John Steinbeck is arguably the most prominent littérateur of his generation to have adopted the cause of working class America that was struggling to survive the harsh realities of the Great Depression. His most famous work The Grapes of Wrath depicts the everyday travails of a westward migrating white American family in search of better economic opportunities. Of Mice and Men is a much smaller novel, both in terms of the number of characters as well as the social situations they find themselves in. Both these books capture the desperation and resilience of poor Americans of the early decades of the twentieth century. The novels also serve the purpose of a social documentary and present a picture of the prevailing systemic injustices in the United States.
It is fashionable with the new breed of novelists to separate politics from art. But in the case of John Steinbeck, this distinction is not evident. The author, in the process of creating a work of art had also taken upon himself to ask questions of social injustices in general and economic disparities in particular. Hence, Steinbeck’s body of work are in essence are full of his own perspective on the state of rural American society; the medium of the novel have given Steinbeck the requisite scope and opportunity to fulfill his role as a social commentator. The rest of the essay will cite instances from the two novels as well as foray into the biographical aspects of the author himself to support this assertion.
To understand this social activist trait in Steinbeck’s character one has to look at the experiences and circumstances that shaped his vision of America. Firstly, his years as an adolescent in Salinas, where he got a first hand experience of his parents’ struggle for survival is a formative influence. It is the next phase of his life however, that will prove more important – his long-time relationship with the radical social worker Carol Henning. The influence of Carol Henning cannot be underestimated, for her socialist views on life had clearly rubbed off on Steinbeck, which is evident from the earliest journalistic assignments that Steinbeck undertook. His years as a novice journalist also had a key role in the shaping of his character, for these early writing assignments were the foundations for his later literary pursuits. In both the works in discussion – The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, the influences of these formative stages of his early life are quite obvious.
While Steinbeck never really espoused a particular political ideology, the socialist principles of economic justice that are at the heart of The Grapes of Wrath can trace their origins to his association with Carol Henning. The central socialist principle of workers owning the means of production is brought forth in the following powerful passage from the novel,
“Is the power (tractors) that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor were ours, it would be good – not mine, but ours. We could love that tractor then as we have loved this land when it was ours. But this tractor does two things – it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people were driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think about this…Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you’re a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it.”
The rise of John Steinbeck as a novelist and social commentator coincided with the economic turmoil of the years of Great Depression. Although Steinbeck, in his interviews and essays, stated that he does not espouse any particular economic system, yet his novels have a socialist, if not Marxist orientation. As a variation, Steinbeck claimed to have only exposed the darker realities of the then working class America. Without impinging his social critique on a particular ideology, he rather considered his novels as open-ended projects, with the reader supplementing necessary rectification of economic injustices as he/she sees fit. To illustrate this point, we only need to scrutinize his novels a little closely. While his earlier works, including The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men had a strong element of social realism, his later works were less focused on the rural working class. This implies that the two novels in discussion were compelled by the temporal social conditions than any perennial economic and political ideologies. This is not to say that the two books are devoid of political content. To the contrary, both the books act as suitable political platforms for the author to raise important questions of human pathos without being ideologically self-indulgent. His earlier works stand independent of the fact than Steinbeck attended a few Communist Party meetings during the time of writing these masterpieces.