Working Class Hero
Novelist John Steinbeck's real genius was communicating the significance in the lives of the common people.
Thursday, July 27, 2000
In a world accustomed to larger-than-life heroes, John Steinbeck created heroes out of the common man and woman. Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath wasn''t fighting to change the world, he was trying to make a decent living for himself and his family. Of Mice and Men''s George and Lenny became icons precisely because they were little guys, underdogs who got steamrolled by a society where they just never fit. Even scientific authorities who made it into the novels were known more for their everyday traits than for their professional status. The fictionalized character based on Ed "Doc" Ricketts was known better for his merrymaking than for his accomplishments in marine biology.
Despite--or perhaps because of--the humble nature of his subjects, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Over the years, his works have been adapted by playwrights, filmmakers, composers and choreographers. It''s a remarkable form of flattery that Steinbeck''s works have inspired so many others, and this year''s Steinbeck Festival, August 3-6, honors the impact that Steinbeck has had on other artists.
This is the 20th anniversary of the festival, and Celeste Dewald, curator of education at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas says that the theme for this year''s festival--"From Manuscript to Masterpiece: John Steinbeck and the Arts"--was chosen partly in order to appeal to a broad audience.
"All of his themes are accessible," says Dewald. "Good versus evil, friendship. His themes kind of cross a lot of barriers, people can relate to his works in a lot of ways. His works don''t attract a lot of elite followers, he talks about people like himself, people who are overcoming obstacles--things that everyone can relate to."
It''s not that Steinbeck''s works were small in scale or scope. When accepting the Nobel Prize, he said, "The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man''s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit--for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectiblilty of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."
Perhaps Steinbeck''s continuing dedication to the underdog was partly due to his own history. The son of the county treasurer and a schoolteacher, during the summers of his youth he worked on local ranches, seeing first-hand the hard work and power imbalance between bosses and workers. He made it to Stanford University but dropped out after a couple years of hit-and-miss attendance. After struggling for literary acceptance, his first two great novels, In Dubious Battle (1936) and Grapes of Wrath (1939), made the writer persona non grata in his own hometown. The fact that he came from a humble background and faced a society that didn''t accept him may have provided the roots that nourished his writing. He wasn''t writing about someone else''s fight--he was writing about his own.
After achieving critical and popular success (at least in other parts of the country), Steinbeck had access to the leading writers, artists and politicians of the day. He could move in circles of people who would never even speak to the real-life counterparts, with dirty fingernails and worn clothing, of the characters in Steinbeck''s novels. It was a world far removed from Steinbeck''s world of hobos, ranch hands and dispossessed ramblers of various stripes.
And so Travels With Charley was born. In 1960, at the age of 58, Steinbeck set out as an anonymous traveler searching for the wellsprings of his inspiration.
"In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco," wrote Steinbeck early in Travels. "But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country. I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of life. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years."
As part of his cross-country loop, Steinbeck moves through Monterey and finds it so changed from the way he remembered it, that he virtually flees the ghosts of his memories.
Sitting with an old friend in a downtown Monterey bar, Steinbeck says, "I don''t mind people, you know that. But these are rich people. They plant geraniums in big pots. Swimming pools where frogs and crayfish used to wait for us. If this were my home, would I get lost in it?"
Visiting Cannery Row, he sees restaurants and antique shops where merchants "fish for tourists now, not pilchards, and that species they are not likely to wipe out." And he''s even harsher in decrying the changes to Carmel as it had metamorphized into an increasingly elite community.
"Carmel, begun by starveling writers and unwanted painters is now a community of the well-to-do and the retired. If Carmel''s founders should return, they could not afford to live there, but it wouldn''t go that far. They would be instantly picked up as suspicious characters and deported over the city line."
No interviews or conversations from Carmel make it into his book; perhaps the citizens there, no longer the working class, had little relevance to the themes that invigorated the body of Steinbeck''s works. And maybe therein lies a message for all writers, whether of fiction or non-fiction.
Journalists talk a lot about "bottom up" writing, the finding of meat and meaning of their stories in the hearts and minds of the so-called common man. All too often we fail, relying on bureaucrats, politicians and experts to define the importance of events and circumstances in the news. We allow the reality of the many to be interpreted by the few.
It''s a hard path to follow. It''s easier to see the grand successes and abysmal failures, the drama written in neon letters. It''s harder to find big meanings and universal morals in the life of the men and women who sweat out their lives trying to make a living, raise their families and lead a decent life. But that is exactly what John Steinbeck did, consistently: He found a larger meaning in the everyday life of common folk.
The tours, speakers and performances in the 20th Steinbeck Festival are too numerous to list here. For more information and a schedule of events, call 775-4737 or visit www.steinbeck.org.