A journey through life with John Steinbeck

steinbeck.It’s John Steinbeck’s birthday today. He would have been 111 years old.  Steinbeck came with me and helped me through the  difficult transition of adolescence and so I have a very fond place in my heart for him. Pop stars came and went but Steinbeck stuck. He’s a writer whom one can take from childhood into adulthood through those difficult teen years and not miss a heartbeat along the way. He’s an easy man to love though his writing is uncompromising.  He’s real. You know where you are with Steinbeck.

The Red Pony is a great story. Of Mice and Men is a great story. East of Eden is a great story. And The Grapes of Wrath is, in my opinion, The Great American Novel. (You know, the one F.Scott Fitzgerald was trying to write all his life) F.Scott Fitzgerald is probably the writer I quote more often, and refer to more often in writerly circles and he did write lots of really good novels (and short stories) and I’d say he influenced my understanding of narrative structure more BUT for an out and out gut wrenching, heart-felt story of America (and people) as they really are Steinbeck is your man.

You know there are moments  reading fiction where you are taken out of yourself? This happened to me with The Red Pony.  You know how in school when they make you read round the class you just hate whatever they are making you read because the process of class reading, complete with embarrassed mumbling and monotone delivery from the more nervous or uncommitted class members? Well, despite us being made to read The Red Pony round the class, I had this out of myself experience. I’ll admit, we had done the obligatory everyone read a paragraph and were on the ‘silent reading of a chapter’ (and I was many chapters ahead) at the point when the pony dies and I was NOT THERE. I mean I WAS THERE. I was there in the story, not in the hideously ugly 70’s concrete classroom.  I was taken out of my own environment into quite another.  That, for me, is the ultimate power of fiction. That’s the drug. That’s my addiction. It gets harder to find as you get older and have read more, but Steinbeck was my first real experience of it as far as memory serves.

Steinbeck must have been a favourite in schools in the 70’s (I’m not sure why.) As I progressed through secondary school: The Red Pony was first year, Of Mice and Men was second year and in third year we were introduced to The Grapes of Wrath.  Steinbeck was always in my schoolbag!   I think Of Mice and Men was ruined by the classroom reading experience as I certainly didn’t ‘get’ what it was all about at the time– spoiled by a number of stupid boys in my class just laughing at Lenny and the ‘retarded’ behaviour. However, this in itself stuck with me over the years as I’ve re-read Of Mice and Men, seen it on stage and film and generally incorporated it into my psyche as a ‘good book’ written about intellectual disability and social stigma.  I think in some ways Robin Jenkins The Cone Gatherers tries the same thing but even though I’m Scottish not American, I still find Of Mice and Men the better book.

However, it was The Grapes of Wrath that really opened up Steinbeck for me. It’s a beast of a book in length (and makes me wonder if the teacher gave it to our class just to keep us quiet for the longest time so they had to do least teaching?) and the proportion of ‘read round the class’ to silent reading was much less. And consequently the reading experience much richer.  This was the first text I studied ‘seriously’ as it was to form part of the now defunct O Grade exams, which I took seriously as the first stage towards escape into the adult world where I could make my own choices and take my own responsibilities.  And I can still remember the visceral feeling of reading The Grapes of Wrath. The dust bowl.  At the beginning (as we read round the class) I thought how boring it was. As I started to experience the journey across America myself, through my silent reading, I was absolutely gripped.  The Joad’s struggle became my struggle, became everyone’s struggle.

By this time I was quite hooked on Steinbeck but as an adolescent there are so many books to read and so many authors to discover  and so I didn’t read East of Eden for another couple of years, not until I discovered James Dean and the film. The ‘legend’ of James Dean played a large part in my adolescence and when I encountered Rebel Without a Cause I wanted to consume everything ever ‘done’ by Dean. This way I came across the absolutely remarkable Antoine de Saint Exupery story The Little Prince which has become one of my philosophical staples and of course Dean was in East of Eden, so I went back to Steinbeck. He welcomed me back with open arms. He spoke directly to me. This time it was personal.

I can never decide which Steinbeck book I ‘like’ best, The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, and it doesn’t really matter. The first seems to be about all people and the second seems to take you right inside your teenage self. They sit side by side on my shelf (alongside a plethora of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through it, and just along from all the other really ‘significant’ novels of my youth.) This shelf is categorised simply by the importance of the novels to my life, not by ‘black penguin’ or ‘orange penguin’ status, or alphabetical or period or genre or anything. Just SIGNIFICANCE.  And I guess it’s probably my favourite shelf. It’s the shelf I promise myself one day I’ll re-read right through. And I guess that should tell me what me real reading pleasure is.  One thing is for certain Steinbeck is the core.

We are quite used in this internet driven world of starting out on a search and getting taken down diverse paths from one thing to something completely different. But Steinbeck did that for me long before the internet. The influence of Steinbeck took me to places and got me reading books and having thoughts I might never otherwise have encountered.  And I still  feel his influence resting in my heart. For me he stands for the uncomfortable truth, for telling life as it is for the ordinary man.  F.Scott Fitzgerald was a writers writer, but Steinbeck is out and out a readers writer. It’s a dilemma I’ve struggled with over the years both as reader and writer and I have to say, though I love F.Scott Fitzgerald’s work with a passion – (from the position of an outsider though, I read the weakness of aspiration in all his characters) Steinbeck for me is the stronger force. He exerts the greater pull even if I read him less. Because his ideas get inside you. And if you are an ordinary person (as I am) with little hope of ‘becoming’ anything ‘special’ then Steinbeck writes for you.  He’s not trying to get you to ‘be’ something, he’s just showing you life as it is. And often it’s hard and nasty. But reading Steinbeck makes you feel somehow less alone as a ‘nobody’ because he has elevated them to importance simply by writing their lives.


Oh, and after I wrote this blog I found and watched a documentary about John Steinbeck on iplayer. Here’s the link  And I noticed that for those who like (or have to) listen to their fiction rather than read it, they are also serialising The Grapes of Wrath on iplayer for radio. 


About callyphillips

5 Responses to A journey through life with John Steinbeck

  1. dennishamley says:

    Yes, I too believe that Grapes of Wrath is the great American novel: nobody need even try for that distinction again. The Red Pony is a wonderful, wonderful book. When I was teaching, I used it as a class reader for years. And when in 1975 a colleague and I wrote a book for teachers called Fiction in the Middle School I wrote a chapter for it which tried to bring out not only its greatness but its suitability, no, necessity, for kids of 11-13. Great for everybody, but at that age, perfect as an ‘initiation’ book. And then, Of Mice and Men. The great GCSE staple. Generations of kids left school with a literary knowledge consisting of OMAM and one other, usually Romeo and Juliet.

  2. Bill Kirton says:

    I share your passion with him, Cally, and agree completely about the status of Grapes of Wrath. The greatest, definitely. But I just wanted to put a word in for a couple of the shorter books. I got almost as much pleasure from them as from the heavy volumes. They’re Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. I can still remember how real those people were to me as I read – much more real and with much more energy and humanity than what was going on around me at the time (and I was in my early teens then, too). Thanks for the memories.

  3. Nya Rawlyns says:

    I would like to offer ‘Travels with Charley’ as quintessential Steinbeck, his observations of the American landscape lyrical and raw and compelling. I find it the most ‘accessible’ of all his works and it is the one book I’ve reread dozens of time.

  4. Grapes of Wrath as become one of my favorite novels, after I re-read it about 2 years ago. The prose is stunning and I think your closing line says it all regarding his writing about ordinary people. His book ‘Working Days’ is worth a read – it’s basically a journal of his process of writing Grapes of Wrath – which FYI only took him 6 months to do the first draft. Thanks so much for the post and reminding me to re-read East of Eden.

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