Yesterday was the birthday of John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California in 1902. I went through a serious Steinbeck period in my youth when I read just about every book by him. I started with The Grapes of Wrath, a novel that overwhelmed me with its power.
I was about the same age as Steinbeck was when he decided he wanted to be a writer – 14 – and decided I wanted to be a writer and thought the place to start was with reading.
Steinbeck went to Stanford University because his parents wanted him to, but he only took classes in what interested him, which was mostly literature and creative writing. He was not a very regular attendee and sometimes took a semester off to work in a sugar factory or as an itinerant ranch hand near Salinas. He dropped out of college for good in 1925.
One of his smaller novels that I read back then was Cannery Row. It is an almost plotless novel about the inhabitants of a few blocks in Cannery Row in Monterey, California. They are a curious crew that includes Henry the painter who is building a boat, all the girls at Dora’s bordello and Lee Chong in his grocery. But the person who is at the center, though he has no desire to be there, is Doc. He is a young marine biologist who cares for all of them in his way.
It is a neighborhood he also wrote about in Tortilla Flat. I discovered many years after I read it that Steinbeck though of it as a california Arthurian legend. His Arthur is Danny, whose home is the castle, where the knights gather in between their adventures and wine-drinking.
Cannery Row is about accepting your community and also about the loneliness of the individual.
One of Steinbeck’s books that I had not read was Sweet Thursday. I missed this companion piece to Cannery Row in my Steinbeck period. This month I finally read this short novel. It is more plot-driven than the earlier novel, but has many of the same characters. It centers on a love story, or lack of a love, for Doc. Spoiler alert (though I think a reader will see it coming early on), he ends up with Suzy, a not-very-good prostitute, but a good match for Doc.
It is a good tale for anyone like Doc and Suzy who thinks they may never find anyone to love. I should have read this novel when I was 14.
Steinbeck’s first few novels didn’t sell well, but it clicked when he started writing about the California he knew and loved.
I wrote before about my “Steinbeck Summer” and his on the road non-fiction tale of Travels with Charley. But the Steinbeck book that had the biggest impact on my life was Of Mice and Men. The novel really affected me when I read it, but many years later I would begin teaching it to high school freshmen. I saw it affect them too. I have had a few of those students tell me twenty or thirty years later that it is still one of their favorite books.
And although I hate hearing about banned books in schools, I always get an electric kick when I see that the book still appears on many lists of banned books, because it means it still packs that punch.