As John Steinbeck was developing as a writer, events taking place in the United States provided him with plenty of material to write about. In October 1929 the U.S. stock market crashed, sparking the Great Depression. Banks collapsed. Businesses closed. By 1933, a quarter of the population was unemployed. Then environmental catastrophe struck as well. From 1930 to 1936, severe drought plagued the Great Plains of the American Midwest, which at the time were mostly farmland. The drought killed crops, and with no plants to hold down the soil, the dry dirt swirled up into suffocating dust storms when the winds kicked in. The entire region became known as the Dust Bowl. The Oklahoma panhandle was the hardest hit. Farmers' crops were destroyed, and with nothing to sell many lost their homes and farms. They were forced to migrate in search of work. Men who had once been their own bosses were now forced to work for wages on other people's farms, often in exploitative conditions.
In 1934 Steinbeck met two labor organizers who were hiding in Seaside, California after participating in a cotton strike in the San Joaquin Valley the previous year. Steinbeck shaped his interviews with the men into the pro-worker novel In Dubious Battle, published in 1936. Steinbeck also spent part of that year traveling with a group of migrant workers displaced by the Dust Bowl for a San Francisco News series. Steinbeck was horrified by their plight and empathized with the men's sense of dignity. "They are men who have worked hard on their own farms and have felt the pride of possessing and living in close touch with the land," he wrote. "They are resourceful and intelligent Americans who have gone through the hell of the drought, have seen their lands wither and die and the top soil blow away; and this, to a man who has owned his land, is a curious and terrible pain."3 The migrants' stories of humiliation and hardship stayed with Steinbeck long after the newspaper series ran.
He then published Of Mice and Men, a novella that he also conceived as a play (and, originally, as a children's book—an unsettling thought, given the plot of the final manuscript. Let's hope Steinbeck had a different ending in mind for kids). The plot centers on two migrant ranch hands, George and the mentally challenged Lennie, and their simple yet ultimately thwarted dream of owning their own land. Of Mice and Men appeared in print in February 1937 and on the stage later that year. Though the book is required reading in many schools— maybe it's even the reason you're reading this biography right now—it is also among the most frequently challenged and banned books in American libraries and schools. The novel has been criticized for everything from its coarse language to its depiction of the mentally disabled to its seeming anti-business slant. Steinbeck was not a man who wrote for shock value. His goal with Of Mice and Men—and with the rest of his fiction—was to heal the wounds between people by helping them to understand one another's lives. "In every bit of honest writing in the world . . . there is a base theme. Try to understand men, [for] if you understand each other you will be kind to each other," he wrote in a 1938 journal entry. "Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love."4
The reaction to Of Mice and Men was only a hint of what was to come next. In 1939, Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. The book traces the odyssey of the Joad family, a clan of Dust Bowl sharecroppers who migrate to California after they are kicked off their Oklahoma farm. Headed by convicted murderer and recent parolee Tom Joad, the family sees California as a promised land of employment and prosperity. As they travel west, their dream collapses amidst the squalid migrant camps, exploitative farm owners and discriminatory policies.
The book was wildly successful. It won Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. More than 500,000 copies flew off the shelves in its first year. It soon became clear, however, that not all of those who picked up a copy liked what they read. Critics called it socialist propaganda. School boards and libraries banned the book for its alleged "obscenities" and coarse language. The Associated Farmers of America protested the book's treatment of corporate farmers. The Kern County (California) Board of Supervisors passed a resolution attempting to block production of the 1940 film version starring Henry Fonda. At one point Steinbeck grew concerned about the level of hysteria surrounding the book, especially in his agricultural hometown of Salinas. But Steinbeck wrote to provoke social change, and The Grapes of Wrath accomplished that. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to the book's defense, and congressional hearings were later held on the conditions in migrant camps. The book also secured John Steinbeck's place in the American literary canon. He went on to write several more books—including at least one that he liked better than The Grapes of Wrath—but none eclipsed the novel that is widely considered the masterpiece of his career.