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Steinbeck brought attention to a population of lower and middle class people in California with many of his works, from Tortilla Flats to Of Mice and Men and he dramatized the human plight of living without money or means in a world where money and means go so far in defining our social position and access to ease and happiness.
Steinbeck also updated our "national mythology" by giving us stories of the darker side of the American dream - where everyone, even corporations like those taking over the farms in The Grapes of Wrath, have a right to ownership without apparent limit.
A socially conscious and rather political writer, Steinbeck's best works managed to subsume politics in the deeper subjects of human drama, the challenges of finding justice and keeping friendship.
In my mind, I think that Steinbeck's greatest contribution is his absorption of the voice of the dispossessed in his work. At a time when America's struggles needed to be articulated, Steinbeck was able to give voice to what it meant to struggle in an America that was struggling economically, socially, and politically. In this light, Steinbeck was honest about where America was and how America should be seen. When poverty was something that many Americans internalized as a sign of personal failure or as some type of shortcoming in the life that believed in the "gospel of wealth," Steinbeck wrote about characters and predicaments that saw wealth as something that was manipulated by the hands of the rich over the shoulders of the poor. In stressing the ideas of solidarity and fully grasping what it means to work as a community in order to overcome material hardship, Steinbeck's greatest value is able to give a vision of what should be over what is.
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