John Steinbeck’s Involvement in the Great Depression and Vietnam War
The Great Depression had a massive impact on everyone throughout the United States, and any number of programs to try and improve the well-being of the American people and the economy were put into place under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time as president known as The New Deal. One of these programs was the Federal Writers Project under the Work Progress Administration. One of the many authors brought in on the project was John Steinbeck, who would become a major player in the literary canon of America. Steinbeck wrote his well-known novel, The Grapes of Wrath, and novella, Of Mice and Men. Both books were written to better show the experiences most Americans faced during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Any literature that Steinbeck wrote during his time in the Federal Writers Project was written with one goal in mind: “In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme. Try to understand men, for if you understand each other you will be kind to each other” (Steinbeck), as written in his journal kept throughout this portion of his career. Steinbeck’s overall goal with his writings based on the Great Depression were intended to aid in furthering large scale social change.
The Federal Writers Project was established in 1935 to provide work for writers, teachers, librarians, and the such that would benefit from literature being published. The original purpose of the FWP had been to write a series of guide books that would have individual focuses on several different aspects of the United States, be it history, economic resources, culture of the American people, or the most scenic places in the country.
Throughout 1936, Steinbeck had travelled with a group of migrant workers, seeing first hand their way of life on the road. The quality of life these men had after having been displaced from their homes during the Dust Bowl appalled Steinbeck, who admired their tenacity and will to keep trying to resettle their lives. Based on his experiences with these workers, Steinbeck went on to write Of Mice and Men, focusing more on the hopes of displaced workers to eventually have their own land again to settle down with their families and reclaim their old lives. Of Mice and Men became a popular novella and stage play as American citizens recovering from the aftermath of the Great Depression related to the story as it was a mirror of their own lives not that long ago. Even citizens that were not affected nearly as bad as farmers and other members of the lower class that read this novella or saw the play began to understand just how much of an impact the devastation of the Depression had on the rest of the country.
After Of Mice and Men, in 1939, Steinbeck would go on to write The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath follows the story of the Joad family as they make their way to California to try and rebuild their lives after their family farm was essentially blown away during the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck’s experiences with the migrant workers also played a large influence throughout this novel as the migrant worker camps spread throughout the country, spanning all the way out to California, which would play a large role in many of the key scenes that took place in the novel.
With the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck earned a Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award, however the book was widely banned by most schools for several accounts of ‘obscenities’ and coarse language. The novel was also protested by the Associated Farmers of America for how corporate farmers were being portrayed throughout the novel. With the novel’s success, a film version starring Henry Fonda would go on to be released in 1940, however production was attempted to be stopped completed by the Kern County Board of Supervisors to keep the supposed negativity shown in the book from spreading outside of California. Steinbeck achieved his main goal of causing social change with The Grapes of Wrath and was backed by First Lady Elanor Roosevelt for the truth that was expressed in the novel; First Lady Roosevelt would later influence congressional hearings regarding the condition of the migrant camps.
In the years after writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck spent time exploring the world and learning more and more to expand his experiences in life. During this time, in the earlier years of World War II, Steinbeck travelled through Europe and North Africa as a war correspondent to the New York Herald Tribune. In this time period, Steinbeck would go on to write East of Eden, taking place in America spanning the time frame of the Civil War all the way up to World War I, calling it “the story of my country and the story of me” (Steinbeck). Steinbeck’s continued work in literature involving the topic of the American people and the gradual change of American history earned him many awards and accolades. In 1946, Steinbeck was award the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson for helping the American people re-discover themselves through communal experiences as seen in his works.
In 1947, Steinbeck travelled to the Soviet Union as a journalist accompanied by photographer Robert Capa. During this trip, Steinbeck had been under investigation by the FBI for his pro-worker sentiments expressed throughout his writing, his trip into the Soviet Union seemed to confirm suspicions of Steinbeck being a socialist. Despite having come into contact with many communists, labor organizers, and strikers, there was no real definitive proof of Steinbeck being a card-carrying member of the Socialist or Communist parties. Later in his career however, Steinbeck would come under more speculation of is morals and ideals by the politically left and liberals due to his friendship with President Lyndon B. Johnson and pro-war journalistic reporting during the time of the Vietnam War.
At the age of 64, Steinbeck was on the frontlines of the Vietnam War as a journalist and would send back letters telling of what he saw there- these letters would go on to be the last published work of Steinbeck’s. Steinbeck’s shocking letters originally were printed in Newsday, which had been owned by his friend Harry Gugenheim, throughout 1966 and 1967 to be easily accessible to the public. Outside of the shocking content involving the fighting that took place, many fans of Steinbeck’s previous works were shocked at just how pro-involvement in Vietnam Steinbeck truly was, resulting in these letters being kept out of the public eye after the end of the Vietnam conflict for many years. Steinbeck’s primary involvement in reporting on Vietnam came almost entirely from his own interest- both of his sons would become involved in the war- with some encouragement from President Lyndon B. Johnson, though Steinbeck claimed he was never there on Johnson’s behalf. Despite his involvement in the war itself, one of Steinbeck’s sons confronted his father while in Vietnam over his support for the war, as this son felt that the United States’ involvement in Vietnam was wrong and unnecessary. Later in to the course of the war, Steinbeck did begin to have his doubts over the need for involvement, however, these doubts were never published in Newsday.
John Steinbeck started his career as a writer well before the Federal Writers Project came to fruition, however, this program came to be a major turning point in the career of John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s work in the FWP utilized his experiences living with displaced workers in the aftermath of a massive stock market crash that initiated the Great Depression, only being made worse by the Dust Bowl. Three of Steinbeck’s most iconic works- Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden- would likely never have happened if the FWP was not put into to unify the American people as they look back on their history in order to further understand the place that all Americans had from 1929-1939, feeling a greater connection to other citizens after seeing essentially what they had been through. The FWP also gave Steinbeck earned a great amount of respect- or at least fame- among the American people, as well as the government. Despite the numerous doubts that were had about political ties and viewpoint, John Steinbeck remains as a major player in the American literary cannon.
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