John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, dubbed ‘a giant of American letters’ and shaping the face of modern literature along with other giants of the craft such as Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. Having won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize in his lifetime, it is undeniable that his work resonated deeply with his readers, renowned for his syncretism of realism and imagination, and perhaps most profoundly, his social commentary. This is perhaps most famously displayed in his magnum opus, the 1939 tome The Grapes of Wrath, detailing the influence of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression on American families. It is this acute depiction of wider historical and social issues that were sweeping America that has, in part, made his body of work so enduring and widely studied to this day.
Growing up in California, Steinbeck utilised this ground as the basis for much of his work- East of Eden, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath, The Red Pony and many more were centred around this locale, capturing in part the nostalgia and mythicism of childhood and the fables he grew up, largely influenced by the nobility of the stories of King Arthur and tempered with the realism of the people he grew up with: the ‘paisanos’ and ranch hands and ordinary working class of America. This fascination with lore and legend is apparent throughout much of his work, influencing his voice in stories such as Tortilla Flat, where he explicitly poses Danny and his ramshackle friends as knights of the Round Table.
With Steinbeck’s body of work amounting to 27 books throughout his lifetime, Steinbeck was renowned for his social perception and adhered largely to the old adage of ‘write what you know’- mirrored through his portrayals of central California and the people who lived there, in addition to the plights and influence of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. It is this correlation between his life and what Steinbeck wrote that ensures that an understanding of his life is crucial to the study of his work. Despite his statement that ‘writers are a little below clowns and a little above trained seals’, his work has had an enduring influence beyond the factor of entertainment, and he is touted today as having produced some of the seminal great American novels of the 20th century.
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