John Steinbeck: No Longer Writing about Gods and Kings

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck would forever find his greatest success by standing up for the poor, the defenseless, the hopeless, the man down on his luck, the woman who had never had any luck, the American underdog.

John Steinbeck had written words, scrambled words, rearranged words, sorted through words, and threw away pages full of words. He had been writing a novel, and the more words he threw into the manuscript, the less he liked it. The plot didn’t work. He had never been able to get a proper handle on the characters. The story had wandered off in some wayward direction where he had no intention of going.

He sat down and wrote a friend. He said: “You see this book is finished, and it is a bad book, and I must get rid of it. It can’t be printed. It is bad because it isn’t honest. Oh! The incidents happened but – I’m not telling as much of the truth about them as I know. In satire, you have to restrict the picture, and I just can’t do satire. I’ve written three books now that were dishonest because they were less than the best that I could do. One you never saw because I burned it the day I finished it. My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other, and then I deliberately write this book, the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding. My father would have called it a smart-aleck book. It was full of tricks to make people ridiculous. If I can’t do better, I have slipped badly. And that I won’t admit – yet.”

Steinbeck was disappointed with the story and the book. He was disappointed with himself. He wondered just how far he had really slipped. Steinbeck shoved the manuscript out of sight and out of mind. With any luck, he thought, it would never see the light of day. It didn’t.

And he began again. Somewhere deep inside of him he had another story to tell. And he would tell it as honestly as he knew how. In the midst of total despair, John Steinbeck took a deep breath and wrote down the first words to Grapes of Wrath.

It would win for him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Of course, Grapes of Wrath was banned by the Kern County Board of Supervisors in 1939, burned on two different occasions in his hometown of Salinas, California, and banned by a school board in Mississippi on the grounds of possessing just a little too much profanity. It was a profane time.

In fact, Steinbeck would become one of the ten most frequently banned authors in the nation. Of Mice and Men has been recognized as one of the ten most frequently read books in public high schools, and, at the same time, it ranks number six in the hundred most banned books in the United States.

John Steinbeck would forever find his greatest success by standing up for the poor, the defenseless, the hopeless, the man down on his luck, the woman who had never had any luck, the American underdog. He knew them well. Steinbeck believed he was one of them.

He once wrote: “Boileau said that Kings, Gods, and Heroes only were fit subjects for literature. The writer can only write about what he admires. Present-day kings aren’t very inspiring, the gods are on vacation, and about the only heroes left are the scientists and the poor. And since our race admires gallantry, the writer will deal with it where he finds it. He finds it in the struggling poor right now.”

Steinbeck understood hard work and poverty. He had been a common day laborer in a sugar factory and in the mills of California. He had been employed as a ranch hand. He had worked the fields with migrant workers, and he knew well how dispossessed families were being crushed and left at the mercy of the Great Depression. His experiences lent a measure of authenticity to the characters and stories in his novels. He once admitted, “The Great Depression didn’t bother me. I had been practicing for it ten years before it got here.”

Steinbeck wrote about the plight of the common man in such novels as Tortilla Flats, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men. As he said, “The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit; for the gallantry in defeat, the courage, compassion, and love In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the rally flags of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

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