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John Steinbeck's effects on...

Readers (in general)

Partly due to some misinterpretation and misunderstanding, some readers took offense from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck was accused of everything from being communist (which stuck even though it was unjustified) to exaggerating the conditions in migrant camps (Naylor). California landowners “fought desperately to discredit the novel, branding Steinbeck as a communist troublemaker” (Timmerman). People also thought Grapes was profane because of its representation of the migrant workers’ foul language; actually, Steinbeck provided the migrants with foul language for authenticity (Timmerman). Furthermore, when the book became available in 1940s Oklahoma, “political powers [there] organized to censor and ban the novel for allegedly presenting a derogatory view of the migrants” (Timmerman). In 1940, Oklahoma Congressmen Lyle Boren commented, "Take the vulgarity out of this book and it would be a blank from cover to cover.” (Timmerman). If The Grapes of Wrath wasn’t hated everywhere, it was at least hated in many areas of the US.

Kern County

The readers from Kern County, the area where most of The Grapes of Wrath took place, were especially offended by Steinbeck’s novel. The Kern County Board of Supervisors in California banned The Grapes of Wrath in the county's public schools and libraries on August 22, 1939, for its derogatory terms (“Okies”), its obscenity/profanity, and its "misrepresented conditions in the county and the whole San Joaquin Valley” (Roadsigns). Also, the Board resented the fact that Grapes “blamed the local farmers for the plight of the indigent farmers” (Roadsigns). W.B. Camp, a prominent rancher and the president of the Associated Farmers of Kern County in the early 1900’s, stated, "We are angry, not because we were attacked but because we were attacked by a book obscene in the extreme sense of the word..." (Roadsigns). Eventually, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to cancel the ban in January 1941 (Roadsigns).


John Steinbeck has received both positive and negative reviews, whether they were delivered during his time or during ours. It is known that Steinbeck was often misunderstood by critics and book reviewers, who would often include phrases like "experimental," "complete departure," and "unexpected" throughout reviews from the 1940s to 1960s (“John Steinbeck”). His reviewers seemed to completely dislike Steinbeck’s style of writing and to desire a transformation. As a result, “Steinbeck faltered, both professionally and personally, in the 1940s” (“John Steinbeck”).

Nevertheless, Steinbeck had his share of praises and commendation, especially for The Grapes of Wrath. In 1939, Peter Munro Jack of the New York Times Book Review said of The Grapes of Wrath, "It is a very long novel, the longest that Steinbeck has written, and yet it reads as though it had been composed in a flash, ripped off a typewriter and delivered to the public as an ultimatum. It is a long and thoughtful novel as one thinks about it. It is a short and vivid scene as one feels it” (“The Grapes of Wrath (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century)”). In 2002, Michael Greenburg also hailed Steinbeck’s Grapes: "[T]here are moments when The Grapes of Wrath reads like an early glimpse of what would become the phenomenon of economic globalization” (“The Grapes of Wrath (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century)”). Overall, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath must have been very successful with critics in order to have sold nearly half a million copies in its first year of publication, and later to have won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 (Naylor).

The Welfare of America

In his writings, especially The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck foresaw the necessary government intervention in the lives of the millions left unemployed after the Depression. Like many authors and authors of his time, he criticized the consequences of capitalism and aroused action and change. One of the most significant results of Steinbeck’s influences on America’s welfare was the creation of the New Deal by President Roosevelt in 1933. The first phase of the New Deal “attempted to provide recovery and relief from the Great Depression through programs of agricultural and business regulation, inflation, prices stabilization, and public works” (“New Deal on”). Some of the emergency organizations created were the NRA, FDIC, and the AAA. The second phase was to “provide for social and economic legislation to benefit the mass of working people” (“New Deal on”). As a result the social security system was establish in 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938. Although the fervor declined for a while, at the end of WWII the New Deal was revived and “it remains the foundation for American social policy today” (“New Deal on”).

Other Authors

Steinbeck inspired fellow writers through The Grapes of Wrath. One such author, T.C. Boyle, published a book in 1995 called The Tortilla Curtain, which focuses on the lives of contemporary Mexican immigrants instead of the Dust Bowl migrant workers in The Grapes of Wrath. Boyle said that “the effort Steinbeck made to remedy injustice” inspired him to write about similar reality in the world (Naylor). Steinbeck also motivated another well-known writer, Stephen King, even though they belong to very different genres. King reflected: As a high school kid struggling to write fiction, some books meant more than others, and some burst upon me with the power of a thunderbolt. John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath was one of those. The humanity of the story lifted me as a reader, but as an apprentice in the craft of writing, I was excited--almost breathless, really--with the audacity of Steinbeck's technique. He shifts, especially in the early going, from the wide focus (as the Okies stream west toward California) to the narrow with the aplomb of an acrobat. Probably the best example of Steinbeck working in tight focus is the turtle-crossing-the-road segment in Grapes...I was moved by his ability to indicate the eternal by delineating the prosaic (“The Grapes of Wrath (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century)”).

The Literary World (Through Social Commentary)

As for Steinbeck’s effects in the literary world, he is known for focusing on characters “that talked and lived through the society rather than having characters that only described or commented on the significance of the action” (“American Writers: Interactive Scrapbook”). The books that stand out most with social commentary from Steinbeck are The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, and Of Mice and Men. “All three books examine the morality and necessity of actions the characters choose as they pursue their dreams” (“Selection for Discussion The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and The Pearl by John Steinbeck”). In The Pearl, there is a poor fisherman named Kino and he has dreams of his son being educated and bringing salvation to his people. The story questions, “our relationship to nature, the human need for spiritual connection and the cost of resistant in justice” (“Selection for Discussion The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and The Pearl by John Steinbeck”). In The Grapes of Wrath spontaneous acts of kindness arise out of bitter and cruel situations created from human greed and inhumanity towards their own society. These two books also portray their female characters in a certain light and challenge gender and family roles. In contrast, in Of Mice and Men, the main character Curley’s wife “leaves only shattered dreams in her wake” whereas the other two books “suggest hope in even the bleakest of circumstances” (“Selection for Discussion The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and The Pearl by John Steinbeck”). “From the questions his characters pose about what it means to be fully human, Steinbeck may be understood to charge literature with serving not only as a call to action, but as an expression and acceptance of paradox in our world” (“Selection for Discussion The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and The Pearl by John Steinbeck”).

The “Common Man”

John Steinbeck, often spoken of as “the author of the common man,” is just this. He is the voice of the common man that struggles throughout life to make just a simple living. His works create a bastion of faith show his relation and sympathy with others. His style of writing reaches out to others not only because of its worldly language, but also because of how he strongly rebukes the causes to the common man’s struggles. Although he connects with readers through these very things, this is not all he does. He does not just make a huge impact on American literature; his impact reaches aspects of life from American history to the way the world acts, reacts, and thinks through issues.

By being an American author, he is important in the fact that he has reached out to all types of people, differences and all. “From friendship to handicapped people, every story gives people an insight on human nature and how people act” (Bryan, et al). His works are the cause to discussions that connect people, despite their differences, on all different levels. He has become so influential that “(He) has a Center for Steinbeck studies…” that “…hosts monthly discussion groups” (Bryan, et al). Specifically, he has reached the hearts of many Indian and Eastern people. In his works, the “…protagonist is generally a depraved individual who fights courageously for his needs as well as to retain his integrity and dignity. This 'underdog' condition/status has always a particular appeal to the Indian/Eastern sensibility due to their own colonized existence for more than 300 years” (Cox). Even more so, an issue that was broached in certain communities has forever changed their views and thoughts about it as well. “The migrant condition became the focus of many social gatherings as Californians wanted to learn more about them and their lifestyle…Community organizations, such as church groups, women's groups, and adult education classes listened to public talks on the migrants by knowledgeable experts” (Cox). Thus, the average man came to respect and sympathize with the disadvantaged, instead of shun them from the unity of life.

John Steinbeck as an American author has notably been politically involved and has achieved what many authors have either long struggled for or have not achieved at all: international acclaim. As a behind-the-scenes figure of politics, when writing such novels as Cannery Row, many have taken his works to be hinting influential opinions about the shifty World War II; the oddity, however, lies in the fact that his only intention here was to portray the residential lives at the Row of Monterey (Reuben). Continuing his string of political involvement, Steinbeck assisted in writing presidential campaign speeches in the 1950s, and even more impressively, hereafter is appointed as President Johnson’s right-hand man in making decisions for the Vietnam War (Reuben). His international popularity was furthered when Bruce Springsteen, a worldwide-known music artist, is inspired enough by his works to use them springboard for the famous album “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” where “Bruce Springsteen pays tribute to the power of those interior landscapes-characters whose lives are often desolate, besieged, unacknowledged” (Shillinglaw). Aside from affecting how artists of the music world think, he even becomes more and more appealing even to the common people of other countries. It is reported that “The Japanese have a vigorous Steinbeck Society, over 150 strong” (Shillinglaw). As many international readers express their liking for his works, the “American psyche: bonds to land, the need for a place” content that pulls them in becomes more evident (Shillinglaw).