John Steinbeck, Bard of the American Worker (Review)

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tags: Great Depression, literature, John Steinbeck

A Life of John Steinbeck
By William Souder

John Steinbeck (1902-68) might well be one of those once-popular authors whose names we recognize but whom no one reads beyond junior high. Still, his affecting novels about besieged migrant workers and itinerant day laborers may come back into vogue now that the country, if not the world, faces an economic crisis whose proportions have already been compared to, and may far outdistance, those of the Great Depression.

Certainly William Souder, in “Mad at the World,” his admiring new biography, believes Steinbeck should get another, sympathetic look. Hailing him as a “major figure in American literature,” Souder further claims Steinbeck has “given the world several books that would last forever.” Of course, forever is a very long time, more than Steinbeck himself thought he merited. When asked if he deserved the Nobel Prize he was awarded in 1962, Steinbeck modestly replied, “Frankly, no.”

To Souder, the author of a fine biography of John James Audubon, Steinbeck was “simply being his angry, contrarian self.” As he frames it, anger was the novelist’s full-throated response to injustice, and it “had driven him to greatness.”

Yet to the reader Steinbeck seems less angry than shy, driven and occasionally cruel — an insecure, talented and largely uninteresting man who blunted those insecurities by writing. “I work because I know it gives me pleasure to work,” Steinbeck once said. Not much else seemed to do that, except maybe booze.


Steinbeck kept writing. “The clock is running down,” he said at just 39. Maniacally, he counted the number of words he produced each day. “Life was leaking out of him,” Souder rhapsodizes, “slipping away into the oblivion waiting for him in death.”

Perhaps; but after The San Francisco News assigned Steinbeck to write a series about the pathetic living conditions of the Dust Bowl refugees in California’s San Joaquin Valley, he actively began “The Grapes of Wrath,” his touching 1939 novel about the hegira of these Oklahoma sharecroppers. The Joad family is a single, self-protective biological collective, with Ma Joad at its nurturing center: “It’s all one flow,” she says. “Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out.” With these stereotypes in place, Steinbeck’s characters remain remote specimens — as the critic Alfred Kazin put it, they stay “on the verge of becoming human, but never do.” Yet, immediate and concrete and written more out of sorrow — and hope — than anger, the novel became an anthem of the Depression. “Steinbeck’s writing had merged with history,” Souder enthusiastically declares.

Read entire article at New York Times