Grief and Beauty
By Gabriel Blanchard
The moral and atmospheric power of Steinbeck's writing has justly won him an enduring place in the American canon.
One of the foremost American novelists of his century, John Steinbeck’s life began in a very humdrum way. Born in Salinas, California in 1902, his family’s Anglo-German ancestry and affiliation with the Episcopal Church were socially respectable without being conspicuous. He attended Stanford University, where he studied English literature, but left without graduating. He had a difficult start as an author and journalist, supporting himself through odd jobs in agriculture and manufacturing; he settled in the Monterey Bay area just as the Great Depression was beginning. It was against this backdrop that he wrote some of his most celebrated work, much of which takes place in the rich valleys or on the central coast of California.
His first successful novel, Tortilla Flat, depicted a cast of impoverished men recently returned from the First World War, parodying Arthurian tales of chivalry with stories of dissolute, lecherous, disorderly protagonists. Steinbeck followed it the next year with In Dubious Battle, a novel about agricultural workers attempting (with mixed success) to unionize. This book was the first instantiation of a theme that characterized much of his writing, and indeed much of his life: namely, the cruelty and absurdity of the contemporary American economic system, even in the face of massive disasters like the Dust Bowl—a period of severe drought and dust storms that devastated the agricultural economy of the Great Plains throughout much of the 1930s. The Dust Bowl formed the setting of perhaps his most famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which articulates this theme with exceptional clarity and bitterness:
The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. … And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
The novella Of Mice and Men (published in 1937, two years before The Grapes of Wrath) earned him international acclaim, culminating in his winning the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature. It too is set in the harsh conditions of the Depression, but it is a much more intimate tale; it focuses on two friends named George and Lennie, the latter of whom is seriously mentally disabled and unable to function without his friend’s help and protection, partly due to his immense strength, which he finds difficult to control. Here, the economic hardships they face take a backseat to a terrible personal tragedy, reminiscent of the traps of circumstance that often occur in the plays of ancient Athens.
This personal focus aligns with Steinbeck’s third prominent (and longest) title, East of Eden, which he regarded as his finest work. It is set in the Salinas Valley, just inland from the Pacific coast, a region of immense natural beauty with a Mediterranean climate, which Steinbeck describes in lush detail. East of Eden is an involved familial story, reminiscent of Æschylus‘ Oresteia, Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, or Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in its multi-generational complexity. He uses the principal story of the Hamilton family to explore themes of freedom, malice, and fate, interweaving the histories of his characters with an analysis of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. The (mis-transliterated) Hebrew word timshel from Genesis 4:7, re-translated as “thou mayest rule” by one of the characters in the novel, suggests that despite the tragedies and sins of people’s lives, they still have the capacity to grow and change for the better.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Geoffrey Chaucer, St. Thomas More, and Simone de Beauvoir, this review of Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, or these “Great Conversation” essays on the idea of causality and the history of medicine.