This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).
John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. He came from a poor family and worked his way through college at Stanford University but never graduated. As a young man he worked on farms near where his family lived in central California and this most definitely influenced all of his later work. In 1925 he vagabonded his way to New York, where he tried for a few years to establish himself as a free-lance writer or novelist, but, like many freelancers and novelists, he failed and returned to California where he worked as a tour guide and ranger in a fish hatchery. He was a west coast kid and while he was away, he never stopped dreaming of the Pacific and California. Steinbeck was fortunate in that after he was married in 1930, his parents decided to provide him not only with a home for he and his wife to live in, but also even bought the paper and typewriter for him so that he could focus on his writing instead of burning his inspiration at dead end jobs. One has to wonder how many great writers could have been born with similar treatment and how many were simply lost in the day to day struggle to survive.
Steinbeck had some minor success with a few short stories but became widely known with Tortilla Flat in 1935 – the book was a series of humorous stories about Monterey paisanos. The book was successful enough that not only was Steinbeck able to repay his parents, but he also bought a house for he and his wife in Los Gatos and was able to further devote himself to his writing. Not only that, he began to explore the world further – starting with a sailing voyage around the Gulf of California.
All of Steinbeck’s novels deal with the economic problems of rural labor, but there is also a streak of worship of the soil in his books, which does not always agree with his matter-of-fact sociological approach. After the rough and earthy humour of Tortilla Flat, he moved on to more serious fiction, often aggressive in its social criticism.
In Dubious Battle (1936), he deals with the strikes of the migratory fruit pickers on California plantations and Steinbeck followed this with Of Mice and Men in 1937. The story of the imbecile giant Lennie captured the imagination of a nation struggling with the Great Depression and the second world war. This was followed by a series of admirable short stories collected in the volume The Long Valley (1938). In 1939 he published what is considered by many to be his best work, The Grapes of Wrath, the story of Oklahoma tenant farmers who, unable to earn a living from the land, moved to California where they became migratory workers.
After 11 years, his first marriage failed and a month after the divorce he was married for the second time (hmmmmm…a month). With his second wife, he fathered his only kids – two boys John and Tom. He served as a war correspondent during World War II and was wounded in North Africa. He was one of the first Western writers allowed into the Soviet Union and took many trips there. His writing about the new nation in A Russian Journal, brought him induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Among his later works should be mentioned East of Eden (1952), The Winter of Our Discontent(1961), and Travels with Charley (1962), a travelogue in which Steinbeck wrote about his impressions during a three-month tour in a truck (fun fact: the camper was called the Rocinante after Cervantes classic Don Quixote’s horse) that led him through forty American states with his dog, a poodle named Charley, the book is subtitled In Search of America, the book offers both criticism and praise for America and according to Steinbeck’s son Thom, Steinbeck went on the trip because he knew he was dying and wanted to see the country one last time.
Steinbeck’s last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent , examined the moral decline in America. The protagonist Ethan grows discontented with his own moral decline and that of those around him. The book is very different in tone from Steinbeck’s amoral and ecological stance in earlier works like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. It was not a critical success. Many reviewers recognized the importance of the novel but were disappointed that it was not another Grapes of Wrath. In the Nobel Prize presentation speech next year, however, the Swedish Academy cited it most favorably: “Here he attained the same standard which he set in The Grapes of Wrath. Again he holds his position as an independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad.”
It was the last fiction Steinbeck published, one could imagine because it was unappreciated and largely caused outrage. Why should he waste his time on anything else for people like that?
In 1967 he went to Vietnam and wrote about what he saw of the war there. The American public decried him for a hawk for describing the actions of the American soldiers there as heroic. Both of his sons served in Vietnam. He died in New York City in 1968.
Steinbeck wrote of pirates, hobos, Mexican revolutionaries, drunkards, knights, kings, farmers and other unsavory types that have been described by the world as vagabonds. He was accused of being a communist by the right and a ‘hawk’ by the left – one thing for certain – He was a genius and a vagabond himself.