…the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation.
–John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
One hundred and seventeen years ago this week, in a small rural town in Salinas, California (a region he immortalized time and again in his fiction), John Steinbeck was born. Steinbeck—who was himself no stranger to poverty and hardscrabble living—rose to prominence in 1935 with the publication of his fifth book, Tortilla Flat, and went on to become perhaps the most renowned social novelist in the history of American letters.
His books tended to focus on the downtrodden—migrant agricultural laborers and Dust Bowl drifters struggling to stay afloat during the depression. The most famous of these, The Grapes of Wrath, earned its author the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, was made into a celebrated film starring Henry Fonda, and featured heavily in his 1962 Nobel Prize citation.
Below, we take a look back at the very first reviews of what we consider to be Steinbeck’s five most iconic works—from the simple-but-devastating novella Of Mice and Men, to the epic, multigenerational melodrama East of Eden.
Tortilla Flat (1935)
Thoughts are slow and deep and golden in the morning.
“Tortilla Flat is the tumbledown Section of the town of Monterey in California. Here live the paisanos, a mixed race of Spanish, Indian Mexican, and assorted Caucasian bloods. In Mr. Steinbeck’s humorous and whimsical tale they appear as a gentle race of sun-loving, heavy wine-drinking, anti-social loafers and hoodlums who work only when necessity demands and generally live by a succession of devious stratagems more or less outside the law.
“Mr. Steinbeck tells a number of first-rate stories in his history of Danny’s house. He has a gift for drollery and for turning Spanish talk and phrases into a gently mocking English. The book is as consistently amusing, we think, as February Hill. But we doubt if life in Tortilla Flat is as insouciant and pleasant and amusing as Mr. Steinbeck has made it seem.”
Of Mice and Men (1937)
Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.
“John Steinbeck is no mere virtuoso in the art of story telling; but he is one. Whether he writes about the amiable outcasts of Tortilla Flat or about the grim strikers of In Dubious Battle, he tells a story. Of Mice and Men is a thriller, a gripping tale running to novelette length that you will not set down until it is finished. It is more than that; but it is that.
“The theme is not, as the title would suggest, that the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. They do in this story as in others. But it is a play on the immemorial theme of what men live by besides bread alone. In sure, raucous, vulgar Americanism, Steinbeck has touched the quick in his little story.”
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.
“Steinbeck’s longest and angriest and most impressive work … There are deaths on the road—Grampa is the first to go—but there is not much time for mourning. A greater tragedy than death is a burned-out bearing, repaired after efforts that Steinbeck describes as if he were singing the exploits of heroes at the siege of Troy … The first half-dozen of these interludes have not only broadened the scope of the novel but have been effective in themselves, sorrowful, bitter, intensely moving. But after the Joads reach California, the interludes are spoken in a shriller voice. The author now has a thesis—that the migrants will unite and overthrow their oppressors—and he wants to argue, as if he weren’t quite sure of it himself … Yet one soon forgets the faults of the story. What one remembers most of all is Steinbeck’s sympathy for the migrants—not pity, for that would mean he was putting himself above them; not love, for that would blind him to their faults, but rather a deep fellow feeling. It makes him notice everything that sets them apart from the rest of the world and sets one migrant apart from all the others.”
Cannery Row (1945)
He can kill anything for need but he could not even hurt a feeling for pleasure.
” ‘Cannery Row’ in Monterey, in California, is a ‘poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.’ In these glowing words, Steinbeck states the theme of his story, which weaves, in robust and delicate counterpoint, the colored threads of the great moments in the lives of men and women who live happily on the wrong side of the tracks.
Cannery Row is as deceptively simple and disarming as a child’s smile. It is complex without being complicated … Cannery Row is an epic of little things and little lives. It has a strange, shimmering beauty filled with the quiet joy and dumb, haunting sorrow that is the heritage of those who, by accident of birth, temperament, or circumstance, live on the outer edge of a social organization to which they can never belong.”
–John O. Chappell Jr., The Cincinnati Enquirer, January 20, 1945
East of Eden (1952)
I believe a strong woman may be stronger than a man, particularly if she happens to have love in her heart.
I guess a loving woman is indestructible.
“John Steinbeck’s best and most ambitious novel since The Grapes of Wrath is published today. It is called East of Eden and is a quarter of a million words long. Clumsy in structure and defaced by excessive melodramatics and much cheap sensationalism though it is, East of Eden is a serious and on the whole successful effort to grapple with a major theme. The theme is a moral one, good and evil and the mixture of both, which give significance to all human striving. In the thirteen years that have passed since the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck has given the impression of a writer exploring blind alleys, wasting his great talents on trivial books, groping and fumbling among his one confused opinions about human character and life itself. Now, in East of Eden, he has achieved a considered philosophy and it is a fine and generous one. Men and women are no longer weak and contemptible animals, as they were in Cannery Row and The Wayward Bus. They are people, strong and weak, wise and stupid, sometime vicious; but their lives are made meaningful by ‘the glory of choice. East of Eden is Mr. Steinbeck’s testimony to free will and the essential nobility of man.
“A fine, lusty sense of life is here, a delight in the spectacle of men and women struggling in the age-old ways to meet their separate destinies, and an abundance of good storytelling…John Steinbeck has grown in his respect for his fellow human beings, in his understanding of them. He has reached mature and thoughtful conclusions about them. And he has expressed his conclusions in interesting and thought-provoking fashion. East of Eden is constructed around a central idea that provides the most important of its many parallels, the story of Cain and Abel. What use Mr. Steinbeck makes of that immortal story and what his interpretation of it is will not be revealed here.”