Steinbeck: Inside and Out

“Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody - to be near him. [...] A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody” (Of Mice and Men 69). In this excerpt taken from one of John Steinbeck's most acclaimed books, one of the novel's main characters express his loneliness and reveals the negative effects of solitude. Steinbeck, a renowned American author, was raised in a wealthy family in Salinas, California, and experienced intense feelings of loneliness during his childhood. Many of Steinbeck’s acclaimed books take place in the Salinas area of central California. Additionally, many of his characters exhibit similar character traits and desires to his own. In this way, Steinbeck’s work has been influenced by both external and internal factors. Steinbeck’s writing, including his renowned novels The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, draws upon the setting of his childhood as well as the feelings of loneliness and isolation that began early in his life.

John Steinbeck was born in the city of Salinas, California, to the county treasurer and a retired teacher. During Steinbeck’s childhood in the early 20th century, central California was a rural area dependent on agriculture. Monterey County had a “proliferation of smaller farms growing varied crops” that Steinbeck came to adore (Morgan & McNamee). As he matured, Steinbeck developed a love for agriculture and a keen understanding of the lives of farm workers. Steinbeck’s passion for the region’s agricultural practices came to influence his writing during the Great Depression as family farms began to shut down and the sustenance farming techniques used by smaller farms were replaced with the profit-maximizing practices of larger corporations. Steinbeck was repulsed by these techniques and regarded them as an affront to the practices he revered. His love for agriculture and hatred of the large commercial farm came to shape his writing. Steinbeck’s passions for writing and literature began at a young age. As a child, Steinbeck was “very shy” and came to be known as “something of a loner” (“John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr.”). His limited social interaction may suggest that he was antisocial and preferred to be alone, but this was certainly not the case. As is apparent to any reader of his novels, Steinbeck struggled with loneliness. All of Steinbeck’s books feature characters who echo his desires for friendship and relationships. Additionally, his novels contain themes that reflect his views on loneliness and the importance of social interaction. Steinbeck was born in a unique setting that gave him a broad perspective on the human experience and the world around him. His writing incorporates what he saw as a child as well as what he felt, leading his upbringing to influence both the events and settings of his books as well as their deeper meanings and messages.

Many of Steinbeck’s books can be summarized as an attempt to accurately portray the otherwise invisible lives of poor Americans and brazenly condemn those he found immoral. Steinbeck’s most famous novels include Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, both of which are works of fiction that mirror Steinbeck’s experiences and beliefs. Both pieces of literature center around agriculture and its effects on a community. Steinbeck’s perspective on agriculture and agricultural workers was largely shaped by Tom Collins, who worked as the manager of a migrant worker camp in central California during the Great Depression. Steinbeck found Collins to be a “notoriously hard worker” and during Steinbeck’s visit the two “not only documented injustice but caused physical change” in Collins’ camp (Rumsby). The injustice and adverse conditions at these camps shocked Steinbeck and led him to depict the suffering of migrant workers in his novels. As Steinbeck worked to learn more about the world and those less fortunate than him, he grew outraged and motivated to document the struggles of the poor in his writing.

Steinbeck’s style, like his message, is unique and molded by his upbringing. His novels are structured with “interchapters that depart from the narrative [...] and describe phenomena representative of the migrant population as a whole” (Shindo). Steinbeck’s style of alternating between broad topics and specific characters and events is representative of how his origins influenced him and his literature. Growing up in the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck was heavily influenced by the agricultural roots of his community and the broad topic of the agriculture industry and its workers. Additionally, Steinbeck was influenced by his feelings of loneliness and isolation. Steinbeck, like his novels, focuses on both the broad and the specific. During his career, Steinbeck was able to use this technique to become a very controversial figure who achieved his goal of influencing American politics. He infuriated those of nearly all ideologies and could boast that “more of his works are on lists of books banned by schools and libraries than any other writer” (“John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr.”). Steinbeck’s unrivaled ability to commentate on social issues and generate controversy and conversation is what sets him apart as a truly great and influential author. Steinbeck’s unique style of writing and his distinctive goals, both of which are products of his upbringing, led him to become one of the most renowned American authors of his century.

Of Mice and Men, one of the most popular novels of its era, thoroughly encapsulates the experiences of migrant workers at the time and is heavily influenced by Steinbeck’s background. In many of his books, Steinbeck relates his distaste for anonymous corporate entities to his adoration of human connections and relationships. Much of his work addresses the importance of social connection and the devastating consequences of isolation. In Of Mice and Men, a character named Slim comments that “Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other,” to which the protagonist George replies, “It’s a lot nicer to go around with a guy you know” (32-33). Throughout the story, George is burdened by the foolish actions of his mentally challenged friend, Lennie. The reader is led to consider why, particularly in such a destitute era where workers are never more than a few dollars or canned food items away from starvation, George chooses to take care of Lennie. As the story develops, however, it is revealed that George and Lennie are perhaps the happiest of the two characters simply because they have one another. Also revealed is that Steinbeck clearly did not believe in unlimited, indiscriminate social interaction. His characters come to recognize not only the importance of relationships but also the importance of forming and maintaining relationships with the right people. To showcase this, Steinbeck inserts the sole and unnamed female character into an abusive relationship with Curley, the son of the wealthy ranch owner. Speaking alone with Lennie, she confesses that “I get lonely [...] I can’t talk to nobody but Curley. Else he gets mad” (82). In theory, Curley’s wife does not at all appear lonely. She in no way resembles the image of an adolescent Steinbeck, secluded in his room and interested only in reading and writing. She is a married adult and has achieved what a younger Steinbeck could only dream of by entering an intimate relationship. Her partner, however, is a controlling and abusive person. Therefore, her loneliness persists despite her relationship because she has not formed the connections with good, caring people that are necessary to truly dispel such feelings.

Steinbeck’s focus on the importance of social interaction, a trait that he passed on to his characters in Of Mice and Men and in other novels, was a belief formed early in his life. Steinbeck’s loneliness had begun well before he attended college, but it was during his time at Stanford University that he truly began to develop these feelings into his writing. One of his English professors, Edith Ronald Mirrielees, guided Steinbeck on how to write more concisely and how to translate his loneliness into literature. During their time together, Mirrielees succeeded in “forcing the verbosity out of Steinbeck’s work” (Rumsby). Mirrielees believed that “writing can never be other than a lonely business,” and she worked to help Steinbeck express his “philosophy of loneliness.” Without Mirrielees guiding his writing, Steinbeck would never have learned to express his loneliness so effectively in Of Mice and Men and in various other books. Mirrielees’ teachings gave Steinbeck’s the skills to articulate his ideas in writing and create characters who mirror his beliefs. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is both one of his most acclaimed novels and tremendously insightful into the mind and influences of its author.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath reveals how Steinbeck was influenced by his experiences witnessing and interacting with migrant and agricultural workers. Similarly to Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath is unbridled in its ruthless criticism of the wealthy. Steinbeck’s main goal, however, was to reveal and document the challenges facing agricultural workers. The story follows the experiences of the Joads, a family in the Midwest who are forced to move to California for work after the foreclosure of their farm. Even more so than Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath is a social commentary on the issues of its era. Steinbeck refers to the banks causing foreclosures of family farms as “something more than men [...] It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it” (The Grapes of Wrath 33). Steinbeck considered it his responsibility to denounce in his writing both the people he believed caused adversity and the institutions that allowed them to do so. The most common recipient of Steinbeck’s criticism, the large banks, are characterized throughout the novel as omnipotent entities concerned only with advancing their own interests, completely ambivalent towards the suffering they impose upon their victims. As the plot progresses and the Joads continue to search for a better life, The Grapes of Wrath grows broader in its message. Steinbeck transitions from criticism of banks and bankers to more general commentary on the state of the nation. Reflecting upon the plight of America’s poor, an unnamed migrant worker comments that “the whole United States ain’t that big [...] It ain’t big enough. There ain’t enough room [...] for rich and poor together all in one country, for thieves and honest men. For hunger and fat” (120). These remarks on inequity and the threat it presents to the survival of the nation reveal a vital aspect of Steinbeck’s ideology. He believed not only that American inequality was morally reprehensible but also that it threatened to destabilize the country. Steinbeck’s distaste for the privileged and sympathy for the abused is manifested in all of his novels, but his ideology is perhaps most thoroughly documented in The Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck’s ideology, although certainly the unintentional product of his upbringing, was also intentionally refined and developed during the beginning of his career. While living in central California in 1930, Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts, the operator of a marine life research center. Ricketts and Steinbeck grew close and began to delve into complex discussions. The two men “used each other as sounding boards for obscure and fascinating philosophical ideas” and “worked together to refine Steinbeck’s theory” (Rumsby). Steinbeck had developed much of his ideology by himself as he had spent most of his childhood alone. Meeting and speaking with Ricketts, however, proved vital to his development as a thinker and author. Ricketts was able to offer Steinbeck the discussions and feedback he needed to develop an ideology elaborate and refined enough to be conveyed in a long novel such as The Grapes of Wrath. Similarly to Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath provides the reader with deep insight into how Steinbeck was influenced by his background.

John Steinbeck’s work is the product of internal factors such as his enduring loneliness and external influences including the people he met and the environment in which he was raised. One fascinating aspect of Steinbeck’s writing is the subtlety with which profound statements are made. Inconspicuous and seemingly unimportant dialogue is used throughout his novels to convey his most vital messages. One of Steinbeck’s characters, therefore, casually remarking that “a guy needs somebody” is perhaps the most fitting encapsulation of Steinbeck’s work (Of Mice and Men 69). John Steinbeck, although undoubtedly a unique author, is an archetype of his profession in that he has been heavily influenced by both internal and external factors. Steinbeck’s writing, like that of any author, cannot be fully understood without an understanding of how he was influenced. Some influences are obvious: where an author was raised, the economic situation they were born into, and whom they met. Some, however, are internal feelings and attitudes which are much more concealed. Both types of influences must be identified for the reader to fully understand an author and grasp the meaning of their work.