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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

He didn't know it at the time, but John Steinbeck started getting ready to write The Grapes of Wrath when he was a small boy in California. Much of what he saw and heard while growing up found its way into the novel. On weekends his father took John and his three sisters on long drives out into the broad and beautiful valleys south of Salinas, the town where John was born in 1902. John passed vast orchards, and endless fields green with lettuce and barley. He observed the workers and the run-down shacks in which they lived. And he saw, even before he was old enough to wear long pants, that the farmhands' lives differed from his own.

Although the Steinbecks weren't wealthy (John's father ran a flour mill), they lived in a comfortable Victorian house. John grew up on three square meals a day. He never doubted that he would always have enough of life's necessities. He even got a pony for his 12th birthday. (The pony became the subject of one of Steinbeck's earliest successes, his novel The Red Pony.) But don't think John was pampered; his family expected him to work. He delivered newspapers and did odd jobs around town.

Family came first in the Steinbeck household. While not everyone saw eye-to-eye all the time, parents and children got along well. His father saw that John had talent and encouraged him to become a writer. His mother at first wanted John to be a banker- a real irony when you consider what Steinbeck says about banks in The Grapes of Wrath- but she changed her mind when John began spending hours in his room scrawling stories and writing articles for the school paper. Later in life, Steinbeck denied that his family served as a model for the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. But both families understood well the meaning of family unity.


As a boy, John roamed the woods and meadows near his home and explored the caves. He swam in the creeks and water holes and became acquainted with the ways of nature. He developed a feel for the land. Each year the Salinas River flooded and then dried up, and John began to understand the cycles of seasons. He saw that weather was more than just something that might cancel a picnic. He saw that sunshine and clouds and rain and temperature readings were vital to farmers and growers. You can tell that John must have loved the out-of-doors. Otherwise, how could he have set four novels and several stories in the lush countryside where he spent his youth?

During high school (1915-19) he worked as a hand on nearby ranches. There he saw migrant workers, men without futures, breaking their backs all day for paltry wages and at night throwing away their cash in card games and barrooms. Out of this experience came the novel Of Mice and Men. Yet he also developed a profound respect for the inner strength of many of these laborers. They owned little, moved fast, kept few friends, and led barren lives. But they endured. In spite of adversity, they stood tall and proud. They had self-respect. Their spirits could not be broken.

 

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