonishing range of his work is not given the credit it deserves. Steinbeck remains one of the most gifted and widely read authors of the twentieth century. His books continue to sell millions of copies both nationally and internationally. His themes cover a broad range of issues—social, political, moral, and environmental. In conclusion, Steinbeck’s literary importance within American literature can be attributed to his brutally realistic depictions of life that documented one of the most significant periods in American history.
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