Great books are not meant to be read then discarded like bad memories to collect dust on the shelves of Good Will. They are essays of life. They cannot be graded, for an A would do them injustice. They are simply, immortality on paper.
A good writer leaves traces of himself within each word, between each paragraph and engraved on each page. Steinbeck was a master at evoking empathy for people and places unknown. His life experiences, beliefs, and love live on between the covers of his masterpieces. His soul is a part of the American conscience.
"I wonder how many people I've looked at all my life and never seen." - The Winter of Our Discontent
His characters were honest, authentic; portraying them not as the images people believed they knew or saw every day but as they were. He gave his characters interactions and dialogue so raw many critics would claim his works were obscene, rather than admit they were the truth of the time.
He understood the three evils; isolation, loneliness and weakness. They destroy the soul and kill the American dream. People need, not only to be loved, but, a place to be. A home; whatever definition it holds within one's heart.
"There is more beauty in truth, even when its dreadful beauty." - East of Eden
Steinbeck often exposed what he believed to be America's shame and inequality. The naked, unabashed endeavor for much of America to survive. He documented the constant struggle between good and evil, the moral and amoral, the strong and weak, the weak and the weakest. He illustrated the clocked humanity verses the acknowledged society that was 'seen'. The consequence; many of his greatest works were burned then banned. Even today many still challenge his writings in attempt to keep them from being read.
"To finish is a sadness to a writer - a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn't really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind, for no story is ever done." - John Steinbeck
The power and imagery of Steinbeck's words are boundless. My first realization of his influence, the endurance of his characters, places and times was in 1988 while I strolled along Cannery Row.
The eighties Ocean Avenue, the version I saw, a scenic peaceful post card. The personification of a California tourist attraction, nothing like the riotous, rowdy, dismal Depression era Steinbeck depicted. The voices of his characters and the by gone places came to life as I walked along the now charming little piece of Monterey.
The shops, restaurants, aquarium, a tribute to Steinbeck's underlying message, there is beauty in all things ugly. With time, the elegance will be exposed be it a place or a person's soul.
The dreams, the tin, the stink, the desperation, the flop house, the honky tonks, the grocery store, the nostalgia, the saints, the sinners, the doc, the boys, the artist and the whore were all vivid and alive. Their ghostly vignettes dotted the row as I spent my afternoon by the water.
The sea lions frantic honks echoed from the bay, through Cannery Row to the parking lot. They caused me to turn and look after I buckled my daughter into her car seat. I smiled. The sun was lowering in the afternoon sky, the hints of the evening shades were beginning to paint the horizon. In the hues of orange and red I could hear Doc's opera, hear his voice recite the Sanskirt poem to his guests in the final chapter of Cannery Row.
I know that I have savored the hot taste of life
Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast.
Just for a small and forgotten time
I have had full in my eyes from off my girl
The whitest pouring of eternal light- " - Cannery Row
My life was vastly different than Steinbeck's characters. Yet that afternoon, as the sun shone on my face I was reminded even in our inequalities, I shared a lot with them. I too was sad and broken. I was a lost soul, resigned to my recent fate of loneliness.
Not many writers can bring a place so dead back to life so vibrantly, connect the souls of one era to another. Steinbeck had that gift. He truly was/is one of the greatest American writers.
Happy Birthday Mr. Steinbeck!