Through a career which spanned four decades, John Steinbeck was a novelist of people. His best books are about ordinary men and women, simple souls who do battle against dehumanizing social forces or who struggle against their own inhumane tendencies and attempt, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to forge lives of meaning and worth. At the center of Steinbeck's thematic vision is a dialectic between contrasting ways of life: between innocence and experience, between primitivism and progress, and between self-interest and commitment to the human community. His most interesting characters, George Milton and Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men (1937), the paisanos of Tortilla Flat (1935), Doc Burton of In Dubious Battle (1936), Mack and the boys in Cannery Row (1945), and the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), struggle to resolve this personal and social conflict in a world of human error and imperfection.
In much of his work Steinbeck championed what in The Grapes of Wrath he called "man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit." Man, says Steinbeck, "grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments." And yet, he was sensitive to "a strange duality in the human." In the narrative portion of Sea of Cortez (1941), he says that man "might be described fairly adequately, if simply, as a two-legged paradox. He has never become accustomed to the tragic miracle of consciousness. Perhaps, as has been suggested, his species is not set, has not jelled, but is still in a state of becoming, bound by his physical memories to a past of struggle and survival, limited in his futures by the uneasiness of thought and consciousness."
The "tragic miracle of consciousness" is, for Steinbeck, man's greatest burden and his greatest glory. And the way in which Steinbeck portrays this burden and this glory in his novels and short stories is the source of his greatest strength as a writer. It accounts for the feeling, the...
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