John Steinbeck – the Author and his Times He didn’t know it at the time, but John Steinbeck started getting ready to write The Grapes of Wrath when he was a small boy in California. Much of what he saw and heard while growing up found its way into the novel. On weekends his father took John and his three sisters on long drives out into the broad and beautiful valleys south of Salinas, the town where John was born in 1902. John passed vast orchards, and endless fields green with lettuce and barley. He observed the workers and the run-down shacks in which they lived.
And he saw, even before he was old enough to wear long pants, that the farmhands’ lives differed from his own. Although the Steinbecks weren’t wealthy (John’s father ran a flour mill), they lived in a comfortable Victorian house. John grew up on three square meals a day. He never doubted that he would always have enough of life’s necessities. He even got a pony for his 12th birthday.
(The pony became the subject of one of Steinbeck’s earliest successes, his novel The Red Pony.) But don’t think John was pampered; his family expected him to work. He delivered newspapers and did odd jobs around town. Family came first in the Steinbeck household. While not everyone saw eye-to-eye all the time, parents and children got along well. His father saw that John had talent and encouraged him to become a writer.
His mother at first wanted John to be a banker- a real irony when you consider what Steinbeck says about banks in The Grapes of Wrath- but she changed her mind when John began spending hours in his room scrawling stories and writing articles for the school paper. Later in life, Steinbeck denied that his family served as a model for the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. But both families understood well the meaning of family unity. As a boy, John roamed the woods and meadows near his home and explored the caves. He swam in the creeks and water holes and became acquainted with the ways of nature. He developed a feel for the land.
Each year the Salinas River flooded and then dried up, and John began to understand the cycles of seasons. He saw that weather was more than just something that might cancel a picnic. He saw that sunshine and clouds and rain and temperature readings were vital to farmers and growers. You can tell that John must have loved the out-of-doors. Otherwise, how could he have set four novels and several stories in the lush countryside where he spent his youth? During high school (1915-19) he worked as a hand on nearby ranches.
There he saw migrant workers, men without futures, breaking their backs all day for paltry wages and at night throwing away their cash in card games and barrooms. Out of this experience came the novel Of Mice and Men. Yet he also developed a profound respect for the inner strength of many of these laborers. They owned little, moved fast, kept few friends, and led barren lives. But they endured. In spite of adversity, they stood tall and proud.
They had self-respect. Their spirits could not be broken. In fact, Steinbeck developed so much admiration for these working “stiffs,” as they called each other, that he took up their style of life. He was nineteen and had spent two unrewarding years at Stanford University. He tried to find work as a deckhand on a Pacific freighter, but ended up instead in the beet and barley fields of the Willoughby Ranch south of Salinas. Then he worked in a beet factory as a bench-chemist.
All the while, he gathered material for writing. After each day’s work he wrote- mostly stories and poems. Six months later he decided to return to the classroom and to study the writer’s craft seriously. Some of his pieces ended up in the college newspaper; others showed up later as sections of The Long Valley, In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden. Steinbeck’s success as a writer coincided with the coming of the Great Depression.
As many people around the country lost their wealth, Steinbeck prospered. He started to travel, not only because he could afford it, but because he wanted to collect material for his writing. The country was heavy with frustration. Everywhere he went he met downtrodden people with stories to be told. In 1937, driving a late-model car, he and his wife Carol traveled Route 66 from Oklahoma to California.
He saw the roadside camps, used-car lots, diners, and gas stations that eventually became sites for events in The Grapes of Wrath. Thinking that a good story might be written about the migrants, he spent four weeks with workers in California, working with them in the fields and living in their camps. What started as an idea for a story soon became an issue for Steinbeck. He wrote in a letter to a friend: I must go over to the interior valleys. There are about five thousand families starving to death over there, not just hungry but actually starving. The government is trying to feed them and get medical attention to them with the fascist groups of utilities and banks and huge growers sabotaging the thing all along the line and yelling for a balanced budget..
I’ve tied into the thing from the first and I must get down there and see it and see if I can’t do something to help knock these murderers on the heads… I’m pretty mad about it. He wrote an angry article on the inhumane treatment of the migrants. He detailed the wretched conditions of the camps and blamed the California ranch owners for misery among the workers. Meanwhile, he had begun working on The Grapes of Wrath.
It pointed fingers at those responsible for keeping people in poverty. It used tough language (in the 1930s four-letter words were uncommon in novels). It was meant to rouse its readers. Steinbeck chose its title from the words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song, both religious and patriotic, that stirs the emotions as few songs do. Steinbeck expected the book to be a failure.
He thought, mistakenly, that many people would hate the book and would most likely hate him, too. He might be branded Communist, a label that could give him trouble for the rest of his life. His publisher urged him to soften the book, to make it more acceptable. Steinbeck refused: “I’ve never changed a word to fit the prejudices of a group and I never will,” he wrote. It was evidently a wise decision. The Grapes of Wrath is considered Steinbeck’s greatest novel.
It won the Pulitzer Prize and has been translated into such languages as French, German, and Japanese. Steinbeck’s frank portrayal of real people excited readers everywhere. Although some libraries and school boards banned the book, it became a bestseller almost instantly and was made into an Academy Award-winning movie in 1940. The book was rarely attacked on artistic grounds, but some people called it a distortion of the truth, a piece of Communist propaganda. They said it couldn’t be true that almost every migrant was a hero and almost every Californian a villain. Almost no one denied that it was a well-written, soundly structured piece of literature.
John Steinbeck died in 1968.