Category Archives: Literature

What Makes John Steinbeck a Literary Icon

I have come to decide that writing about a personal hero or an influential figure is something quite scary. I do not know how I can convey the messages, emotion and joy I have received from reading this particular author’s work. It seems simpler to urge you to go out and read them yourself. I have however suggested this to various friends and acquaintances and in light of my successive failures I wish to at least try and explain why I love this man named John Steinbeck.

I use the term love, suggesting I have some kind of connection or relationship with him. In a sense I do, but so do millions. When we read an author’s work we are, in many cases, reading an essay about that particular person. Some form of treatise on their soul. A read through Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley creates something that feels close to a personal conversation. His thoughts are described with relatable depth, each one accessible and beautifully philosophical, conveyed as if the travel memoir was written for you and you alone.

What is special about Steinbeck’s work is the use of language to portray people. Personalities seem clear. Unique qualities, both good and bad, are drawn to the surface. Take the psychopathic character Cathy Ames in East of Eden who stokes a hateful fire deep within the pit of your stomach; or Ethan Hawley in The Winter of our Discontent, a portrait of an affable human-being disillusioned by the hypocritical process of financial success. Both these characters are defined by the loathing or empathy you feel towards them. This is how all characters in Steinbeck’s works are developed. A whole medley of personalities are invented, all of them believable. The only sign that they do not exist is that you have not met them yet, however this is not strictly true. One could quite easily find a Cathy Ames within their community, or even a George and Lenny from Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s characters seem so human because simply put, they are human.

Not only does he have the ability to paint accurate representations of people, his brush is also cast across nature. The opening chapter of East of Eden is dedicated to a sprawling painting of the Californian Salinas Valley where Steinbeck grew up. In the chapter the valley is made to feel almost tangible. Seasonal descriptions of flowers and foliage give the valley a colour, descriptions of weather a climate, and the mustard fields even give it a taste. He mixes and manipulates his words into paragraphs the same way Van Gogh spread paint on a canvas, creating both bold and truly beautiful scenes.

I admit again that nothing I write here will accurately or even appropriately describe the delight you will find reading Steinbeck’s work. Instead I am going to leave you to find out yourself, in the hope that this may have helped you do so.

salinas

Salinas Valley, California