Steinbeck (1902-1968) did not start his literary career until Lewis and Fitzgerald had reached their peak. He seemed to be from a different world¡Xthe world of the Great Depression, the world of mass poverty. It was a world as far removed from that of Lewis as from that of Fitzgerald.
A Californian, Steinbeck was an athlete and president of his high school class who went to Stanford University in between various jobs. He learned to know the poor, in particular the migrant farm workers, American and Mexican, and he wrote from their point of view. By the middle 1930s, when Lewis and Fitzgerald were past their writing prime, Steinbeck had authored some very popular novels. Tortilla Flat was humorous story about a Mexican-American colony in Monterey, while In Dubious Battle was a serious work about a strike by migrant farmworkers. Of Mice and Men is a touching and perennially popular tale of two migrants and their mutual dependence and shared dreams. Steinbeck portrayed their odd friendship with great sympathy and understanding, and the work has been made into an equally successful play and movie.
His greatest success came in 1939 with The Grapes of Wrath. This is the saga of a family of Oklahoma farmers named Joad, who are driven by drought to migrate to California. There they are scornfully called "Okies" and suffer mistreatment and exploitation. Yet somehow Ma Joad always manages to hold the family together. The book leaves the reader with feeling which Steinbeck wanted to instill¡Xthat the poor can endure by helping one another, and perhaps also that they can expect no help from anyone else.
The Grapes of Wrath makes a potent appeal to the emotions. Highly charged emotional scenes, dramatic or pathetic, follow one another in rapid succession. Rarely does the drama turn to melodrama or the pathos to sentimentality, though the subject matter invites both kinds of treatment. Because of Steinbeck's great talent and real admiration for dignity and human pride in adversity, we share his emotions for his characters.
Steinbeck arranges his effects around a central incident. He tells us that the action takes place beside a transcontinental highway, and fills out the scene with groups of staccato phrases that paint a picture for us like the brush strokes on an impressionistic canvas.