An aspect of the author’s works is the interweaving of his own experiences into the fabric of the novel. For instance, Steinbeck’s father was a hard-working yet financially unsuccessful man who ran a small store. In spite of his hard work he lost his store and consequently became reclusive and depressed, before finding a job as a manager in a sugar factory. Nevertheless, his father was deeply affected by the failure of his small store and this made a strong impression on his son. Steinbeck was also quite close to his grandparents, who as first generation immigrants would tell fascinating tales about exotic wildlife, crossing the Atlantic in a ship, etc. This translates into admiration for simple things and their beauty in the novels (Burkhead, 2002, p.121). The author assumes the role of an Epicurean philosopher apart from the more obvious role of a social commentator in these two works. The following lines from Of Mice and Men capture the author’s sense of fascination with nature and a simple way of life that were essential ingredients of his own childhood environment,
“Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want. God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want …George, on the worker’s dream: “All kin’s a vegetables in the garden, and if we want a little whisky we can sell a few eggs or something, or some milk. We’d jus’ live there. We’d belong there. There wouldn’t be no more runnin’ round the country and gettin’ fed by a Jap cook. No, sir, we’d have our own place where we belonged and not sleep in no bunk house” (Of Mice and Men, p.63).
The Grapes of Wrath, while finding favor with most readers, was severely condemned by the ruling classes. The capitalist classes, who then had a monopoly stranglehold on the American economy, saw a threat to their way of life in this book. Hence, a campaign of banishing the book began which continues to this day. The remarkable success of the novel should be seen in light of these attempts at censorship and control. The battle for free publication and access to the book even reached the floor of the House of Representatives, where reactionary politicians heaped abuse on the book and its author and suggested severe punishment for the latter. But fortunately, the novel survived mainly because of support from the then President and the First lady, who were more sympathetic to the plight of the working classes. Despite the vitriolic attempts to abolish the book, The Grapes of Wrath not only survived but had risen to become one of the greatest novels of the Twentieth century. Alongside Of Mice and Men, it continues to define the author and his milieu. (Burkhead, 2002, p.132)
Evaluation and Conclusion:
Hence, John Steinbeck’s recognition as one of the greatest American novelists is based on his artistic skill with the pen as well as his empathy for his poor compatriot that manifests itself as social commentary in his works (Gladstein, 2006, p.82). It can even be asserted that Steinbeck was first and foremost a social commentator and he choose the medium of the novel to fulfill this primary urge in him. The fact that novels such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men continue to be read widely by young and elderly Americans alike is a testimony to the novels’ qualities of universality and exposé on perennial problems afflicting humanity. In this regard, the awards and honors conferred on the author, including the most coveted Nobel Prize, are truly well deserved.
Steinbeck, John, The Grapes of Wrath, first published in 1939 by The Viking Press, Library of Congress Catalogue Number 289946
Steinbeck, John, Of Mice and Men, first published in 1937 by Covici Friede, ISBN 978-0-14-017739-8
Burkhead, Cynthia. Student Companion to John Steinbeck. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Coers, Donald V. John Steinbeck as Propagandist: The Moon Is down Goes to War. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1991.
Gladstein, Mimi R. “Bilingual Wordplay: Variations on a Theme by Hemingway and Steinbeck.” The Hemingway Review 26.1 (2006): 81+.
Palmer, Rosemary. “Understanding the Grapes of Wrath: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 44.5 (2001): 479.
Zirakzadeh, Cyrus Ernesto. “John Steinbeck on the Political Capacities of Everyday Folk: Moms, Reds, and Ma Joad’s Revolt.” Polity 36.4 (2004): 595+.