Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight: John Steinbeck, The Great American Realist

“A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun. Well—then the book is done. It has no virtue any more. The writer wants to cry out—”Bring it back! Let me rewrite it or better—Let me burn it. Don’t let it out in the unfriendly cold in that condition.

John Steinbeck, A Book Is like a Man – Letters of Note

Letters of Note

First off, special thanks to one of our loyal followers who helped us with our very first author spotlight. Thank you for providing your review on Grapes of Wrath and The Pearl.

Some Background Information

John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. was born on the 27th of February, 1902 to a middle-class family in Salinas, California. His hometown of Salinas (and the region of Central California) would later serve as the setting for his iconic books. If you visit Salinas today, there is an entire museum dedicated to him. His works are mainly social critiques told from the lens of ranch owners and/or workers. Steinbeck would later win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 and to this day is considered one of the greatest American novelists of all time.

Of Mice and Men (1937)

Perhaps the most famous novella in American literature, Of Mice and Men sheds light on the difficult conditions during the Great Depression through its two main characters George and Lennie. George and Lennie are polar opposites (George is a small and weak but clever man while Lennie is a large and strong but dim-witted man) and have a beautiful dynamic. George is very protective of Lennie, and the two travel around California in hopes of one day owning their own farm but of course they face numerous challenges throughout the book. At just over 100 pages, this novella is poignant, emotional and manages to present many controversial topics such as mental illness, brawns vs brains, racism, poverty and morality.

The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Set against a backdrop of depression-era America, The Grapes of Wrath tell the hardships of Tom Joad as he, his family, and other fellow “Okies” ventures west to California in search of a better life as farm hands to survive their precarious position. (Author’s note: The best journeys always head west, think the Gold Rush or Manifest Destiny). What should pique the readers’ interest more than its depiction of a downtrodden and neglected side of America is the fact that this was the book that led to Steinbeck being labeled as a communist for years afterwards for its anti-capitalist undertones. Ironically, the movie based on the book was also banned in the Soviet Union. When the movie came out in the late ’40s, Stalin allowed it to be screened in the Soviet Union to show the flaws and poverty under capitalism. However, this backfired as Soviet citizens noticed that even the poorest Americans are able to afford a car, and hence Stalin quickly pulled the movie out.

The Pearl (1947)

This light reading is a classic tale of how greed blinds even the eyes of those with the best intentions. Set in Mexico, The Pearl tells the story of a poor pearl fisherman couple, Kino and Juana, along with their infant son Coyotito. They live an idyllic life until the young one suffers a sting from a scorpion. Determined to get him the best medical attention, Kino set out to find the biggest pearl he can sell, and by sheer luck, he did. However, as in real life, whispers of sudden wealth bring upon malicious parties who are, in no uncertain terms, out to get you. Will the struggling family survive?

East of Eden (1952)

Not as well-known as Grapes of Wrath, but was actually considered by Steinbeck as his magnum opus. I actually decided to buy this book because whenever I was looking for “best books” or “what should I read next?” on reddit, this book kept coming up over and over again. I finally read the book and was surprised at how much I loved it. It feels quite optimistic for a Steinbeck book, and though it is set in Central California as usual, the tone of the novel is decidedly more grand and epic. This is because the novel deals with universal themes of sibling rivalry (mirroring the biblical story of Cain and Abel) and good vs evil. A central question the book tries to tackle is “Are we stuck with the character we were born with? If we are born innately evil, is it even worth it to try and become a good person?”. Also, the housekeeper Lee is one of the best characters in literature and a testament to Steinbeck’s brilliance and open-mindedness. Lee is an intelligent, college-educated Chinese-American housekeeper who reads Marcus Aurelius but pretends to speak in pidgin to those outside of his inner circle because he knows people see what they want to see.

Final Thoughts

I think the reason why so many people love Steinbeck is that his stories are set in locations familiar to him, retelling the tales of many average Californians he had been familiar with, and with topics near and dear to his heart. Consequently, every work of his is authentic, honest, no fluffs and through his works you get a sense of his moral compass and love for the underdogs.

Next on my list are Cannery Row and Travels with Charley. Are you a Steinbeck fan? Please leave your comments below! And if you have any suggestions or requests for upcoming Author Spotlight posts, please let us know in the comments below.

Further Reading

  1. The Nobel Prize in Literature 1962. (n.d.). Retrieved September 10, 2020, from
  2. “A Book Is like a Man.” Letters of Note, 29 Feb. 2012,
  3. National Steinbeck Center. 2020. Biography – National Steinbeck Center. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from:

Need ideas on what to read next? Check out our list of books to stock up on during self-isolation.

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