Why teachers treasure Steinbeck's tales
His straightforward style and portraits of rich human relationships give his works a timeless quality
NEW YORK — 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.
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."
Amanda Williams, his student, agrees. "That story could be any time or any place," she says. "You could always have the dreamer, the bully, the guy who doesn't know how innocent and troubled he is, and there's always a crook."
Asked if the novel also helped her to deepen her knowledge of US history and the Depression, Amanda hesitates a bit and then says, "If I'm really enjoying a story I don't analyze those kinds of things, and I really enjoyed this one. It's a really good tale of friendships and relationships."
Chris Evans, a librarian at James Lick High School in San Jose, Calif., says he often steers his young readers toward "Tortilla Flat" (1935), "The Pearl" (1943), and "East of Eden" (1952).
"It's his accessibility that's so wonderful," Mr. Evans says. "I have kids who read at a very low level and kids who are college-prep material, but they all find something in Steinbeck."
Susan Shillinglaw, director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University in California, says Steinbeck's writings draw in older students as well. Carrying a copy of a Steinbeck novel as she rode public transportation one day, she was approached by both a homeless man and a well-dressed couple, all of whom shared their enthusiasm for the book.
"Steinbeck expresses empathy for the marginalized," Ms. Shillinglaw says. "And there is something about that that resonates."
From 'The Pearl': Kino deftly slipped his knife into the edge of the shell. Through the knife he could feel the muscle tighten hard. He worked the blade lever-wise and the closing muscle parted and the shell fell apart. The lip-like flesh writhed up and then subsided. Kino lifted the flesh, and there it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon. It captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence. It was as large as a sea-gull's egg. It was the greatest pearl in the world.
'Of Mice and Men': George's voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically as though he had said them many times before. "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place. They come to a ranch an' work up a stake and then they go into town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they're poundin' their tail on some other ranch. They ain't got nothing to look ahead to.
'Travels with Charley': I saw in [my neighbors' eyes] something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited.
'East of Eden': You can see how this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900. Another hundred years were ground up and churned, and what had happened was all muddied by the way folks wanted it to be more rich and meaningful the farther back it was.