Life and Works of John Steinbeck

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The noted author John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr. was born on February 27, 1902, Steinbeck journals and novels would often take place the agricultural town of Salinas. However, before his career took off as a writer, he had dropped out of Stanford University. He had also tried his luck as a writer in the East Coast, but without luck he returned to California (Masters, 2012). With the support of his parents he was able to focus on his writing and began seeing a promise within his writing. He began publishing works including collection of journals titled The Harvest Gypsies, (1936), his most known book The Grapes of Wrath in (1939), followed by Cannery Row (1945) all of which reveal the time, ideals, humanity and compassion towards those at the bottom (Masters, 2012). Despite the hate, Steinbeck managed to leave an imprint on the history of the Central Coast, made a mark to change the standard of literature and impacted history education that is implemented in today’s school systems.

Through his writings, Steinbeck commonly took on an empathetic tone. Steinbeck’s journal The Harvest Gypsies (1936) used the reports from the resettlement office in San Francisco which were crucial pieces to the theme in his work. Charles Wollenberg, states the reports contained observations made regarding social and cultural conditions of the lives of migrants thus learning their lives, their struggles and treatment (ix). Steinbeck eventually incorporated the documents into what became The Harvest Gypsies, which in fact uncovers issues, and sufferings of migrant workers in the region (ix). He was criticized because of his views regarding Capitalism and the sympathy he showed for migrant workers (Masters 2012). Wollenberg adds that by having access to first-hand documents, it allowed Steinbeck to “get beneath the surface of migrant life [and] understand the deep despair and hopelessness that poverty and homelessness had created.” (Steinbeck, ix) Steinbeck, having obtained insight and explored topics, developed an understanding and elaborated his ideas and compassion towards workers which he often conveys through the entries.

Steinbeck’s writings’ purpose served inform and educate. When growers faced labor shortages due to federal immigration restrictions affected the supply of Chinese and Japanese workers, Mexico was the U.S’ go to as their need for work and Mexico’s vulnerability made them the perfect target. In 1942, The Government’s Bracero Program allowed for the legal arrival of immigrants to work. It was not until the Delano strike of 1965 where issues mentioned in the Grapes of Wrath returned to the spotlight. Wollenberg adds that in 1975 the state legislature establish[ed] an Agricultural Labor Relations Board while Steinbeck had made a call for this since 1936. (xvi) which sparked calls for action. This documents open a new question, what was the aim of such works?

In The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck depicted the social and economic conditions in the 1930’s with the intent of sparking change. In 1962, upon winning the Nobel Prize, Steinbeck said the following:

The writer’s duty is to shine a light on our darkest and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement. (John Steinbeck Biography…, 2014)

Wollenberg states that during the time “homelessness and despair existed within the larger context of The Depression” and everyone felt the migrants’ suffering.” (Steinbeck, xvii) In addition, Steinbeck writes that the Great Depression caused many people to lose their jobs only to worsen with the arrival of the Dust Bowl, or the large migration from mid U.S into California (xi). The decline of production, rise of unemployment, declining food prices and drought draining the agricultural sector too much weight for many to bear (Great Depression History, 2009) The widespread despair and the shared feeling of sympathy for the poor led many to start looking for solutions.

Foreign laborers are crucial for the well-functioning of the agricultural sector. In the Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck informs us that the outer cities eg watsonville, Salinas and Santa Clara mainly produce lettuce, cauliflowers, artichokes, etc. (24) The existence of migrants makes agriculture in the region successful. Take for instance, a large peach orchard that requires the work of 20 men year round and briefly 2000 for picking and packing. If not done, the crop rots. A new wave of immigrants were coming. “The drought in the [mid]west had driven …populations of Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. Their lands are destroyed and they can never go back…” (Steinbeck 21).

This statement highlights the common reasons why people choose to migrate during this time and thus “they are gypsies by force of circumstances” (Steinbeck 22) meaning they often had no other choice, or their families would starve so the choice made out of desperation decided for them and their families. Many of the new arrivals were “…resourceful and intelligent Americans who have gone through the hell of the drought, [saw] their lands wither and die and the topsoil blow away….” (Steinbeck 22) Steinbeck emphasizes the situation, beneficial to both the land owners and the workers who with the opportunity to support themselves and their families, would work despite the mediocre pay and horrible treatment.

Steinbeck emphasizes the attitude of uneasiness in part of landowners towards migrant workers. Figure 1, shows the newcomers staying in temporary makeshift camps, often in very poor living conditions, with homes made from trash and “surround[ed] by dirty rags…[and]… old piece[s] of burlap” (Steinbeck, 26-27). Steinbeck makes sure to highlight the poor living conditions in which these people lived in and the abuses they had to put up with. Steinbeck adds that workers rights were constantly violated, by the landowners and ranchers, as growers feared an organization of workers would put them in unfavorable situations in which they would have to cooperate and contribute in improving both living and working conditions for their workers (36). The growers would do anything in their power to prevent even the calling upon threatening to use violence to make them feel inferior (Steinbeck, 35). Migrant workers have always made contributions to the Central Coast region at the expense of them being oppressed and exploited.

Steinbeck became a part of the history in the Central Coast Region. In his time, one could not help but notice the sardine population being at an all time high. But we go to the point where we were irresponsibly exploiting the population at a faster rate than they were reproducing, which led to the depletion of over half of the total population present in the region (Foster, 2016). Metaphorically, years later the tourists coming to popular Monterey, Cannery Row, and the Aquarium became today’s some of the area’s main attractions. (Foster 2016) Today the region is known, more so, for its historical significance as well as recreational activities surrounded by an environment filled with flora and fauna (Kehoe, 2017). Steinbeck left written evidence of the region’s history which can be used for reflection for the impacts of capitalism on the region.

In conclusion, Steinbeck died in 1968, from a congestive heart failure but he lives on in the lives and in the hearts of many as his legacy continues to impact students, adults and tourists in the Central Coast region. He left behind several published novels, plays, and films. He also influenced the creation of the Salinas Public Library and The National Steinbeck Center which encourages youth to take part in literature and in being an active member of their communities. Today the effects of overfishing are better understood and components that maintain support fish populations. Even if Steinbeck is no longer here with us, the impact in history, and his contributions in knowledge, literature and traces and important pieces and inspires lives on through his books thus, contributing towards education, and recreation as well as tourism.


  1. Foster, Lee. “John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row Legacy in California.” 7 March 2016. Web. 24 September 2018.
  2. Masters, Kristin. “The Life and Legacy of John Steinbeck.” BooksTellYouWhy.com. Sep. 11 2012. Web. Sep 19 2018.
  3. Sonksen, Mike. “John Steinbeck and his Legacy on California’s Central Coast.” KCET History and Society. September 20, 2014. Web . Sep 19 2018.
  4. Wollenberg, Charles. Introduction. Steinbeck, John. The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to The Grapes of Wrath. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1988. Print.
  5. MCCVB. “Steinbeck Itinerary.” https://www.seemonterey.com/things-to-do/itineraries/steinbeck/#
  6. “John Steinbeck Biography.” Biography.com: 2 April 2014. Web. 11 October 2018.
  7. Great Depression History. History.com. A&E Television Networks. 29 October 2009. Web. 22 October 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history
  8. Kehoe, Jacqueline. “11 Reasons Monterey County, CA is the Most Gorgeous Place in America.” Matador Network, 26 Jun. 2017. Web. 28 October 2018.
  9. Lange, Dorothea. “Migrant Mother.” Picture This: California Perspectives on American History. Collection of Oakland Museum of California. 1936. http://picturethis.museumca.org/pictures/migrant-mother-0

Cite this paper

Life and Works of John Steinbeck. (2021, Aug 12). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/life-and-works-of-john-steinbeck/

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