Criticisms of Steinbeck and His Novels
One of the most realistic, compassionate, yet controversial writers of all time was John Steinbeck. The novels written by him take readers through experiences that make deep impressions in their minds and are not easily forgotten. The devastation and pain that Steinbeck embarked on his characters, and their struggle to survive, is written with such immense description and realism, that readers can't help but feel the characters pain. The main subject of the majority of Steinbeck's works deal with the hostility and hatred between land workers, and the financially established, upper class group during the 1930's. These ordeals between the two groups have filled many readers with sorrow and pity for the struggling workers. At the same time some critics of his novels, especially The Grapes Of Wrath, question how true the facts are and if the situations were really as terrible as Steinbeck showed them to be. Although many people feel that The Grapes of Wrath was Steinbeck's greatest work, others have numerous problems, and questions. The novel stirred up so many critics that, along with Uncle Tom's Cabin, caused it to be the most controversial book of all time.
Born on February 27, 1902 in the fertile Salinas Valley in California, Steinbeck knew from an early age that writing was his passion, and purpose in life. His mother, a schoolteacher, helped shape Steinbeck's love for literature by reading to him from the famous works of the world when he was just a small boy. Steinbeck spent a large amount of time during his childhood roaming the beautiful hills of the Salinas Valley, where he let his imagination soar. By the age of fourteen, Steinbeck was positive that a writer was what he wanted to be. Raised in a middle class family, his parents were sympathetic to their son's wishes to write; yet his mother preferred him to have a more established career. During high school Steinbeck played sports, worked various jobs, and spent much of his time roaming the countryside. Many of the workers he met at these jobs are portrayed in his novels. To please his parents Steinbeck attended Stanford University in 1919. To make himself happy, he signed up for classes in literature, creative writing, and a few sciences. Never receiving a degree, he left in 1925 and headed to New York City. The busy city did not suit him, so he decided to return to California to relax and work on his writing abilities. Within the next two years he met his first wife. He divorced married again and had two boys. Divorcing his third wife he married again in 1950, and spent the rest of his life traveling. On December 20, 1969 Steinbeck died of arteriosclerosis in New York. Though he spent the majority of his adult years writing, many claim that the decade if the 1930's were when Steinbeck produced his greatest works (Leonard 53).
Steinbeck possessed the impeccable ability to create stories that were colorful, descriptive and seemingly factual. He had the ability to paint such clear realistic stories because in his novels he used the settings and the types of people that he had been familiar with all of his life ( MacNicholas 368). The setting of Steinbeck's novels is often in California, where he grew up. As a young boy roaming the land of California, Steinbeck took in all the sights sound and smells of the vast land, and used what he remembered in his stories. The Grapes of Wrath is and example of how Steinbeck used his experience with the California setting. In this novel he shows how the Joads are willing to leave the life they've known in dusty, poor Oklahoma, for jobs and a way to survive in fertile, green, opportunistic California. The characters in Steinbeck's novels are often the type of people he had been in contact with during his life (Magill 1885). The characters are often ranchers and people who work out doors with the land, often poor and struggling. They have jobs that Steinbeck worked at during his teenage years and early twenties. Some of the jobs he had were a rancher, road worker, hog carrier, deck hand, and a cotton picker. To prepare for writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck went to Oklahoma, joined some migrants and rode with them to California. Once in California he stayed living with them in Hoovervilles, joining them in their search for work. He tried to come to terms with these people's essential characteristics (Marowski 37). Steinbeck observed first hand the living and working conditions of these migrants. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family is hardworking farmers who are forced to leave their home in Oklahoma, because the land was no longer fertile. The devastating Dust Bowel of the 1930's makes it impossible for any families to grow crops and to make a living. In another of Steinbeck's famous books Of Mice and Men, Lennie and George are ranchers, trying to survive. Clearly Steinbeck uses a great deal of his personal experience to shape the characters and the setting s of his novels.
The main area of concentration that is apparent in Steinbeck's novels if the struggle, devastation and hardships of American life (Unger 57). Steinbeck possessed the skills to reveal the immense pain that the people endure when all they are trying to do is survive. One critic, describing Steinbeck's powerful ability to show the pain people go through said, "In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck demonstrated that he was truly master of this technique" (Unger 53). The Grapes of Wrath is a deeply touching, powerful novel because Steinbeck made the terror that the Joad family was experiencing seem like it could happen to any normal family. Steinbeck found sorrow, pity, and fear in his characters, but also warmth, charm and wit, which made them extremely realistic, and loveable (Unger 54). In The Grapes of Wrath, along with other books, Steinbeck concentrates on the role that land plays in man's life and how it can increase the struggle and problems in American life. Because of the Dust Bowel in Oklahoma, and their journey to California, the Joads are forced to battle problem after problem, including starvation, and death. Steinbeck also shows in this novel how the upper class farm owners and authorities figures were demeaning and heartless to the poor, who were struggling to survive. In his novels, Steinbeck embraced the profound pain and suffering of the lower class, along with their will and determination.
Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is considered to be a novel of protest or a social document (Marowski 36). When the book first appeared the public began to take sides over its value. Still today, instead of viewing Steinbeck's book as a work of art, people often question the subject matter, wondering how true the facts were and if the situation was really as bad a Steinbeck portrayed in the book (Marowski 38). Religious people call the book obscene, especially that Jim Casey, supposedly a religious man, seduces women in the fields, and is an immoral man. The same people also take offense to the part of the novel where Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn baby, and then offers her breast filled with milk to the starving man (Hilton internet). Men and women of a religious nature are not the only people to find problems and aspects of Steinbeck's novel that are disturbing. When the book first came out the population of Oklahoma and California took offense that the people from Oklahoma were called Okies (Hilton internet). Oklahomans denied that all Oklahoma is just a depressing dust bowel, where it is impossible to grow crops. Other critics don't see why The Grapes of Wrath deserves so much praise. One critic, who was not particularly fond of Steinbeck's book, called it "a haphazardly charted oddsy unworthy of its classical model in that it lacked a hero who various adventures were held together by his compelling drive to escape change and find his way home" (Magill 1885) Another critic who also felt that the book didn't have enough structure, and flow, said that "The Grapes of Wrath was as formless as a novel could manage to be" ( Magill 1885). A substantial number of people had similar feelings of disapproval toward Steinbeck's writing in The Grapes of Wrath.
Upon the first release of the novel, and in present day, there are people who categorize Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as one of the most heartbreaking, gripping, and fantastic novels of all time. Crediting Steinbeck's exquisite writing skills, a critic called Steinbeck "A storyteller of persuasive power" (Unger 53)). Other people that praised Steinbeck's book were Ministers, university professors, sociologists, and government agents (MacNicholas 271). These groups of people testified that Steinbeck's portrayal of the devastating conditions in Oklahoma and California were accurate. People of these professions were pleased that the unfair, brutal treatment of the poor land workers was becoming public knowledge. They thought maybe the public would try to understand and help the less fortunate, after reading Steinbeck's novel. Readers would really see how difficult survival was for the poor during the 1930's. Fans of the novel praise Steinbeck for his deeply touching writing, and how he had the ability to express the dismal circumstances of life with such feeling and description.
Steinbeck was a unique writer, full of controversy, which possessed the ability to stir emotions in people that they never knew existed. His writing was so expressive, colorful, painful and deeply touching that it is easy to become engulfed in his writings and forget the outside world.