John Steinbeck lead a life filled with words, from his award winning novels to the hundreds letters he wrote to friends during his career. He was born in Salinas, California on February 27, 1902, and lived there for the first sixteen years of his life until he graduated from Salinas High School in 1918. He took classes at Stanford, but spent more of his college years working to pay tuition than then he spent in the classroom. 1924 brought his first publication, two short stories in the Standford Spectator, but in 1925 he left his schooling and went to New York for a time.
By 1926, he was back in California and his first book, Cup of Gold, was published the year the of great stock market crash, but had little success. In 1930, he married Carol Henning, and the two lived in Pacific Grove, CA for the next several years. These years were lean; Steinbeck was having trouble selling his work, even with the help of his literary agents, McIntosh and Otis. Often, selling a short story for 50$ or so was the difference between eating or not. In 1937, though, Steinbeck got his first taste of real success.
Now living in Los Gatos, California, he had four novels and a play published in just three years. He burst onto the literary scene with Of Mice and Men, and published the first three parts of The Red Pony the same year. The play of Of Mice and Men went on stage and won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award. The next year, he published The Long Valley and the last part of The Red Pony. His big project for the year, however, was working and researching a great novel, to be published in 1939 under the title The Grapes of Wrath. With this book, Steinbeck insured his future in the literary world.
The book was so controversial that Steinbeck had to worry about attempts on his life or reputation; even now, it (along with Of Mice and Men) often are found on lists of commonly banned books. It was so well thought of that it earned him a Pulitzer Prize. It was so influential that President Franklin D. Roosevlet met with Steinbeck personally after a letter to the President from Steinbeck about the German influence in Mexico. Steinbeck had been in Mexico working on a film, and throughout the rest of his life, motion pictures were a second medium for him.
The film of Of Mice and Men was released in 1939, and the film of The Grapes of Wrath came out the next year. The motion picture of the Grapes of Wrath was named one of the best movies of the past 100 years by the American Picture Association. Screen adaption of his work earned 29 Academy Award nominations and 4 Academy Awards. Steinbeck’s writing was characterized by several major factors. First, he often wrote about the poor, common people and often included social commentary into his works.
There were many layers of meaning in his works, and he used symbolism heavily. He tried to “tell things like they were” and didn’t censor out curse words or base talk for the ladies in the tea rooms. A lot of times when he wrote, he directed the fiction to one specific person, a friend or companion, to give it more focus. He published four more books in the next two years; however, his personal life was plagued with problems. He divorced his wife Carol in 1942 and married Gwyndolyn Conger the next year.
In 1943, he spent time as a war correspondent in Europe for the Herald Tribune, and the year 1944 brought the birth of his first son, Thom. By 1948 when he separated from Gwyndolyn, he would have another son John, two more films, six more books, and a King Haakon Liberty Cross to his name. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1948. 1950 brought him a new book, Burning Bright, and a new wife, Elaine Scott. He also began work on a book he claimed was something he had been practicing for since he started writing.
This book was East of Eden, and was published in 1952, the same year his film Viva Zapata! was released. By 1955, Steinbeck was doing well enough to buy a summer cottage in Long Island in addition to his ranch in California, a far cry from his days as a starving writer. The next few years brought just one book, but several jobs at newspaper writing. Steinbeck was slowing down at this point; instead of publishing two books every year as he had done when he was younger, he was publishing about one book every two years.
However, he had begun research on the King Arthur legends, and spent most of 1959 in England researching them. In 1961, he published what would be his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, but his career wasn’t over yet. In 1962, he won the Noble Prize for Literature. 1963 saw him in the U. S. S. R. as part of a cultural exchange trip. In 1966, just two years before his death, he spent five month in Asia as a correspondent for Newsday. John Steinbeck died December 20, 1968, in New York City.
During his life, Steinbeck published 19 novels, 8 nonfiction books, and three collections. He worked on 4 movies and plays. He wrote thousands of letters, some of which were published after his death by his wife in a book called Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Hundreds of millions of words clacked off his typewriter or flowed from his pencil to his legal pad. Now, thirty years after his death, adults in search of a good read and school children in search of a good grade pull a Steinbeck work off the library shelf, to loose themselves in Steinbeck’s words and letters.
Home is People: The Changing Family Structure in The Grapes of Wrath The bond of a true family is not one of blood, but one of respect and joy in each other’s existence. ” -Richard Bach On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need for belongingness and love ranks only below the need for survival, making it one of our most basic needs (Weiten 267). Many people fill this need for affection by participating in a family unit. However, as the 20th century continues, the emphasis on family in America is decreasing. Divorce rates, single-parent households, and children born out of wedlock are all increasing.
Furthermore, instead of the network of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and other relatives that was prevalent in early America, Americans today are more distant from their extended family. As sociologist David Elkind said in a 1996 interview with Educational Leadership, “Instead of togetherness, we have a new focus on autonomy. The individual becomes more important than the family” (4). This means that one of the basic needs of humanity, belongingness and love, is very likely going unfilled in many people.
As the traditional nuclear family declines, however, untraditional, non-nuclear families have risen. According to Dr. Mary Pipher: “In the 1990s a family can be a lesbian couple and their children from previous marriages, a fourteen-year-old and her baby in a city apartment, a gay man and his son, two adults recently married and their teenagers from other relationships, a grandmother with twin toddlers of a daughter who died of AIDS, a foster mother and a crack baby, a multigenerational family from an Asian culture, or unrelated people who are together because they love each other (80).
Even the Internet has become a source of family, with lonely people reaching out through news groups and mailing lists to people like them that they would otherwise never meet (Kelly). In Families in Flux, Amy Swerdolow and her co-authors point out that “families differ from society to society, and they have changed over time” (1). Today’s nuclear family with mom, dad, 2. 3 kids, and dog only came into being just after the Industrial Revolution (Swerdolow 15). This leads to the idea that perhaps the desengration of the nuclear family isn’t necessarily a negative things, but more of a retirement of a one way of life in favor of a new one.
Even if this is true, the current period of decline still spurns numerous problems and attempted solutions. The changing family isn’t a new issue. Over twenty years ago, Kurt Vonnegut presented the idea of the artificial family in his book Slapstick. President Wilbur Swain, the central character in the novel, inacts a plan to bring all people in America together by giving them artificial families based on randomly assigned middle names; the program reaps both positive and negative results.
Despite the many science fiction devices used in the book, the story shows Vonnegut’s deep concern for the family unit. After being asked what was happening to America in an interview, Vonnegut responded by saying, “We’re lonesome. We don’t have enough friends and relatives anymore” (qtd. in Reed and Leeds 116) Almost twenty years before Vonnegut started publishing, John Steinbeck began to explore the changes taking place in the family during the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath. Though the book has many layers and themes, one of the major one’s is the changing family.
In 1933, six years before publishing the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote a letter to George Albee saying, “[Man] also arranges himself into larger units, which I have called the phalanx” (Life in Letters, 79). He cites religion, the MOB, and various war-time armies as examples of a phalanx, but surely the family unit falls into the category of larger, interconnected groups of people. In the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck explores the need for family and the changing family structure through the lens of a Great Depression era family, the Joads. That the Joad family mutates due to their trials is undoubtable.
What the Joads were like originally can only be imagined. By the beginning of the novel, the family has already lost its home and had to move in with Uncle John. However, the worse is yet to come. At John’s, the family is on familiar land, but almost immediately they leave their homeland and begin on the journey west. “Homelessness and exile are among the worst of conditions, alienation and estrangement, the feelings of great despair” (Mack 59). During their exile, the Joads rest temporary in both hospitable and harsh environments, but none of these places is home.
As Muley says in The Grapes of Wrath, “Place where folks live is them folks” (71). By losing their land and leaving behind their home and the past, the Joads are making the first step towards the disappearance of their old family. When Tom returns from his jail sentence, all of his family is living on John’s farm- Ma and Pa, Grampa and Granma, Al and Noah, Ruthie and Winifred. Rose of Sharon has married and brought Connie into the family unit, but marriage was long accepted to be a way of adding people to one’s family.
However, this unity isn’t to last long. Grampa was too connected to the old place and died in spirit the minute they took him off of it (199). His physical body died soon after, and Granma was only a few days behind. In addition to the death of the eldest generation, the Joads also lost family members when Noah and Connie ran off, despite Ma’s addimence for keeping the family together. And finally, at the end of the book, Tom himself leaves to protect the family. The Joads don’t just lose family members, however.
During their travels, they encounter people who gain the status of ‘honorary family,’ something almost unheard of before. The first one of these is Casy, the former preacher, who joins with the family for their journey west, and then sacrifices himself to save Tom from arrest. Later, the family joins with the Wilsons, a couple who are also heading west, after they assist with the burial of Grampa. However, perhaps the most significant bonds that are formed are not formed with the named characters who travel with the Joads, but with the strangers they meet on the way.
The fellow travelers who give the Joads advice and help them find work, the store clerk who took the dime out of his own pocket so Tom could have sugar in his coffee, and the men who helped dig the moat to stop the flood as Rose of Sharon was in labor all showed the Joads a degree of kindness usually reserved for kin, and the Joads returned this when Ma gave the starving children in Hooverville the leftover stew and Rose of Sharon offered her breast to the starving man at the end of the book. In addition to the physical and emotional shift in the family, there is a power shift.
Prior to their exile, the power in the family was held by the males, with Grampa as the symbolic head and Pa and Johnas the actual leaders. Who sit where in the truck and during family meetings reflects that (134-41). Ma doesn’t even speak during the initial meeting about the particulars of going to California. However, at the Weedpatch camp, it is Ma who decides it is time to leave and threatens Pa when he trys to question her. As Pa says, “Time was when a man said what we’d do. Seems like women is tellin’ now” (481). This change in gender roles is another change in the overall structure in the family.
Steinbeck emphasis that Joads are not alone in their changes through the interchapters, where he describes the journey of Everyman. In chapter one, each Everyman has his own house, his own woman, his own children, separate units though all very similar. However, after the fear of the initial flight, a change begins, “from ‘I’ to ‘we'” (206). The families begin to ban together and form their own society and units. “The twenty were one” (265). For the Joads, the main motivator towards this ‘we’ move is Ma, who also helps Casy and Tom to voice the shift.
As Michael G. Barry says in The Steinbeck Question, “Ma Joad deserves respect as the pillar of the family” (110). Right from the beginning, Ma knows what she thinks is important, and knows how to make the rest of the family listen. When the car broke down and there was talk of splitting up, she refused to go and threatened violence if anyone tried to make her leave (230). This wasn’t the only time she used the threat of violence to move the family. When it came time to leave the Weepatch camp, Pa threatened to beat her for being sassy when she told the family it was time to leave.
Ma responded by saying she would beat him right back (481). By the end of the novel, Ma no longer needed violence to assert her will. When the boxcars flooded at the end of the novel, Ma said it was time to move and received no argument at all (614). In addition to motivating the family to move, she motivated them towards the change. In the beginning, family was most important. However, in the final scene it was Ma who instigated the act of Rose of Sharon giving her breast to the starving man, symbolizing the sense of community, even with total strangers.
In addition to moving the rest of the family towards the ‘we,’ Ma also play a part in voicing the shift. At the start of the journey, she says that all they have is the “family unbroke” and she’s going to go “cat-wild…. if my own folks busts up” (231). Then, keeping the family together is the most important thing. However, when it comes time for Tom to leave to remove the risk of associating with him from the family, Ma seems to understand his words about people joining together and lets him go without tears (573).
When Ma was shopping for food and the clerk put his own dime in so that they could afford sugar, she says, “If you’re in trouble or hurt or need- go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help” (514). This trust and interreliance of the poor, or the Joads ‘own kind,’ show the sense of community among the migrant workers. At the end of the novel, she says, “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do” (606). With this statement, Ma summarizes the basic shift of the novel- in the time of need, the family grows larger to include anyone who shares the need.
In The Grapes of Wrath, a point is made that “the folks” come first. However, by the end of the novel, the folks aren’t just members of the immediate family; they are people like Casy and the Wilsons, and even total strangers. By the end of the novel, the Joads have realized that the only way to survive is to join together, and have redefined family accordingly (Wyatt 66). Today, the problem of the changing family still exists, but Ma Joad’s “family of man” (Timmerman 141) idea has not come into being. However, modern America has continued John Steinbeck’s search for the answers to this complicated question.
In 1976, Kurt Vonnegut, another American write, though a quite different one than Steinbeck, published a book entitled Slapstick. According to Vonnegut and his main character Swain, the main problem with Americans is that they are lonely and don’t receive enough kindness and courtesy. As it is easier to be nicer to family members than strangers, by giving Americans large artificial families by assigning new middle names, such as “Dandelion-5,” will allow Americans to give and receive more kindness and courtesy, thus totally fulling the basic need for love and acceptance.
These families, once set up, “have directories and newsletters and reunions, and generally act like old-fashioned relatives- sometimes quarreling but more often helping each other out” (Allen 118). Problems come out of this, of course, but for the most part, the wild scheme solves many of the problems of the decinigrated American family. However, randomly assigning every person in the U. S. a new middle name is not a practical idea. On a day by day basis, those seeking the love and acceptance of family have to find other solutions. One answer was inspired by Vonnegut’s book.
Dustin Kelly set up a web page that assigns new middle names, like the ones in Slapstick, to visitors. Once the visitors are part of a family, they are subscribed to an e-mailing list, where they have discussions with their other family members. Members of these artificial families have even helped each other with research papers and finding work (Kelly). Even e-mailing lists that aren’t devoted to creating family often do so by accident. Especially support mailing lists, like those run for people who suffer depression, seem to form tight bonds between subscribers based on their common experience and problems (Morrow).
Close friends can seem like family members at time, too. The connection of common experience and situation, and the necessity of facing both trivial and serious problems together can lead to a feeling of kinship with any person. Of course, there isn’t a real replacement for actual blood family, and an increased intrest in geneology has helped many people to reconnect with their blood relatives (Davis). Families form through common experience, be it the common experience of growing up in the same house, reading the same books, attending the same social events and knowing the same people, or sharing a common suffering.
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath explores how that family bond can motivate and assist people in need. Though the family structure changes over time, the need for family remains. Despite the odds, people will find people to help them fulfill that need. As Casy says, “A fella ain’t no good alone” (476). In a 1947 letter to his wife, Steinbeck said, “Home is people. ” As long as there are people, they will join together to form families, home.