The author you probably never thought of as Irish: John Steinbeck
Quick—name the Irish-American writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Flannery O’Connor? No. Edwin O’Connor? Nope. J. F. Powers? Wrong. John O’Hara? Wrong again. All of those authors were honored with literary prizes within just a few years of 1962, but the Nobel that year went to someone you probably never thought of as Irish: John Steinbeck.
Steinbeck is best known for his “social novels,” including Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), East of Eden (1952) and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961); he also published numerous short stories and a 1962 travelogue, Travels with Charley (Charley was his French poodle). He died in 1968, six years after the Nobel Prize committee honored him “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception.”
The Nobel Prize committee honored John Steinbeck “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception.”
When the great Jim Dwyer (“the last bard of New York,” Eileen Markey called him in America) died in October 2020, I did what every Irish-American does for sport: I read every obituary I could. At some point I stumbled across a curious article Dwyer had written for Irish America in 2002: “The Voice of the Dispossessed.”
Marking the centenary of John Steinbeck’s birth, Dwyer noted that “all the great novels and stories of John Steinbeck slice into the American experience, clear to the bone. They are set in California, or along Route 66, where the Joads trekked across the Southwest from the Dust Bowls. And Steinbeck himself, born with the century, was raised in Salinas, California, when it was still a small town on the last frontier of America.”
Steinbeck’s grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, emigrated from Derry during the Great Hunger of the Irish potato famine around 1849; he married Elizabeth Fagen, the daughter of Irish immigrants, in New York, and they moved to Salinas to become ranchers. Their daughter Olive married John Ernst Steinbeck and they had four children—including John Steinbeck, who was born in 1902.
“The voice of this all-American writer, he himself believed, rose from his Irish grandparents and their daughter, Olive, his mother,” Dwyer noted. “‘I am half-Irish, the rest of my blood being watered down with German and Massachusetts English,’ Steinbeck once wrote. ‘But Irish blood doesn’t water down very well; the strain must be very strong.’”
Well, sláinte, John, and tell Dwyer he’s missed as well.
In 2019, Brandon Sanchez praised Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl novel The Grapes of Wrath as “the greatest social novel of the 20th century.”
America reviewed almost everything Steinbeck wrote, though he ran into a fierce critic in Harold Gardiner, S.J., a Cambridge-educated America literary editor and author in his own right who was personal friends with Flannery O’Connor and acquainted with just about everyone else in the world of letters. (His Norms for the Novel: A Guide to the Moral Evaluation of Creative Literature is glowering at me from a shelf at this very moment.) Gardiner didn’t care for Steinbeck’s “frequent coarseness” and “sermonizing tone,” among other flaws.
Did you like East of Eden? Gardiner didn’t. “What makes this huge novel so strangely readable I just don’t know,” Gardiner wrote in a 1952 review. “It is a mishmash of sensitive appreciation of nature, admiration for the pioneering spirit, biographies of the author's own family, sincere but often phony philosophizing, melodrama, crudity and tenderness.”
In recent years, America’s contributors have been more inclined to praise Steinbeck than to bury him. In 2019, Brandon Sanchez praised Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl novel The Grapes of Wrath as “the greatest social novel of the 20th century.” Sanchez, whose grandfather’s family hitchhiked to California from Oklahoma during the 1930s, called Steinbeck “an artist-historian—a stylish documentarian with a heart for the marginalized, a moralist with few qualms about calling out unchecked greed.” It was not just the message of The Grapes of Wrath that appealed to Sanchez, but the prose:
When I think of Steinbeck, I think of color. It is like that scene in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy Gale emerges from the hazy sepia farmhouse into clear, sharp, eye-busting Munchkinland. Reading Steinbeck makes me scrub off the reductive Dust Bowl browns, as he renders a decade of farm foreclosures and large-scale intranational migration in the “low yellow light of kerosene lanterns” and the green of reeds in a California river, “jerking slowly in the current.”
Two years earlier, the Rev. Terrance Klein used The Grapes of Wrath to illustrate a point in his reflection on scripture for America. Father Klein quoted Steinbeck’s depiction of California landowners resentful at the arrival of Dust Bowl migrants, where Steinbeck gives them voices that sound sadly familiar today: “We got to keep these people down or they’ll take the country. They’ll take the country. Outlanders. Foreigners.” And again:
In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights.
Steinbeck knew that “flare of want in the eyes” from the migrants who arrived in Salinas, fleeing the Dust Bowl. His grandfather and his other ancestors knew the same flare of want as they were forced to leave their homes in Ireland. In both cases, many of those who owned the land and considered themselves heirs to its future turned those who would eke a living from it into an enemy to be driven out.
John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath: "Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants."
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James T. Keane