There were only two authors whose work I encountered in each year of high school: Shakespeare and John Steinbeck. His novellas like The Pearl and Of Mice and Men, his novels The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, even his inspiring Nobel address, informed my burgeoning understanding of what an American writer sought to accomplish and examine. Steinbeck turned his attention and sympathy toward that majority of people—those who toil, who care for their family, who seek joy and exaltation in however rare supply those delights may be. His style, mixing the merits of both American plainspokenness and figurative language, comforts me whenever I need to pull something off the shelf.
John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, in Northern California, in 1902. His roots inspired and connected him to frequent subjects like farmers, ranchers, laborers, and melting pots of American and Latin-Chicano culture. The last original work published during his life, Travels With Charley, about his sojourn around the country with the family dog, is a fitting swan song for the author, whose tireless curiosity led him to write about pirates and war trauma, about marine biology and Bob Hope. Below, we’ve collected several facts about this treasured American writer.
1. Steinbeck had a clear idea of who the world’s heroes were
Steinbeck is renowned for his eschewal of the rich and glamorous for the working and productive. For him, that was all part of the plan. In a radio interview with NBC, Steinbeck said:
"Present-day kings are not very inspiring ... and the only heroes left are the scientists and the poor. The scientists are largely hidden away, but the poor are still out in the open, and when they make a struggle it is an heroic struggle with starvation, death or imprisonment the penalty if they lose. And since our race admires gallantry, the writer will deal with it where he finds it. He finds it in the struggling poor now."
2. He played with the truth
“A writer must rearrange reality so it will seem reasonably real to the reader,” Steinbeck writes in his manuscript for Travels With Charley. In this regard, he was a man of his word. His consistent description of the trip as sustained by humble and threadbare accommodations is undermined by his staying at a large suite in St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco and the country home of Adlai Stevenson.
Yet his most glaring fabrication concerns the premise of the book. A story of a lone man and his dog trekking across the country is contradicted by the trip itself. In fact, Steinbeck’s wife Elaine attended much of the trip with him. At the urging of an editor at Viking, Elaine was scrapped, and replaced by a dog, who now became the story’s second-biggest character.
3. He was worried about trends in parenting
Steinbeck will always be remembered for holding a place in his heart for the proletariat and working people, but his political and social opinions extended naturally farther. One trend he was especially worried about was the particular way American parents, with all their tenacious optimism, were fulfilling the poet Philip Larkin’s wisdom (“They f*ck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”).
The American dream and its wish for a life ever-upward and superior generation to generation, to Steinbeck, reached a troublesome extent in the postwar years. Parents had emphasized children so much, in some ways, as their greatest accomplishment, that their ability to recognize them as children and life as a careful but steady march of progress had been distorted. If a child acted like a child does, the parent felt herself a kind of failure, and came to employ an entire industry of professionals, of doctors, therapists, educators, and professionals who were paid to alter human nature to accommodate a parents’ high hopes for their offspring. Steinbeck wrote:
Laziness, sloppiness, indiscipline, selfishness, and general piggery, which are the natural talents of children and were once slapped out of them, if they lived, now became either crimes of the parents or sickness in the children, who would far rather be sick than disciplined.
The complexities extend further, even to paradox, with the emphasis on child-rearing actually inhibiting children’s maturation. “The American approach to the young has extended adolescence far into the future, so that very many Americans have never and can never become adults,” Steinbeck concluded.
4. His hometown often hated him
Steinbeck wrote to a friend of Salinas in 1933 that, “I think I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and ranches in the wilder hills.” Salinas was less enthusiastic, burning copies of The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, in one of many gestures that the growers and farmers of the town used to display their resentment. Steinbeck even refused to allow a school to be named after him in Salinas, fearing that it would provide ample excuse for natives to curse his name.
Now, the author’s childhood home is a restaurant and attraction, and now the Salinas' National Steinbeck Center hosts a three-day Steinbeck festival that has been running for over 36 years.
The bold, it seems, often require some warming up to.