- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

If John Steinbeck were alive today, the Nobel Prize-winning author might be surprised that most of his works are still in print, selling more than 700,000 copies each year.On his 102nd birthday today, Mr. Steinbeck is an American literary icon whose turns of phrase have influenced generations with classics such as “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.”

Not only is the author’s work loved by the general population, but high schools and colleges also use his books as a staple in curriculums.

And when Oprah Winfrey relaunched her book club in the summer, “East of Eden” was her first pick. Copies flew off the bookshelves and bumped Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “Living History” to the No. 3 position on the USA Today best-seller list. Also, in 2002, about a dozen organizations held events throughout the year to celebrate his 100th birthday.

However, his son, Thomas Steinbeck, says his father never focused on his prestige. Instead, the elder Steinbeck felt it a duty as a “journalist novelist” to portray the realities of the world around him. The son says his father was more concerned about the next book he was writing, which influenced the son to follow suit. His most recent book is “Down to a Soundless Sea.”

“My father thought of himself as a craftsman, as a maker of great shoes,” Mr. Steinbeck’s son says. “He had a function in society, as someone who could skillfully reflect the realities of that society, so it could more easily correct itself, or not.”

The son thinks one of the reasons his father’s work has endured is that he wrote about the poor and downtrodden members of society, such as the California migratory workers in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

As a result, the son has seen readers carry his father’s books around “as though they are sacred icons,” asking him, as a relative, to autograph them in place of the deceased author.

The son says another reason his father’s work connects with people is because of the context in which he told the stories.

Because most people in the 1900s were biblically literate, when writing his classics, Mr. Steinbeck made many allusions to the Bible to convey his points. “East of Eden,” for example, which is about the history of California’s Salinas Valley, is told through the struggle of Cain and Abel.

“When he chooses a biblical element, he’s asking you to flood your mind and use your imagination,” the son says of his father. “He was a great mythologist. But then he could take this gigantic myth and sit it right down next to you. That’s what makes it so intimate.”

As a way of remembering the author — a man who championed common people — the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., houses more than 40,000 artifacts relating to his life and work. About 100,000 people visit the site annually, says Amanda Holder, director of marketing for the center.

The nonprofit institution is the first museum in the country of its scale dedicated to a single author, providing educational programs and research archives. In addition to many interactive exhibits, film clips and plays from Mr. Steinbeck’s most popular novels — “East of Eden,” “Cannery Row,” “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath” — are showcased at museum theaters.

“He just had a sensibility that is really tuned into human nature,” Ms. Holder says. “A lot of people can really see themselves in his stories.”

Mr. Steinbeck uplifted the disposed in an understanding and compassionate way, and gave America its heart, says Jackson J. Benson, author of “The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer.”

Mr. Steinbeck provided a picture of American life for foreigners who have never visited the United States. His works have been translated in roughly 144 languages.

“His books have become part of our cultural property,” Mr. Benson said. “If you refer to ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ everyone knows who you’re talking about.”

While speaking across the country, Mr. Benson says he has seen the influence of Mr. Steinbeck on his readers. He thinks the author’s intense life experiences served as preparation for writing masterpieces.

“One of the differences between Steinbeck and almost all the other writers of his generation is that he was one of the few who worked close to the land for a long period of time,” Mr. Benson said. “He worked on farms and ranches … He was a field hand. He got his hands dirty. He worked with workers. A lot of people don’t understand that. They have never lived that. They don’t know what it is to be without a home and cold.”

Mr. Steinbeck’s passion and personal life enabled him to have a high quality of writing, far better than critics have admitted, says Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, home to the world’s biggest collection of Steinbeck materials.

“He’s a much more careful writer than people give him credit for,” she says. “He’s complex and sophisticated.”

Although Mr. Steinbeck never has had the influence in the upper reaches of academic criticism as writers such as William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway, this hasn’t affected his popularity or lasting appeal, says Robert DeMott, the Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor of American Literature at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

“He’s always regarded with some suspicion because they can’t believe a writer who is popular can be good,” he says. “That has never really bothered me. We’re in the business of communicating. That’s something Steinbeck did … You can project your sense of who you are onto the characters.”

Mr. Steinbeck was a committed naturalist, says John Timmerman, professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He also incorporated antiracial themes in his works.

At times, people erroneously labeled him a Marxist for his forward views, Mr. Timmerman says. However, in retrospect, Mr. Steinbeck’s instincts were ahead of society and probably taught his readers to think outside the box, Mr. Timmerman adds.

“He was one writer who could tell a whale of a good story,” Mr. Timmerman says. “He’s always been popular with common readers. Sometimes more so than critics. The general culture scene has always been very appreciative of him.”

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