My Writers: John Steinbeck

Though I loved reading throughout my school years, and therefore happily gravitated to English courses and even majored in English in college (along with Communication, because I decided to double-down on degrees bereft of vocational utility), I generally had a pretty strong aversion to the literature that became assigned text. Employing some junior league psychology–a field I never studied at all, so a whole shaker of salt should accompany this observation–that was in part a small act of rebellion from a kid who was too skittish to push back against authority much more than that. But it was also because we were continually assigned musty old material that didn’t speak to my personal experience, not one bit. The language was stiff and off-putting, the characters immersed in conflicts that meant nothing to me, steeped as they often were in privilege or outdated challenges. I understand (and, to a degree, understood) that this was necessary, studying the classics to understand what was modern. Still, why would any teacher expect a teenager to become enraptured by the whaling minutiae in Moby Dick?

So when I was finally assigned an author who brought grit, fire, truth and a passage for the strong earthiness of language, it was a thrilling revelation. That he also wrote about the downtrodden and dismissed with empathy, wisdom and anger against the ruling class that continuously holds them back was a tremendous bonus, given that my own nicely aligned political passions were first starting to stir at the time. That book that was first assigned, I believe in ninth grade English class, was John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

I suspect the 1937 novel made its way into a lot of high school curricula. It has strong, sharply defined characters, clearly drawn conflicts and a complex and slippery moral compass, ideally designed to provoke classroom conversations. It mixes adult thoughtfulness with a straightforward approach that isn’t going to leave behind even the more inattentive, unskilled readers. What appealed to me, though, was the sense that Steinbeck as writing straight from the gut, doing the best he could to carry forward the voices of those who were largely disregarded by his rough contemporaries. F. Scott Fitzgerald may have found his version of the American story in exposing the hollowness of the glittering surface of upward mobility, but Steinbeck understood that upward mobility was purely imaginary for the bulk of the citizenry, especially at the time he was writing.

Being a fairly obsessive young soul, whose ridiculous comic book collecting habit taught me that if I committed to something, then I had to have it all. Complete collections were always the goal, so I threw myself into reading Steinbeck, getting as many titles from the school library that I could, and redirecting any open class assignments that I could into fresh excuses to read a different Steinbeck novel. In one of those instances, I got my hands on The Grapes of Wrath. The book about the destitute, struggling Joad family was specifically cited by the Nobel committee in handing him their prize in 1962. For me, it was devastating and transformational. I well remember reading the last pages in relative solitude in my home living room one Sunday, closing the book and nearly shuddering at the resonant bleakness of the conclusion.

I kept reading, always finding pleasure in the way Steinbeck made certain that the humility of his prose matched that of his characters. I got that from the relative major works, such as Cannery Row and even Travels with Charley, but also from the relative obscurities I found lurking on the shelves, such as The Moon is Down, which drew its inspiration from the Nazi occupation of Norway (it was probably there in the first place because my small community had a pronounced interest in all things Norwegian). Steinbeck was one of the first writers who truly taught me the power of words. And all because a slender paperback was handed out one day in class.

An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King

27 thoughts on “My Writers: John Steinbeck

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