I might have left Steinbeck there on the icy linoleum beside an already stone cold Hemingway, had Lennie not died.
Were he still with among us, John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr. would have turned 114 years old today. The acclaimed author knew by age 14 that he wanted to be a writer, and once inspired never abandoned that calling. Over the course of his career, he wrote twenty-seven books, most notably East of Eden, Of Mice & Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. His body of work earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1962, and the admiration of hopeful young writers for generations to come – myself included.
I discovered Steinbeck at thirteen, when I became obsessed with reading The Grapes of Wrath (not for some junior high assignment, but) because something about the raw poetry of its opening lines appealed to me – “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently…”
Then one day as I was sprawled out on the couch reading the thick volume, my father made a passing comment that had lifelong impact on me. “ ‘ Had a professor in college that wanted me to read that,” he said. “Wouldn’t do it.”
“Why not, Daddy?”
He looked past me to somewhere far away. “Sis,” he said,”I lived it. By the time I was your age, I’d picked cotton and beans and apples and everything there is to pick between the Texas panhandle and the Oregon coast. I don’t need to read about some poor Okie doing the same to know what poor feels like.”
In the moment that I realized that John Steinbeck could open a window to my father’s growing up years – one that had been long nailed shut – I became voracious. There weren’t enough words.
Enter: a succession of worn-out high school English teachers, most of whom appreciated neither my literary precocity nor my insightful (read: smart ass) remarks. Together we plodded through an endless catalog of required texts, methodically squashing the vigor out of the classics like lemons beneath an elephant’s heel. I might have left Steinbeck there on the icy linoleum of Mr. See’s English class beside an already stone cold Hemingway, had Lennie not died.
But Lennie did die.
And so there I was one night all alone in my room, curled up in a corner and crying over Lennie and falling in love with John Steinbeck. Not because I loved that book. (I still don’t.) Not even for what Steinbeck could teach me about my father. No, I loved him… I still love him… for what he made me see in myself.
That night, John Steinbeck became my first writing mentor. In time, he showed me how to write objectively, and how to be still and let my characters tell their own stories. Most importantly though, he taught me that when you have a dream, attaining it isn’t always the most important thing.
Inevitably, others followed – Jack London, Langston Hughes, the Celtic poets, Poe, Dumas, Emerson and Thoreau – but Steinbeck was my first. And you know what they say about your first.