Why teachers treasure Steinbeck's tales
His straightforward style and portraits of rich human relationships give his works a timeless quality
When Peggy Stark taught eighth-grade English at St. Andrew's School in Saratoga, Calif., she promised herself that as soon as teaching a particular novel became a stale experience, she'd drop that book from the curriculum.Skip to next paragraph
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John Steinbeck's "The Pearl" was not one of those novels. She taught it for 15 years straight, stopping only when she retired three years ago.
"I just never burned out," she says, praising the book as an honest, empathetic piece of literature with a plot that grips and lucid language that is accessible even to poor readers. "And kids just love it."
While Steinbeck's stock among literary critics has risen and fallen over the years, in 2002 as the centennial of his birth is being celebrated around the country his works are still staples of reading lists for students in high school and junior high.
According to a 1988 survey, the only author whose works were more often assigned for reading in US public high schools was Shakespeare.
Outside academic settings as well, Steinbeck continues to find a wide audience. About 2 million English-language copies of his books are sold every year, with "The Grapes of Wrath" alone achieving sales of about 300,000annually.
Because several of his novels shed light on life during the Great Depression and the 1930s, they are often jointly assigned in English and social studies classes.
Many teachers insist that while the background of the novels is useful, it is the human relationships portrayed in Steinbeck's works and the response they elicit from young readers that make his books valuable teaching tools. Because these relationships have a timeless quality, even tales of agrarian life speak to teens today.
Steinbeck's prose and plots tend to be straightforward, and that has caused some to see him as a bit of a literary lightweight compared with contemporaries such as William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But Steinbeck was addressing a different audience, his advocates say. "He strikes a chord with working people," says Harold Augenbraum, director of the Mercantile Library in New York and codirector of the Steinbeck Centennial. "And he asked significant social questions again and again. When it comes to environmentalism, disparity of income, problems of immigration, he was way ahead of his time."
"The Grapes of Wrath" (1939), a tale of Dust Bowl farmers forced by the Depression to migrate to California, is regarded by some as Steinbeck's masterpiece, and for decades it's been a fixture in high schools.
But some teachers say that is not necessarily the Steinbeck novel that students most easily grasp. For many who teach Steinbeck's books, a classroom favorite is "Of Mice and Men" (1937), the story of two migrant ranch workers and their unusual ultimately heartbreaking friendship.
'There's something about that book that transcends even the context of the Great Depression," says Sam Brian, who teaches eighth grade at the Bank Street School for Children in New York. "It's the characters, the compassion."