illustrated portrait of American author John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

Start Free Trial

What were Steinbeck's political views?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. was an American writer who lived from February 27, 1902 to December 20, 1968. He published 27 books: sixteen novels, six non-fiction books, and two short story collections. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Grapes of Wrath.

Most of Steinbeck’s works, such as Grapes of Wrath, which were centered on the tribulations of a family of sharecroppers during the Great Depression and were sympathetic to the struggles of the working class. Likewise, in real life, Steinbeck supported and involved himself in proletariat and left-leaning organizations. In 1935, he joined the League of American Writers, a communist group.

He also met with strike organizers from the Cannery and Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union. Moreover, his social circle was comprised of leftist supporters such as the writer Lincoln Steffens, his wife Ella Winter, and Francis Whitaker. He was also close with Arthur Miller, whom he supported when Miller refused to cooperate in the controversial House Un-American Activities Committee trials.

In 1948, Steinbeck travelled to the Soviet Union with photographer Robert Capa where they toured Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi, and the remains of the Battle of Stalingrad. There, they chronicled their experiences and produced The Russian Journal, a report book which Steinbeck wrote and Capa illustrated. In The Russian Journal, Steinbeck documented the lives of Soviet peasants and workers to generate empathy and compassion toward the Soviet Union. This was during the Cold War, where anti-communism sentiments in the United States were prevalent and the threat of war between the two countries seemed imminent.

Despite this, Steinbeck’s commitment to the left was still heavily criticized. This reached its peak when Steinbeck went to Vietnam in 1967 to report on the war, where his sympathetic portrayal of the United States Army drew criticism from journalistic venues such as the New York Post.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Throughout his life, Steinbeck was sympathetic to the plight of the working class in the United States.  Most of his novels, for example, are about the struggles of everyday people to survive in a system that works against them.  He was born and grew up in an agricultural valley near the Pacific Coast (Salinas), and many of his themes and characters came from his intimate knowledge of the migrant and blue-collar workers who populated the Salinas and Monterrey Bay area.

In Tortilla Flat (1955), for example, Steinbeck created a wonderfully diverse picture of life in essentially a slum area near Monterrey, CA, populated by characters who were at the edges of society and who really didn't care whether they succeeded or not in terms of middle-class material success.  His characters were outside the mainstream of American life, and Steinbeck was one of the first American writers to concern himself almost exclusively with people who were not part of the middle or upper classes but whose lives had completely redeeming value.

Arguably Steinbeck's best novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), came out of Steinbeck's own experience when he joined an itinerant group moving from Oklahoma to California and spent months...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

working alongside these people in the fields of California.  This experience results in a novel that is intensely sympathetic to the working class and deeply suspicious of the land-owning class.  Among other things, Steinbeck strenuously advocates the creation of labor unions to protect the rights of migrant agricultural workers.  In his much later novelCannery Row(1955), which, in some respects is reminiscent of Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck focuses on characters just after WWII, who have come home disillusioned, in some cases, traumatized, and characters who essentially reject the middle-class values of the 1950s and live a marginal, but free, life in and around Monterrey. 

Steinbeck made a trip to the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and seems to have gotten on the FBI's "watch list" at that point.  At one point, Steinbeck wrote a letter to a government official asking him to call off the FBI's surveillance because they were becoming too obtrusive.  This visit, however, did not appear to result in Steinbeck becoming a huge fan of communism, but there is no doubt that Steinbeck's sympathies were with the working class, and he looked on anything that bettered the lives of working-class people as a good thing.

Steinbeck's political belief system, which was certainly to the Left, did not prevent him from supporting the United States in Vietnam.  As a war correspondent, Steinbeck wrote several very pro-government pieces about our involvement in the war and, in fact, he was criticized by the anti-war faction  for his support of the war.

While Steinbeck's political views were to the left of center (closer to socialism that to communism), I think it's correct to say that his politics were a reflection of his powerful and life-long support of people who were disadvantaged because they were not at the center of American society.  Further, Steinbeck's politics were a result of this empathy for the common man rather than the cause.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team