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The Works of John Steinbeck
Because of Steinbeck’s dates (1902-1968), many people are currently more familiar with the idea of Steinbeck than of his novels. This is a shame, as his work is readable and watchable. It’s worth the time to find and explore his many volumes: novels, short stories, and nonfiction work about the West and the United States. Film versions of many of his works are also worth watching.
John Ernst Steinbeck was born in the rural Salinas Valley, and grew up exposed to ranchers and farmers. He spent his life moving between California, his emotional center, and New York, the American literary world; he also served as a war correspondent during World War II. Most of his fiction is set in his native state, focusing on Monterey County and the men and women who lived and worked there. His nonfiction ranges farther, examining the United States as a whole. Steinbeck was also involved in the movie industry, with many of his novels being adapted into feature films.
Steinbeck’s life encompassed the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, and his writing depicts the history and concerns of those eras. His first novel, Tortilla Flat (1935), focuses on the picaresque lives of drifters after World War I, and as is a West Coast version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels. Steinbeck, however, wrote about the dispossessed. Because of this, his “Great Depression” trilogy (In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath), is still a relevant look at California farming politics.
Perhaps the most widely read Steinbeck novel is Of Mice and Men, which is often taught in California high schools. The novel concerns two drifters and friends who have cast their lot together. Tragedy occurs when Lennie, who is intellectually challenged, accidentally assaults his boss’ wife. The novel is short, but every word is powerful.
The Grapes of Wrath is considered Steinbeck’s most powerful work. The novel tells the story of the Joad family, Oklahoma farmers who emigrate during the Dust Bowl and become migrant farm workers in the Central Valley of California. As a fictionalized re-telling of a major era in California history, the novel is a powerful indictment of bigotry and injustice. Literature lovers will also enjoy Steinbeck’s use of metaphor; the indigent victims of poverty and ecological disasters are represented in alternate chapters by a turtle unable to move normally. (Those finding the novel overly long may choose to skip these chapters and focus on the family saga.)
Most of Steinbeck’s work was written in the mode of realism, and as such his works speak of the specifics of when he lived and wrote. The exception, however, is his version of the Camelot stories, re-told in The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights . Begun in 1956, this work showcases Steinbeck’s love for the legend cycle; it was unfinished at the time of his death and published posthumously in 1976.
Lovers of classic film can easily find movies based on Steinbeck’s books. The Grapes of Wrath, released in 1940, was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning two. Interestingly enough, Henry Fonda, who did not win an Oscar for his role in that movie, is possibly the best-known actor from that movie. East of Eden, which premiered in 1955, also was nominated for Oscars; like its predecessor, star James Dean did not win that year but is also considered one of Hollywood’s greats.
More recent movies based on Steinbeck novels include a 1983 version of The Winter of Our Discontent, starring Donald Southerland, and a version of In Dubious Battle, starring James Franco and Bryan Cranston, which is expected for release in 2016. The continuing interest in adapting Steinbeck’s work for film demonstrates the lasting popularity of the man’s work and the continuing importance of the depicted issues.
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