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1930’s Literature: From Steinbeck to Wright

Jennifer Jensen Wallach has a Ph.D in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts. Her area of expertise lies within the study of African-Americans after the Civil War. She is also interested in the food culture of African-Americans. In addition, she is the assistant professor of history at the University of North Texas. Brian St. Pierre has written books on wine such as The Wine Deck and A Perfect Glass of Wine. In order to write his biography on John Steinbeck, he traversed through California while searching for clues on the inspirations from which Steinbeck made his works. Brian St. Pierre currently resides in London. 

John Steinbeck: The California Years, by Brian St. Pierre and Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen by Jennifer Jensen Wallach both detail the lives of two different authors from the 1930’s. Steinbeck was influenced by his homeland in California and the occurrences in his native land. Wright was influenced by his race and the prejudiced views that forced him to swallow his pride at times and make sacrifices in order to become great. Steinbeck tried to right the wrongs of the oppressed. “Wright spent his life trying to escape the oppression” that he felt as a black author.1 Steinbeck dealt with the social problems of the Great Depression era. Wright dealt with the problems suffered by African Americans in a segregated country.

The book begins by narrating John Steinbeck’s life as he was born and raised in Salinas, California. The author notes that Steinbeck took many of his later literature from settings familiar to him in his native California. Steinbeck was greatly influenced in his early life by authors such as “Hardy, Flaubert, Milton, George Eliot, [and] Dostoyevsky.”2 Steinbeck was accepted to Stanford University, but dropped out quickly because he found college life dull. However, after his sister Mary also got accepted to Stanford, Steinbeck decided that he brought shame to the family and reentered Stanford. Steinbeck began writing a novel and moved to New York. He was dirt poor, but he hit a stroke of good luck when his rich uncle Joe Hamilton came to New York and offered Steinbeck a job. However even with his uncle’s support, Steinbeck was unable to find success in New York and sailed back to California. Steinbeck finally wrote a short story called The Gifts of Iban which appeared in The Smoker’s Companion. Steinbeck also married Carol Henning who became a partner in Steinbeck’s literary aspirations. Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold was published, but was an utter failure due to numerous reasons – one of which was horrible cover artwork. Other aspects of the novel also caused the book to fail.  However, his father now offered Steinbeck his support due to actual proof of Steinbeck’s efforts coming to fruition. Finally Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven was accepted by a publisher. In order to help the family due to Steinbeck’s lack of success, Carol began to start finding her own job rather than merely assisting John. However, her company soon fell off and she returned to being John’s assistant. The Pastures of Heaven also was a failure, to Steinbeck’s dismay. He tried to begin another novel, but he stopped work when his mother became deathly sick. Steinbeck felt a need to care for his parents in their old age because they had supported his seemingly foolish dream. His problems were further compounded when his third novel, titled To a God Alone, hardly sold despite being one of his best works. His mother soon passed away after one more stroke and Steinbeck’s father began to lose the will to live. Steinbeck, still focused on his writing, began a work in which he compiled his paisano stories, entitled Tortilla Flat. Steinbeck was met with by a fan of his works, Ben Abramson, who offered to promptly publish Tortilla Flat. Worried about his financial security, even with Tortilla Flat being published, Steinbeck immediately began writing another book which he entitled In Dubious Battle, named after a line in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He also applied for the James Phelan Award for Literature which he did not win. Unfortunately for Steinbeck, his father passed away a week before the publication of Tortilla Flat so he was therefore hard pressed to complete his work. However, with his mind set on his work, Tortilla Flat was published.

Steinbeck had a bestseller on his hands. Tortilla Flat was immensely popular, and people soon became curious about Steinbeck.  Tortilla Flat’s publication began Steinbeck’s rise to fame. Steinbeck followed up his success with Tortilla Flat by publishing In Dubious Battle soon after. The work stirred up much controversy and caused heated debate among critics and readers alike, yet it still sold amazingly well. Steinbeck was not used to his newfound popularity and desired to return to a secluded life but was constantly bombarded by phone calls and visits from people despite taking extra precautions to stay as far away from people as possible. During his secluded period, Steinbeck also began to write Of Mice and Men, which he thought would not sell. However, the Great Depression soon hit and although Steinbeck lived comfortably with his newfound wealth, migrant farmers did not. Steinbeck’s friend led him through a tour throughout the migrant camps which shocked Steinbeck. This experience would lead him to write The Grapes of Wrath later. Contrary to Steinbeck’s predictions, Of Mice and Men was an instant bestseller. Both Of Mice and Men and Tortilla Flat were made into Broadway plays but of the two, only Of Mice and Men was a success on the stage. Unfortunately, adding to his troubles of avoiding society was the fact that he was charged with a paternity suit. Steinbeck was able to have the lawsuit dropped when the accuser had no idea of the giant scar Steinbeck had after having a surgery as a child. Steinbeck finally wrote his stories about the migrant farmers and titled it the Grapes of Wrath. The novel was huge. It soon became the second bestselling novel in America and attracted much controversy. Steinbeck had another book published which attracted a great deal less controversy. Between Pacific Tides detailed marine life of the Pacific Coast, which he was fascinated with in his early years. Movies were made of both Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. The spring of that year, Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath. Despite his successes, Steinbeck soon lost one of his greatest partners by cheating on her. Carol was devastated by John’s infidelity and soon applied for divorce. Steinbeck married his mistress, Gwen Conger. After marrying Gwen, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962. However, his marriage to Gwen quickly fell apart and Steinbeck married a third time, to Elaine who was able to keep Steinbeck happy for the rest of his life. Steinbeck’s next seven novels were far less interesting, “of which only Cannery Row and East of Eden are worth more than passing interest.”3 Steinbeck passed away in 1968. He was buried in Salinas, California – his hometown and his writing Eden.

Richard Wright was born in 1908 in Mississippi. Both of his grandfathers were slaves who earned their freedom by choosing to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. Wright’s family struggle to survive in Wright’s early years. His family was poor and white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized the black families in Wright’s time. Wright was also a sickly child, and was unable to contribute much to his family’s welfare. Faced with poverty, the family decided to move up north with Wright’s wealthy uncle who had found economic success. However, not long after they moved in, Wright’s uncle was shot by white men who were jealous of his success. Once again, the family was left extremely poor. After his mother became extremely ill, Wright was sent to his Uncle Clark’s home, but could not stand to be without his mother. His grandparents reluctantly allowed him to live with them. His extended family was extremely religious, and when Wright got angry at his aunt, she was horrified and sent Wright to endless sessions at church. This led Wright to have resentment for organized religion all the years of his life. After his grandmother deemed Wright “unredeemable,”4 Wright was allowed to transfer to the secular school. Wright was angered by the prejudices held against his race. His dream of being a writer was trampled on by all white job interviewers he interviewed with. After he graduated, Wright decided to leave the south and head to Memphis to begin a new life. When Wright arrived in Memphis, he found his path somewhat easier due to the lack of racist groups but it was still difficult for Wright to make a living as a writer. He was forced to run errands for whites, hurting his pride, in order to make an income. He pretended to be stupid so he could be allowed to use a library card in order to be able to read more. His family decided to move in with him and when Wright decided to go north to Chicago, his family followed. However, during the depression years, Wright found himself without a job and unable to support his family. He was forced to beg for food, an experience that was revelatory for him. Dissatisfied with his life in Chicago, Wright decided to move to New York, the literary center of the United States. After a couple of failed works, Wright had his first major success with Uncle Tom’s Children. Wright followed his success with Uncle Tom’s Children with a new book – Native Son. Hugely popular, the novel was even compared to the notorious Grapes of Wrath. As Wright grew more popular, he began to focus on his love life. He always went against the norm and had many extramarital affairs with white women. However, he tended to be extremely insensitive to women. After proposing to many women, he quickly cancelled the weddings and thereafter refused to have anything to do with those women ever again. He married a woman named Meadman, only to quickly divorce and marry a mistress named Poplowitz. However, he was able to settle down with Poplowitz for quite a few years in New York.

Housman, the master director of “Citizen Kane,” came to Wright to make Native Son a film. However, thrilled as Wright was, he had trouble collaborating with Paul Green on the script. Wright won the Spingarn Medal. Wright’s tendency to date white women was revealed in his novel The Outsider. After arguing with his editors, Wright came out with a new book – Black Boy. Black Boy surpassed the success of Native Son but it was met with a lot of criticism from W.E.B. Du Bois. Wright, tired of American racism, decided to try his hand in France. He prepared to go to France by learning French in Quebec with his family. Wright loved his extended stay in France, but had not yet decided to move there permanently. However, when the Wrights returned to New York, they were disgusted and immediately began preparations to go back to Paris. Neither Wright nor Ellen “could endure these petty insults any longer.”5 They departed on the SS America. In Paris, Wright was greatly influenced by the existentialist movement and read many works by Camus and Kierkegaard. Even though they were happy in France, Ellen and Richard Wright found their marriage strained. Wright began to have affairs once more, and Ellen became a mere shadow of the woman she once was. In the meantime, Wright decided to travel to Africa. However, he did not understand any of the customs and was repulsed by many of them. He quickly returned and wrote Black Power in response to his experiences in Africa. Unfortunately, the book was a failure compared to the success of Black Boy and Native Son. Wright and Ellen soon could not bear to be near each other, and while not divorcing to save face, they lived apart from each other. However, Wright became very frail at this time. He died in 1960 of a surprise heart attack.

The authors were not biased in either work because the authors were merely writing a biography about Steinbeck and Wright. The authors generally show a favorable view toward Wright and Steinbeck. However, both authors seem to disapprove of Steinbeck’s and Wright’s constant affairs. St. Pierre even states that Steinbeck was “as guilty as hell.”6 Both authors are Neo Conservative in terms of historiography. Both present an objective view of their respective authors.

KAZI book review states that Wallach’s biography extensively covers Wright’s “obscure origins to his international fame.” She does an excellent job of detailing Wright’s question that he so wished to answer in life – “How can I live freely?”7 In doing so she was able to capture the essence of Wright’s existence. Kirkus book review states that even though Wallach’s biography is relatively short, it is “no rush job.”8 She “takes time to make considered observations about the author’s psyche.”9 Kirkus book review has a generally favorable overview of the biography despite the work’s brevity.

The works were better than most biographies. The works were able to highlight important aspects of life in both Steinbeck’s and Wright’s times very well. For example, St. Pierre notes how Steinbeck was “interested in biology”10 which would have an impact on Steinbeck’s later novels. Despite their characters’ moral attitude; they were both unfaithful to their wives to a fault and had failures like every other human being. Both authors did a good job of staying within the boundaries of taking an objective stance which really allows one to view Steinbeck and Wright from one’s own perspective rather than a perspective that was forced. Both were excellent biographies as they did not swell forever on boring points unlike some other biographies. Quite the contrary, both were quick reads especially for biographies and both are quite interesting. Literature in the 1930’s is very important to American art because it is the voice of the author that can cry out to a multitude of people. It is a form of art that is easily accessible by the common man. Steinbeck and Wright were two great examples of 1930’s writers. This period was critical to the development of American art due to the troubles and turmoil that occurred within this period of time.

Steinbeck and Wright exemplified the type of literature that was important in the 1930s. Their powerful works detailing the troubles within the economy and troubles with racism respectively shaped American literature in their period of time. Their contributions to American literature remain some of the most outstanding pieces of American art of all time. Their work on detailing the plight of the migrant farmers and African-Americans respectively, have played a huge part in American culture.

Paul Kim was born on May 11, 1995. He is an avid League of Legends player. He also participates in many quiz bowl tournaments. He is known among his teammates as Pau Kimsol due to there being another Paul Kim on the same team. His knowledge of pop culture is extremely lacking as he did not know who the Beatles were until Ms. Peck enlightened him and his only knowledge of Elvis came from Lilo and Stitch. His hobbies are sleeping and eating. Even with his busy schedule, Pau finds time to play games and play his clarinet. Despite his horrible work ethic, he barely manages to scrape by with his grades and hopes to attend medical school in the near future.  


  1. Wallach, Jennifer Jensen. Richard Wright: From Black Boy to Native Son. Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group. 2010. 4
  2. St. Pierre, Brian. John Steinbeck: The California Years. Literary West Series. 1983. 16
  3. St, Pierre, Brian. John Steinbeck: The California Years. Literary West Series. 1983. 113
  4. Wallach, Jennifer Jensen. Richard Wright: From Black Boy to Native Son. Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group. 2010. 26
  5. Wallach, Jennifer Jensen. Richard Wright: From Black Boy to Native Son. Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group. 2010. 135
  6. St. Pierre, Brian. John Steinbeck: The California Years. Literary West Series. 1983. 111
  7. KAZI Book Reivew. Richard Wright: From Black Boy to Native Son. “Richard Wright Biography Focus of November 14 KAZI Book Review. 2010
  8. Kirkus Book Reviews. Richard Wright: From Black Boy to Native Son. 2010
  9. Kirkus Book Reviews. Richard Wright: From Black Boy to Native Son. 2010
  10. St. Pierre, Brian John Steinbeck: The California Years. Literary West Series. 1983. 16