A small handful of writers can be said to be honest contenders for the title Great American Writer, and John Steinbeck has better claim than most. Much praise goes to the works of his contemporaries, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, but the truth is that Steinbeck wrote the greatest American novel of the 20th century, The Grapes of Wrath, and with it he achieved something many writers dream of and almost none ever do: that rare combination of enormous public success, vast critical accolades, and real, undeniable social change. Perhaps the only other American novel of the century to illicit as much political response was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, but Sinclair’s work is remembered only as a work of social protest, not as an outright masterpiece.
Unfortunately, Steinbeck’s incredible success as a “realistic” writer of proletariat novels in the 1930’s ensured that today this is all his remembered for, and decades upon decades of school children are often beat over the head with heavy copies of Wrath and thinner volumes of Of Mice and Men. These novels deserve attention, but what is ignored is the scope and range of Steinbeck’s output, his wicked sense of humor, and, perhaps most glaringly, that he is hardly a “realistic” writer at all, but rather a fantasist retelling myths and fables under the guise of realist prose.
Of the great triumvirate of 20th Century American letters (Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck), Steinbeck remains the most popular, most beloved, and most widely appreciated by the reading public. While many read the classics only if forced, Steinbeck has continued to produce a following that comes to him entirely on their own. He is perhaps our most humane and compassionate writer.
John Steinbeck Books to Read:
The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, The Long Valley, Pastures of Heaven, Travels With Charley, The Winter of Our Discontent, The Wayward Bus, Of Mice and Men.
John Steinbeck Links: