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Wednesday June 29, 2022

John Steinbeck: A Portrait of Despair and Dispossession

John Steinbeck author

Sometime during the beginning of this century, I was seated along with a host of other viewers, for the screening of the classic film, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath at the Calcutta International Film Festival. The black and white film which was based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name (1939) was an unforgettable experience. I read the book much later. Dispossession and the effects of the Great Depression made the Joad family to leave their homes in the red country soil of Oklahoma in an America much before Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Yet the feelings of love, bonding and belonging vibrate like a resonant chord of music all through the novel.

still from Grapes of Wrath a film based on the novel by John Steinbeck
Still from John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Among Steinbeck’s most renowned works are Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, East of Eden, besides The Grapes Of Wrath. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, exactly six years before his demise. In his acceptance speech, the writer said, “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed…the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat – for courage, compassion and love.”

In her Foreword to The Grapes of Wrath, Elaine Steinbeck, the author’s wife wrote, “When John Steinbeck and I began to fall in love, he took me for long drives around northern California, in what is now called Steinbeck Country, to show me the land where he had grown up and the places he had especially loved…. I asked, ‘When did you begin to write?’ And John said almost in wonder, ‘I don’t remember a time I didn’t write.’ “
This particular quote reminds me of another famous line by another American novelist, Ernest Hemingway who had said that the writer’s job is to sit before a typewriter and bleed away.

Steinbeck loved his country passionately and compelled his readers to follow suit. The pathos in his books and the ultimate victory of the human spirit which endures all sufferings, also reminds me of the loneliest and the most profound among the Bengali poets of the bygone post-Tagorean era – Jibanananda Das. Against the miseries of the Joad family, are juxtaposed the emotions of adultery, conflict and murder in his East Of Eden, where the histories of two families get deeply intertwined within rural California.

Sometime ago, I was gifted with a copy of Jeffrey Archer’s short story collection, Tell Tale. There, in the book, a story named ‘A Wasted Hour’ relates the wonder of a girl, who receives a lift on the way to her college. Along the way and by way of conversation, it turned out that the man on the driving seat was none other than John Steinbeck.

The latter, the most American of American writers, was a giant in the world of twentieth century world literature. As long as man will breathe and continue to read, John Steinbeck will remain in our hearts and minds as the writer who had been vocal about the hunger and discontent of the dispossessed.

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