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100 Years of John Steinbeck - 2002-02-26


American writer John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 100 years ago. The Nobel Prize winning author's novels have been celebrated around the world, including The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden.

Few writers have received such a lavish birthday tribute. The John Steinbeck centennial celebration had already begun by the middle of last year and runs through the end of 2002.

Steinbeck fans around the United States are taking part in literary readings and discussions, film festivals, and photography exhibits. In Steinbeck's native California, bus tours are exploring landmarks from his stories. A symphony has been commissioned in his honor. And school systems throughout the state are reading The Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck biographer Jackson Benson believes the author's appeal lies in the fact that he so obviously cared about people. "He was a man of the people and for the people and by the people," he said. "And it doesn't matter whether you're American or German or French or Chinese, that sense of his caring just comes through."

He cared about people who endured prejudice or cruelty, or couldn't find jobs, or earn enough to feed their families. In a 1952 interview with the Voice of America, John Steinbeck said he wanted to write literature, not social propaganda. But he also said it was only natural that he'd express his social concerns in his stories.

"I think when one is moved or angered, or when one's emotions are aroused, and seeing the possibility of change, one uses the form or the weapons nearest to his hand, and the ones he's able to use," the author said.

John Steinbeck was born in 1902 in the farm community of Salinas, California. His stories celebrated West Coast landscapes, at a time when most of America's best known writers still came from the East or Middle West. But he also wrote about the lack of opportunities for California's poorest inhabitants.

"He used California as a metaphor," Mr. Benson said. "He seems to suggest that this is the end of the frontier, the edge of the Pacific Ocean, you can't go any furtherthat the California myth of opportunity is perhaps a myth."

Jackson Benson says John Steinbeck's empathy for people living on the margins of society grew partly out of his own youthful experiences. "As a teenager he was big and awkward. He was just an outsider. And I think this changed his perspective of life," he said.

Jackson Benson believes Steinbeck took refuge in writing to escape from his loneliness. And while he was learning his craft, he also learned how it felt to work hard for low wages.

"Among authors he's probably the only one who really got his hands dirty," he said. "He was a farm laborer and worked on the land for many years while he was young, working as a laborer for a couple of months, then going to Stanford for a couple of months and then coming back and working on the land again. So he knew the people he was writing about, and he knew the land he was writing about."

John Steinbeck first came to public attention in 1935, when he published Tortilla Flat, the story of a group of friends, many of Mexican descent, living around Monterey, California. Around the same time, a San Francisco newspaper asked him to investigate the conditions of migrant farm workers in the region. In his interview with the Voice of America, John Steinbeck described what happened.

"There were about 3,000 people completely cut off from the world by floods and completely cut off from contact with people by poverty, living in tents, huddled up on beds, and literally starving," he said.

Those experiences inspired The Grapes of Wrath, the story of a midwestern farm family that loses everything in the economic depression and dust storms of the 1930s, then moves to California in search of a new life. The Grapes of Wrath enjoyed a long run on American best seller lists and won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In the film version, Henry Fonda played Tom Joad, who risks everything to help his fellow workers.

"I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. And when the people are eating the stuff they raise and living in the houses they build, I'll be there too.

John Steinbeck went on to write historical fiction, war stories, and an account of a trip across America called Travels With Charley. While he would win more honors, literary critics often dismissed his humanitarian themes as sentimental, his straight-forward style as simple minded. Jackson Benson describes what happened after John Steinbeck won the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature.

"The day after it was announced that he won it, The New York Times came out in a lead editorial saying that he didn't deserve it," he said. "And he so broken by this, that he never wrote another word of fiction."

But since Steinbeck's death in 1968, Jackson Benson says the author has continued to attract new generations of readers and claimed his place in American literature.

"The Grapes of Wrath, Red Pony, The Pearl, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men are all being taught all over the country in junior high school and high school and college," he said. "His writing is part of what we have inherited, what ties us together in part."

Jackson Benson is the co-editor of a new collection of John Steinbeck's non-fiction writings published by Penguin Books. Penguin is also publishing centennial editions of Steinbeck's best known works.