Steinbeck, John (1902–1968)
Born into precarious middle-class respectability in Salinas, California, Steinbeck would in the 1930s write some of the most famous novels about poor working-class people in all of American literature . Always intending to become a writer, he attended Stanford University in the early 1920s without graduating, and then garnered experiences for his fiction in a series of working-class jobs. His first suc-cess was the novel Tortilla Flat (1935), a somewhat condescending portrayal of Page 322 | Top of Articleunemployed Mexican Americans in Monterey, California, that, nonetheless, contains a critique of bourgeois values common to most of his writing, and displays what would be Steinbeck's enduring sympathy for underdogs and his interest in communal human relationships unmediated by materialism. Similar sentiments inform his popular novella Of Mice and Men (1937), which describes the vulnerable lives of itinerant ranch workers, or “bindle stiffs.” As is evidenced by his two most overtly political novels, Steinbeck grew increasingly interested in the exploitation of migrant crop pickers in the rich agricultural valleys of California, particularly the so-called Dust Bowl refugees. The subject of In Dubious Battle (1936) is a strike pitting migrant workers against the powerful growing companies and their quasi-Fascist supporters. While the novel reserves its harshest criticism for the growers, it is decidedly suspicious of the labor organizers, who are portrayed as ruthlessly calculating Communists concerned only with abstract results. The narrative is informed by Steinbeck's notion of the “phalanx,” a theory of group behavior superior to “great man” individualism that is, however, narrowly deterministic. The novel also implies that all the migrant workers were Anglo-Saxon whites by excluding the Mexican American and Filipino workers who had actually been the backbone of militant labor actions in the period. The exclusive focus on white workers continued in Steinbeck's 1936 series of newspaper articles, later collected as The Harvest Gypsies. The series was sympathetic in tone and effective as an exposé, but it displayed an unconscious middle-class condescension. Steinbeck's masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939) transcended most of these shortcomings, although it also effectively excluded nonwhites. While his biographers repeatedly note that Steinbeck was a New Deal liberal, not a Socialist or Communist, The Grapes of Wrath offers some of the most elegant and impassioned descriptions of the ravages of capital accumulation in the English language. Moreover, the Joad family and their fellow “Okie” migrants in California are not merely caught up in the phalanx; they are, as is consistent with Marxist thought, subjects and agents of history. While Steinbeck wrote interesting novels later, including Cannery Row (1945), East of Eden (1952), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), the success of The Grapes of Wrath brought burdensome fame and unrealistic expectations, which contributed, along with the general postwar prosperity, to a diminishing of his radical impulse. Nevertheless, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, and his novels were still selling nearly 2 million copies a year in the early years of the 21st century.
Benson, Jackson. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking, 1984.
Daniel, Cletus E. Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers, 1870–1941. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981.
Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
Steinbeck, John. A Life in Letters. Ed. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. New York: Viking, 1975.