Socialist Worker

John Steinbeck: Angry voice of US 1930s Depression

by Moira Nolan
Issue No. 1790

This year marks the centenary of the birth of John Steinbeck. He is one of the US's most passionate, poetic and socially conscious writers. His novels often give voice to those denied it, especially in the Depression years before World War Two in the US. His stories are those of the dispossessed.

His characters are often migrants, immigrants, blacks and those pushed to the margins of society by poverty and unemployment. Steinbeck's novels are written with beautiful descriptions and an emotional intensity that have guaranteed their continued relevance and popularity. Some 60 years after the completion of his most read novel, 300,000 copies of The Grapes of Wrath are sold in the US alone each year.

His work is at its most powerful when it chronicles the injustice and oppression suffered by thousands of US workers during the Depression of the 1930s. In this period nine million workers lost their jobs after the Wall Street Crash and subsequent slump. The Grapes of Wrath traces the journey of some of these workers to California. They work and live in desperate conditions in order to survive.

Steinbeck's novel revealed the harshness of life for these migrants, alongside the enduring poverty and racism suffered by black people and immigrants from Mexico. Tom Joad, the novel's central character, begins a long migration from Oklahoma to the orchards and farms of California. He fights all the way to ensure his family's survival.

Steinbeck fills characters such as Tom with dignity and a desire to maintain decency, despite the brutality and desperation of many around them whose lives and hope have been destroyed. Of Mice and Men is a personal favourite and a brilliant introduction to Steinbeck for all kinds of readers. It tells the story of George and Lennie.

These two itinerant workers desire to escape the endless grind of moving from ranch to ranch in the lush Salinas Valley.

George and Lennie, with their few possessions, are always only one meal away from hunger. The two men want to fulfil their own version of the American Dream. They want to own a little piece of land and live from the fruits of their own labour. This dream seems tantalisingly achievable when they meet Candy. Candy is an old disabled worker who promises to add what little savings he has to the money that George and Lennie can earn in a month.

In Dubious Battle is Steinbeck's most directly political novel. Its central character is Jim Nolan. He joins the Communist Party to fight for a better world, so sickened is he by the destruction of his own family and those around him. Together with an experienced Communist organiser, Mac, Nolan sets out to ferment and win a strike of apple pickers.

The apple pickers' pay has been cut by the growers without warning. The strike brings out hope, courage and leadership among the men. Steinbeck beautifully portrays the growing political confidence and strengthening of beliefs in socialism that Nolan develops.

Despite the novel's tragic ending and the author's ambiguous portrayal of the Communists, the inspiration it provides is never fully extinguished. Regrettably, later in life Steinbeck drifted to the right, and even supported the US war in Vietnam.

However, the compassion for humanity remains in his later works. Steinbeck's passion for all of us to live fulfilled lives is well worth remembering and celebrating.

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Sat 9 Mar 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1790
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