Great American writers who dare to write for mass audiences often receive critical scorn for their efforts.
Kurt Vonnegut, who did just that, once told me that many critics have the mistaken view that any idea that can be easily understood cannot be profound. That misperception leads too many critics to undervalue writers whose work reaches and moves readers regardless of race, sexual identity, economic status, political affiliation or any other demographic divider.
Those writers often are punished because they speak not to a specific identity but to our common humanity.
Vonnegut admired John Steinbeck.
It’s easy to see why. The two great and frequently misunderstood writers often dealt with variations of the same overarching theme—namely, that both kindness and cruelty have consequences.
And they both often were dismissed or even maligned because they committed the crime of being easy, even fun, to read.
I sit in the house where Steinbeck was born. It’s now a restaurant and gift shop and I’m munching on a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
This birthplace is one of many things that these days honor Steinbeck in his hometown. There’s a splendid museum celebrating his career and a beautiful local public library that features both his visage and his name.
It wasn’t always so.
America has an odd and troubling history of attacking those who try to tell the truth. Writers who pull back the curtain on the communities in which they live rarely are lionized during their lifetimes in their hometowns.
Sinclair Lewis, the first U.S. winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was pilloried for satirizing life in middle America. Sherwood Anderson, who helped usher in a new manner of writing with his classic “Winesburg, Ohio,” was all but run out of his hometown of Clyde, the model for the fictional Winesburg.
William Faulkner, also a Nobel laureate, was derided as Count No’count in his native Oxford, Mississippi.
And Vonnegut talked plaintively about the hostile reception he received in Indianapolis following the publication of his masterpiece, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which had the temerity to suggest that war and mass death might not be pleasant experiences.
All this pales in comparison with the hostility Steinbeck encountered.
His towering achievement, 1939’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” prompted massive campaigns of retaliation in two states, his native California and Oklahoma, and led J. Edgar Hoover to consider him a subversive.
The book was an albatross for Steinbeck in other ways, as well. Because it was such an overwhelming success, it became the standard by which all his other work was judged.
Steinbeck resented and resisted the pressure from both critics and audiences to produce another “Grapes of Wrath.”
His response, not unreasonably, was that he’d already written that book and didn’t need to do it again. He’d rather write something else instead.
Which he did.
One of the many things that makes Steinbeck fascinating is his determination to experiment. Few other writers of his stature were so eager to try new forms and tackle different kinds of writing challenges.
Sometimes, Steinbeck succeeded when he tried something different. Other times he did not.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that he paid a price for his willingness to attempt to stretch himself and his talent.
In 1962, he, too, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It should have been a moment of triumph not just for the writer but for the nation he represented.
Instead, many critics questioned whether he deserved the award. The New York Times even criticized the selection, arguing that he’s produced little of value since “The Grapes of Wrath.”
It was an assessment that ignored “East of Eden,” “Cannery Row” and several other gems, some of them flawed but beautiful nonetheless, that followed Steinbeck’s masterwork.
Now, all these years after the tumult that accompanied Steinbeck’s life, I sit in his boyhood home, eating my lunch and trying to determine how the writer came to be.
It doesn’t take much imagination.
Steinbeck’s story is the same as that of so many others.
A young child picks up a pen or pencil and uses it to try to make sense of the world outside and all the life that teems within it.
Along the way, he or she, like Steinbeck, tries to tell the truth.
That’s where the trouble always starts.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the views of Franklin College.