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Steinbeck, John

california cannery war social

(US, 1902–68)

Born in Salinas, California, Steinbeck worked at various jobs while studying at Stanford University, and saw at first hand the often appalling conditions endured by migrant workers and their families during the Depression. His fiction, from early realist novels to later parables, always observes working-people with great sympathy, using spare and simple language. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Of Mice and Men (1937) is a short but powerful study of farm labourers in California, focusing on the friendship between George and simple-minded Lennie; the arrival of the boss's wife arouses passions that lead to tragedy. Steinbeck's masterpiece is The Grapes of Wrath (1939), whose human drama and documentary elements had a huge social impact at the time; it was quickly made into a film by John Ford, with Steinbeck's friend Henry Fonda as the dignified Tom Joad. The Joad family are dispossessed ‘Okies’, looking for a better life in California but finding their aspirations bitterly checked by nature, exploitative bosses, and by their own weaknesses. East of Eden (1952) is a saga of family conflict with an epic sweep from the Civil War to the First World War, and it too became a famous film starring James Dean. Some of Steinbeck's books are more light-hearted, even sentimental; Cannery Row (1945), for example, and its sequel Sweet Thursday-(1954). They depict down-and-outs, cannery workers, and prostitutes, a multi-ethnic community on the California coast held together by hard-drinking marine biologist Doc.

Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Russell Banks. See SOCIAL ISSUES, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA  JS

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