Our John Steinbeck Culture

Wednesday, 06 October 2010 11:42 AM Written by 

EIGHTY FOUR, PA. -- My house 

Until I got stuck on the idea to retrace Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley" trip and try to build a book around it, I had forgotten – or, more truthfully, never realized – how beautifully Steinbeck wrote.

 I also didn't realize what a cultural superstar he was in his day and still is. 

He’s been dead since 1968. But he remains arguably America’s most widely read and most “all-American” writer.

The real people and places of California's Monterey Peninsula he knew as a farm hand and struggling young writer haven’t existed for at least 70 years.

Yet the stories he wrote about them -- "The Red Pony," "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath" -- have been hardwired into our national consciousness in books, movies and Springsteen songs.


 “Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men” remain fixtures of high school summer reading lists -- not that that seems to have  boosted his name recognition among the digitized generation.

During my quick spin through New England, I asked maybe seven young adults if they had ever heard of John Steinbeck.

They'd invariably said "No" until I'd ask, "Did you have to read 'Of Mice and Men' and 'Grapes of Wrath' in high school?"

Then they would say something like, "Oh yeah."

The best answer came from a young variety store clerk on her smoke break in Milo, Me. When I asked her if she knew who John Steinbeck was, she said, "I don't think he lives around here."

The Steinbeck literary canon -- 25 books, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books and several short-story collections -- has a long and healthy commercial tail.

His fiction has sold in the multimillions worldwide and still sells well every year. Most of his nonfiction books and his newspaper and magazine journalism – which was often very good the way good newspaper features are  – have been forgotten.

Susan Shillinglaw is arguably the country’s top Steinbeck scholar today.

An English professor at San Jose State University, she once explained why ordinary people -- as opposed to snobby East Coast critics who dismiss Steinbeck as second-rate because he is too easy to read, not serious enough and insufficiently political -- like Steinbeck and have never stopped reading him.

Shillinglaw said it’s because Steinbeck "engages his readers. He can be funny and serious. He's a great writer -- lucid and clear. He evokes a sense of place like few other westerners before him or since.

"He was ‘engaged’ in political and social events of half the 20th century -- the Depression, World War II, Russia and the Cold War, politics, Vietnam. He was empathetic -- he cared about working people, people who work with their hands, or dig ditches or fix cars. He cared about marginalized people -- those on the fringes of society.”

Even if you think, erroneously, as did J. Edgar Hoover and the editors of Time, that the FDR/New Deal-loving Steinbeck was a commie sympathizer who wanted to overturn capitalism, you should re-read Steinbeck as an adult.  

Whether you hate unions or love them, "In Dubious Battle" will demonstrate the power of Steinbeck's deceivingly simple style.  

Meanwhile, the opening 500 words of  "Cannery Row," his 1945 novelette about the bums who lived near the sardine factories on Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, alone are worthy of a Pulitizer.

And "Of Mice and Men" -- a perfect novelette faithfully remade into a very good movie by political conservative Gary Sinise in 1992 -- is as powerful today as it was when it appeared in 1937.

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