John Steinbeck feature image

John Steinbeck

Joshua Mays
English 6923: Working Class Literature
Fall 2005


John Steinbeck was born the son of a mason in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902. Not wealthy, but comfortable, Steinbeck enjoyed a rural upbringing often working as a ranch hand. In 1919, he enrolled at Stanford University, but left without finishing a degree in 1925.

Steinbeck published his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929. It was soon followed by the novels The Pastures of Heaven and To a God Unknown, and he maintained an active life as a writer for the next two decades. Steinbeck married his first wife, Carol Henning, in 1930. He published Tortilla Flat in 1935, which won the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal.

Of Mice and Men appeared in 1936 and The Grapes of Wrath followed in 1939, earning him a Pulitzer Prize. During World War II, he worked as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Although Steinbeck produced a great volume of work throughout the 1940s, The Grapes of Wrath is widely seen as the apex of his writing career.

In 1961, he published his last work of fiction The Winter of Our Discontent. In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Throughout his career Steinbeck championed the working-class and other marginalized people, making their stories visible to an international audience. As the National Steinbeck Center states, Steinbeck "championed the forgotten and disenfranchised while affirming the strength of the human spirit. His life was as rich and provocative as the Salinas Valley he immortalized in his writing. Steinbeck drew his inspiration from this land and became known throughout the world."

Discussion of author's work

John Steinbeck uses realistic depictions of working people in authentic settings to politically charge his work. When Steinbeck's material is examined through a working-class lens, we find a wealth of working-class themes embedded in the social commentary that runs throughout his work. It is these social observations, as best illustrated by The Grapes of Wrath, that helped earn Steinbeck the Nobel Prize in 1962.

The Grapes of Wrath charts the journey of a small group of farmers as they flee from the Dust Bowl and seek work in California. In the novel, the Joads are forced to sell their possessions for gas money, to abandon pets, and to leave their family land. Steinbeck shows us their experience in great detail: “two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women,” and the crying cold babies without a blanket for warmth. The Joads are hungry, beaten, and miserable. They are icons of working-class suffering during the Great Depression, and Steinbeck accurately shows their declining situation.

Steinbeck's social critique is again manifest when Tom Joad asks for a lift from a trucker. When the trucker balks referring to the “no riders sticker” on his truck, Joad replies that “sometimes a guy’ll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker.” Here, Steinbeck demonstrates the kind of class consciousness that marks working-class literature, suggesting that the “good” workingman will always assists another despite the instructions of his employer. As Joad says, the “good” man may take pride in being “not one whom any rich bastard could kick around.”

Social commentary about class was as a major staple of his 1930s works. One of his most overt attempts is In Dubious Battle. According to The Center for Steinbeck Studies:

He set out to write a "biography of a strikebreaker," but from his interviews with a hounded organizer hiding out in nearby Seaside, he turned from biography to fiction, writing one of the best strike novels of the twentieth century, In Dubious Battle. Never a partisan novel, it dissects with a steady hand both the ruthlessness of the strike organizers and the rapaciousness of the greedy landowners. What the author sees as dubious about the struggle between organizers and farmers is not who will win but how profound is the effect on the workers trapped in between, manipulated by both interests.

Additionally, working-class struggle can be seen in Of Mice and Men as Steinbeck uses land as a symbol of class consciousness. Throughout the novel it is land that makes men work in the morning and sleep at night; it is the dream of owning land that drives the protagonists. We see Lennie, George’s mentally challenged friend, ask nightly to tell him “the stories,” George’s own fantastic yarns about how they, two destitute ranch hands, will eventually settle down on their own homestead and live the good life. The only method of escape available to them is to acquire and work their own parcel of land. Steinbeck intended to present this unattainable dream, which was typical at the time of southwest workers, to the reader in an attempt to gain sympathy and make visible the social stigma of the working-class.

Steinbeck invites sympathy for workers by showing their failures, as seen when George says, “Guys like us got no fambly. They make little stakes an’ then blow it in. They ain’t got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ‘em". When all hope unravels and we see that George is as vulnerable and hopeless as the rest of the ranch workers, we sympathize with him. We see the struggle of the ranch hand when George compulsively blows his savings at the end of every month. We empathize with the characters as they wander aimlessly through California, never putting down roots, searching only for their next meal and a warm bed. Through their story, Steinbeck makes his case for the working-class.

Even in Cannery Row, a novel that focuses around a cannery neighborhood, Steinbeck continues to attempt to sway the reader by presenting the conditions and struggles of the working class. Here, he shows us the gap between the well-off store owners that will do favors for the needy only if it benefits them, the medical community that gives preference to the higher classes neighborhoods of the area, because after all, “Cannery Row was not considered a very good financial risk,” and the town residents that are forced to make homes in former bait sheds. Steinbeck provides additional perspective through the town lay-abouts when they decide to buy Doc a present to thank him for his philanthropic work. Initially they want to throw a party with their home brewed liquor, but decide against it because Doc has “been to college," making him above their drink.

Steinbeck's work showcases working-class values and conveys that struggle to the reader. Although, the works discussed here represented only a small portion of Steinbeck's material, they show that he was deeply concerned with the working-class and wished to advance their interests through his writing.

Key works:

Annotated Bibliography

Benson, Jackson. "John Steinbeck and Farm Labor Unionization: The Background of In Dubious Battle." American Literature. Duke University Press. 1980.

Benson discusses Steinbeck's novel In Dubious Battle in it's historical context. He delves into the history of the workers and labor unions on which Steinbeck based his work, the political climate of the time, and how the strike is represented in other works. This article provides a wealth of scholarly information on how Steinbeck interpreted the working-class.

The Center for Steinbeck Studies. 21 September 2005.

This is the official website for The Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. It claims to be a "comprehensive and authorized resources for readers, students, teachers, and scholars of John Steinbeck." The site includes an in-depth biography, information about Steinbeck's homes and writing locations, information about the area in which he wrote, a chronology of his work, a vast photo collection, and links to other helpful website. This site is essential for any person investigating Steinbeck, because it provides a wealth of information on nearly every aspect of his life. This is a good place to begin.

The National Steinbeck Center. 20 September 2005.

This is the official website for The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. The website offers substantial biographical information such as short summaries of his works, and biographical timelines. Additionally, the Center is concerned with the history and the people of the Salinas Valley - the very people Steinbeck wrote about. The site features information on the history of the Valley and its people as well as in-depth information on upcoming museum exhibits. This site is valuable to any person researching the working-class aspects of Steinbeck's literature, as it offers a direct representation of those people, as well as discussing them in his work.

Shockley, Martin Staples. "The Reception of The Grapes of Wrath in Oklahoma." American Literature. Duke University Press.1944.

Working-class literature usually aims to have some "agency in the world," and this article explores the social reception of The Grapes of Wrath, allowing readers to evaluate the book's "agency". Initially, the novel was not received well, it was seen by many critics as "obscene sensationalism." However, Steinbeck later won the Nobel prize for literature that dealt with social commentary. The article is useful in interpreting social views on the working-class as well as Steinbeck's.

Stephan, Ed. John Steinbeck: The California Novels. Western Washington University. 1 December 2005.

This website provides in-depth information on Steinbeck's "California Novels," which deal primarily with the the Salinas Valley in California and its cultures and peoples. These works would be of interest to a working-class scholar. Additionally, this webpage offers various links to other Steinbeck resources.