Many people would call John Steinbeck—another one of our Past Environmental Heroes— America’s greatest writer. We are among those, not just because of Steinbeck’s empathy with the human spirit but also because of the ardent environmentalism he displayed in his works. Steinbeck’s perpetually exasperated look, thin—almost evil looking mustache overtopping his ever-present cigarillo—somewhat belied his strong feelings about and support for the everyday working man and his living conditions.
From The Grapes of Wrath to Cannery Row, Steinbeck wrote searingly about America’s degradation of our environment. He lashed out at overharvesting fisheries stocks, about harmful farming practices, and – most emphatically—about the global evils of human overpopulation. In his novel, Sweet Thursday, Steinbeck warns that, “Man, in saving himself, has destroyed himself”.
Throughout his writings, Steinbeck staunchly preached conservation and, in his last work, America and Americans, he put forth the hope that we could learn to not “destroy wantonly”. If he were still alive today, we strongly suspect his next book would be entitled something along the lines of: Dark and Angry Skies – Fighting the World’s War Against Climate Contaminants.
Born in Salinas, California in 1902, John Steinbeck lived in a modest family home in the midst of a prosperous farming community that formed the background for his novels and the basis for his characters who strongly identified with the land. Beginning in early adolescence, he demonstrated his strong propensity for the pen. In high school, he would hide away in his secret attic cubby and write short stories that he would send out to magazines under pseudonyms without a return address. In later years, he sheepishly admitted that “he was scared to death to get a rejection slip, but more afraid of getting an acceptance.”
In 1919, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University but never graduated after five years of taking courses on and off. It was during this time, however, that he became enamored with science and biology. While working for a fish hatchery in Tahoe City, California, he met and married Carol Henning. The couple moved to a cottage owned by his Dad on the Monterey Peninsula of which Steinbeck wrote, “Financially we are in a mess, but spiritually we ride the clouds. Nothing else matters.”
Finally with the acceptance and publication of Pastures of Heaven, a loosely connected collection of short stories about the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck’s writing career took off in earnest. What many consider his best work that we’ve just discussed, The Grapes of Wrath, won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in 1939.
Steinbeck’s ties to environmentalism and ecology—before each became a watchword in the US—have been acknowledged and described by many scientists. In the book entitled Steinbeck and the Environment, Clifford and Mimi Gladstein describe his beliefs this way: “Literary works often precede and foretell the articulation of philosophical concepts. And lovers of the natural world have been among the most devoted readers of John Steinbeck. Maybe it is because they see in his works strong identification with and respect for tillers of the soil and harvesters of the sea as well as an abiding reverence for the earth in its pristine state.”
Writing in the same book, Lorelei Cederstrom takes things a step further, “In his depiction of the fertile earth and the lives of those who have depended on her for abundance, John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath presents a visionary foreshadowing of the universal ecological disaster that looms so prominently on the horizon today.”
Steinbeck continued to write in his later years, including many highly acclaimed and widely read other books—Burning Bright (1950), East of Eden (1952), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), and Travels with Charley: In Search of America(1962). In 1962, he received the vaunted Nobel Prize for Literature which was awarded for his “… realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” Steinbeck died of heart disease on December 20, 1968, at his home in New York City at the age of 66—far too young for an environmental savant of his stature.
The best two pieces of advice any writer can ever receive are “be observant of the world around you” and “write about what you know”. Based on his prolific and heartfelt works, Steinbeck was a master at both of these directives. Those of us with writing predilections who are working today to counter Climate Change would do well to study Steinbeck’s books. We need to learn how to emulate his marvelous skills at perfectly portraying the absolute essence of the social, business, and environmental inequities he saw happening in his day and time. If we can figure out how to transfer our feelings about the perils that Climate Change pose with the same burning passion that John Steinbeck displayed, we will surely be successful at rallying the world to our cause.
Text excerpted from book: “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change” written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger and published by Prometheus Books. Photo credit: Copyright Shutterstock.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change”, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — “COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America” — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.