08/24/2012 11:04 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2012

An Appreciation of John Steinbeck

With Labor Day approaching, a reader's thoughts might turn to an author with an immense sympathy for the working class.

That author is John Steinbeck (1902-1968), and this post is an appreciation of his work -- which includes two books that have reached major anniversary years. Yes, Of Mice and Men (1937) is 75 and Travels With Charley (1962) is 50.

Steinbeck, of course, is best known for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a truly brilliant book I've read five times. It's perhaps the greatest social-injustice novel ever, yet the narration, dialogue, plot, and characters are so unforgettable that even one-percenters might become engrossed in the book's mostly downbeat (but inspiring) story. Steinbeck's tale of the rich abusing the poor is certainly relevant to our time.

The heavily researched The Grapes of Wrath (title courtesy of Steinbeck's first wife Carol) was a deserved best seller when first published, and continues to be a go-to novel for millions of readers -- including many high school teachers and their students.

Steinbeck's second best novel is probably East of Eden (1952), and in some ways it's his most personal (one family in the book is based on the author's own ancestors). But this multigenerational saga focuses more on the Trask family, and what a dramatic saga that family experiences.

It's not surprising that famous films were inspired by the above two books. (Steinbeck also wrote screenplays for movies -- including Viva Zapata! and Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat -- not based on his books.)

The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden are mostly serious novels, but Steinbeck actually had a wonderful sense of humor when he decided to put it to literary use. Tortilla Flat (1935), Cannery Row (1945), and Cannery Row sequel Sweet Thursday (1954) include compelling portrayals of non-affluent characters, but those three books are also often laugh-out-loud funny. For instance, a certain dog scene in Tortilla Flat will leave you howling (in a good way).

Many Steinbeck novels are set fully or partly in the author's native California, but his fertile imagination sometimes traveled elsewhere. The Moon Is Down (1942) is a gripping novella set in an unnamed European country occupied by the Nazis. Steinbeck's last novel, the excellent study of moral decline The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), takes place on Long Island, N.Y. (The author was an East Coaster during his later years, and died in New York City.) And his final well-known book, the nonfiction Travels With Charley, has Steinbeck driving across the country with his dog in the camper truck he named "Rocinante" (after Don Quixote's horse).

Steinbeck also wrote a few mediocre and near-clunker novels. His first, Cup of Gold (1929) is a mostly conventional pirate adventure. And his fourth book, To a God Unknown, is a rather odd story with a paganism theme (protagonist Joseph Wayne even thinks his dead dad lives on in a tree!).

Indeed, Steinbeck didn't have much commercial or critical success until his fifth book, Tortilla Flat, so the guy had admirable perseverance.

Another lesser effort was Burning Bright (1950), in which Steinbeck somehow managed to give the same characters totally different professions and lives in different parts of the book. I'd like to think that Steinbeck was distracted at the time by the East of Eden opus that would be published two years later!

Also, Steinbeck unfortunately created a much greater number of prominent male than prominent female characters, with some exceptions (such as the indelible Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath). Cathy Trask of East of Eden is indelible, too, but as an almost total caricature of unmitigated evil.

There's a good amount of ethnic diversity in Steinbeck's work, especially when it comes to Hispanic-American characters -- as in Tortilla Flat and The Wayward Bus (1947). There's also the fascinating Lee (an Asian-American) in East of Eden. Not many African-American characters (in some ways, Steinbeck was a product of his time), but there is the black man Steinbeck gives a ride to in Travels With Charley.

And perhaps there's a bit too much "preachiness" in some of his novels, but, overall, it was mostly about the characters. I think Steinbeck is one of the best authors the United States has ever produced.

What do you think of Steinbeck? And what are your favorite books of his?


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press) has been published. Signed copies are now available; if you'd like to buy one, contact Dave at There's also an Amazon listing here. (Several things in the listing need to be corrected; for instance, the book came out in July 2012, not "May 22, 2008." Given that Dave didn't start writing the book until 2009, finishing it in 2008 would have been quite an achievement!)