John Steinbeck had a habit of signing letters and books with a tiny drawing of a winged pig, accompanied by the Latin phrase ad astra per alia porci—to the stars on the wings of a pig. The character, which he named "Pigasus," was meant as a reminder that man should always strive for higher ground, no matter how lowly his skills may seem.
The philosophy of Pigasus can also be applied to the novels, stories, travelogues and plays that John Steinbeck produced over the course of his forty-year career. Steinbeck's fiction argued that by facing the raw and sometimes ugly truth about human nature, man could move toward a better version of himself. Whether working as a ranch hand, interviewing migrant workers, or sailing in the Gulf of Mexico, Steinbeck was a traveler with a purpose, observing and describing the often-painful realities of the people he encountered. He chronicled the victims of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression with such detail that it's nearly impossible to imagine their lives without thinking of Steinbeck. By recording their struggles, flaws and quiet dignities in books like The Grapes of Wrath (which critics consider his masterpiece) and East of Eden (which he preferred), Steinbeck gave voice to a voiceless people and meaning to lives that were too often dismissed as meaningless.
Many people condemned Steinbeck's works in his lifetime (and long after his death) as too raw, too vulgar, or too sympathetic toward unsympathetic characters. Steinbeck shied away from publicity, and the criticism annoyed him. However, the public's resistance to his work did not detract from the strength of his commitment to it. For as the man himself said while accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, "a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."2