John Steinbecks Portrayal of Alcoholics

John Steinbeck’s Portrayal of Alcoholics
Lila L. Anastas has said of John Steinbeck: “Steinbeck
the person wanted … to experience everything and then
write about it. He was the versatile author of over thirty
full-length books and short story collections, as well as
plays, filmscripts, numerous articles, and volumes of
letters. He received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962.

In my view, he is one of the top ten American novelists, not
just because he was a great storyteller but because he dealt
with important concepts and universal themes” (150).

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Steinbeck’s reputation as both a person and a writer has
been considered on the negative side of perfection.

Considered a very private person, not impressed by his own
or others acquisition of wealth, he is rumored to have had a
His was not a success story that followed the normal
pattern for writers of his day and caliber. A few of his
books were banned at the time of publication (including
Grapes Of Wrath) because of their language and rebellious
spirit. His depiction of certain components of society have
been met with disbelief and anger. However, Steinbeck is,
without a doubt, one of the greatest writers of American
fiction. Like most writers, he uses those he knows and
studies, as well as his own personal experiences, to draw on
to create realistic and memorable characters. Many writers
use archetypes or draw from different aspects of themselves
in order to give a character depth and meaning in context.

John Steinbeck was known to draw his characters and settings
from either mythical, archetypal and, or, personal
“Later in life, Steinbeck wrote to a friend: “Long ago,
I knew perhaps that mine was not a truly first-rate talent.

I had then two choices only–to throw it over or to use what
I had to the best of my ability. I chose the second, and I
have tried to keep it clean.” … Steinbeck based many of
the characters on his real-life Salinas neighbors (and
embellished things as he saw fit). This did not sit well
with the neighbors” (Anastas 153). He also used a lot of
his own memories and experiences in his writing.

“As a writer and a man, Steinbeck did have strikes
against him. He never graduated from college. He suffered
through two failed marriages before finding bliss with his
third wife, Elaine. Furthermore, he never achieved critical
acclaim after his early work, despite the popularity of The
Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. He suffered from the
judgment of critics who believed his work should not be
accepted as real art, and that Steinbeck lacked the fictive
imagination of Hemingway or Faulkner” (Allison 245). His
opinion of himself was rather low and demeaning. He fit the
profile of an alcoholic, even if he wasn’t truly limited by
He grew up in Salinas and attended Stanford University.

“Steinbeck, however, did not fit in with the Stanford scene
and attended classes only sporadically. He preferred
working as a hired hand in various ranches in Monterey
County or working in a variety of other jobs, including one
with the Big Sur highway project and one at Spreckels Sugar
Company near Salinas. In 1925, Steinbeck left Stanford
permanently and went to New York City to seek his fame and
fortune as a writer. He returned to California in a year.

These were difficult times for the young writer, as he
collected rejection slips and watched his early novels bomb”
(Anastas 153). If he was to have had a problem with
alcohol, this time in his life certainly reflects the
If it is true that he was an alcoholic, it is not seen
in his work ethics as they apply to writing – however, it
may be seen in his sporadic and time limited employment as a
young man, before his writing career took off. Where it
could be seen in his writing is in the portrayal of some of
his characters. The people who populate Steinbeck’s novels
are portrayed as real within time and context and so must,
surely, be somewhat modeled after people that were known to
the author. It cannot be denied that his books almost
always had a character that was closer to the darker aspects
In Steinbeck’s most famous work, Grapes of Wrath, the
character of Uncle John can be compared to the accepted view
of Steinbeck. Uncle John can be regarded as the black sheep
of the Joad family. He was an eccentric loner, and a lonely
guilt-ridden man. He is a man who has a history of sadness
that follows him like a shadow he can no longer see as it
lengthens in the view of others. Long ago, his young wife,
who was pregnant, had told him one night that she had a
stomach-ache, which he ignored to the extent that he
suggested she take some medicine. She died that night of a
burst appendix. The pattern of Uncle John’s life alternates
between periods of severe abstinence and brief binges, the
evil side taking over when he’s drinking and the warm
hearted man who gives candy to children appearing in his
sober moments. In many ways, Uncle John shows signs of a
classic case of alcoholism: the cyclic nature of his
bingeing and ‘going sober’; the self centered attitude that
would not see that his wife was in real and mortal danger;
and the self pitying stance that guilt was his by right and
could only be assuaged by alcohol. The fact that Steinbeck
gave him his own name could be coincidence, or it could
point to the fact that Steinbeck based Uncle John on those
The Palace Flophouse Boys in Cannery Row are certainly
portrayed as drifters who care more for their next drink
than their next shower and hot meal – although they are
given a certain amount of character strength, they are
mostly seen as vagabonds and idlers. Theirs is the
occupation of the drunk on the street, the man who chooses
to be free within the bounds of his deviance.

Danny Taylor, a character in Winter Of Our Discontent,
is a man who has been destroyed by failure in his last year
at school, and is now left with only the drunk’s sense of
danger crowding in. He is a victim in the struggle for
success within the American culture; a man who has fallen
abut is aware of the distance he must re-tread in order to
get his life back. At least one person – Margie – believes
him to be a kind and decent person and this gives the reader
Whether it is true or not that John Steinbeck had a
problem with alcohol, it can be said that he fit some of the
patterns of an alcoholic and that he portrayed the alcoholic
in one of his novels in a realistic and understanding
manner. Not all realism must come from personal experience,
however, the patterns in his own life as well as his
knowledge to portray the lifestyle and thinking of the
alcoholic certainly lends validity to the rumor.


Bibliography:
Works Cited
Allison, Stephen. “John Steinbeck: A Biography.” The Antioch
Review, (1996): March, pp. 245(1
Anastas, Lila L. “You Can Go Home Again.” World and I,
(1999): January, pp. 150(7).


Steinbeck, John. Cannery row. (New York, NY: The Viking
Press, 1945).


Steinbeck, John. The Grapes Of Wrath. (New York, NY::
Penguin, 1992).


Steinbeck, John. The winter of our discontent.(New York, NY:
Viking Press, 1961).