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John Steinbeck

Ralph Waldo Emerson: 1803-1882
Nathaniel Hawthorne: 1804 -1864 The Scarlet Letter 1850
Longfellow: 1807 -1882 The Song of Hiawatha 1855
Edgar Allan Poe: 1809-1849 The Fall of the House of Usher 1840
Claude Bernard: 1813-1873
Henry David Thoreau: 1817-1862
Walt Whitman: 1819-1892
Herman Melville: 1819-1891Bartleby the Scrivener 1853
Emily Dickinson: 1830 -1886
Louisa May Alcott: 1832 -1888 Little Women 1868
Ambrose Bierce: 1842-1914 An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge 1890
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens): 1835-1910 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1885
Henry James: 1843- 1916 Turn of the Screw 1898
Stephen Crane: 1871-1900 The Red Badge of Courage 1895
Willa Cather: 1873 -1847 My Antonia 1918
John Steinbeck: 1902-1968 Of Mice and Men 1950

Steinbeck

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was born in Salinas, California in 1902. He went to Stanford in 1919, attending the school on and off. While enrolled in the college, Steinbeck occupied himself in casual blue collar jobs (farming, canning, etc.), which was a disappointment for his family. He was a journalist in New York and was also a caretaker of a home in Tahoe. Steinbeck then moved to Monterrey where he lived in a home paid for by his parents. Steinbeck resented being under the supervision and care of his parents and many of his novels depict this feeling of resentment. His stories were often based on his personal crisis and he, in a way, lived through his fiction. He won the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Steinbeck usually wrote in a time of crisis. He wrote The Red Pony in 1933-1936 when his mother was dying of problems resulting from a stroke;because of this his father was becoming emotionally handicapped. Steinbeck returned to Salinas to help care for his mother.. Because he was not famous and had little money, Steinbeck was threatened by the prospect of losing his parents who gave him his funds. He finally became famous & financially independent when his parents died. When writing, Steinbeck often included autobiographical elements or personal reflections of life in his stories. In The Red Pony there is care for a middle class family who is living the American dream. Yet the entire novel is adorned by an undercurrent of dissatisfaction -- life's not good enough (pony dying) -- or a sense that life is cruel and isn't fair. (just as Steinbeck's situation was -- he had no money, was working common labor jobs, and had a dying mother) Also, the parents in the story are adult figures of support and understanding, but are constantly trying to be left behind or escaped by Jody, which is a parallel to Steinbeck and his parents.

Steinbeck wrote with a sense that the world is full of disappointment and one can never get fulfillment. The Red Pony is similar to Steinbeck's life because it has to do with a hard life and the need to work to survive. His stories show how families could reach the American Dream of having everything, yet there is still an undercurrent of dissatisfaction: Jody can never seem to do enough to impress his father. Life isn't the American Dream, because nothing in life will always be perfect: things go on in ways one can't predict. The Tiffins reach the American dream of owning land but times are still hard. The Red Pony has no closing: it is merely a collection of almost-fulfilled dreams and disappointments. Like Steinbeck, Jody needs his parents for support, yet he wishes to be free of them and often rebels. Steinbeck believed that the American Dream was unattainable and that the world was disappointing, but this seemed to be contradicted by his becoming famous when for so long he had been poor.

Melville believed a writer's job was to make order of the chaos of life. Steinbeck felt his job was to merely tell and depict the turmoil of life in sequences of event after event. Like Cather, Steinbeck writes stories of hardships that test the strengths and weaknesses of people. Steinbeck evaded literary tradition by leaving his endings unclear and hanging. He did not "shape life into orderly units."

In The Grapes of Wrath, there is an idea that individual movements make the larger scene or picture, or the little people make or define the greater American movement. The individual movements of the people made up one epic movement westward. FDR read The Grapes of Wrath and used it as a way to push his New Deals, yet Steinbeck did not write these stories for people to pity the characters. Steinbeck believed that the epic story did not lie in the migrant farm hands but in the relationship between the family members. Steinbeck also viewed the dream of the west as quixotic, full of trivial and hopeless pursuits.

Of Mice and Men is an allusion to the poem, To a Field Mouse, by Robert Burns. Of Mice & Men presents suffering, yet does not give the reader a solution to the suffering. Steinbeck's novels are a balance between sympathy and the inevitable. He avoids emotions and presents the facts:

Steinbeck used a lot of balance in his books.
-- balances sympathy with the inevitability of people not getting what they want
-- light and dark
-- hope and despair
-- life and death
-- city and rural setting (how both prove to be complex)

In The Red Pony, Steinbeck uses a lot of imagery of opposites: the Galiban Mountains vs. the Great Mountains, light vs. dark, despair vs. hope. The Grandfather is offered lemonade which is both sweet and sour. This scene with the grandfather shows how Jody is willing to stand up against his father.

He also contrasts/compares kids and parents. He brings up the idea that parents are just as self-centered as kids and lack the ability to see the faults in them. In essence, we are all kids inside.

Willa Cather avoids specific political issues, yet her stories deal with the grim unrelenting stories of life and how life is a test of strengths and weaknesses within people. Unlike Steinbeck, Cather seems to leave a feeling of optimism and hope that lives can get better. Cather and Steinbeck each depict the complications of rural living -- as opposed to the bucolic, sentimental ideal of quiet, safe, peaceful country life. The necessity of being self-sustaining and self-reliant in the country exposes the illusion that only city life is dangerous. In rural America, families still experience death and economic hardship.

My Antonia and The Red Pony seem to be similar in describing or showing the importance of family. In both novels, family plays a central part in affecting each of the characters' lives. Antonia's father seems to have a very positive outreach to his daughter, bringing to her happiness, joy, and comfort. After the father dies, the mother takes over the leading role and, while she is still loved by Antonia, is not as close and personal as the father; instead of being the caring parent, she forces Antonia to take on responsiblity and work hard to obtain her joy and prosperity. Jody in The Red Pony faces the same situation with different people in the roles. Billy Buck is the fatherly figure who provides comfort to and nourishes Jody, and Jody's actual father, Carl, proves to be the detached figure who makes Jody work and be productive. In both cases there are people that shape and define Jody's and Antonia's lives.

There is also a theme of nature and how people can find joy or peace or a haven in the simplicity of nature.


My Antonia and The Red Pony both deal with the subject of growing up in the new land of young America. In My Antonia, the Shimerdas come to America searching for the better life that America symbolized to many immigrants. This adventure of coming to a new land mirrors the way that Jody's grandfather led people to the unexplored west in hopes of a fresh beginning. Both the Shimerdas and Jody's grandfather, however, reflect upon this adventure and wonder if it was truly worth it. While grandfather looks back on these years of exploration with nostalgia because the adventure itself was the most important thing in his life, the Shimerdas look back and long for their home in Bohemia. Both grandfather and the Shimerdas find that while adventure into the outside world is important and vital, it does not promise uncomplicated happiness.

Jody, like the Shimerdas, faces the loss of his perfect fantasy. For example, Jody had had illusions of naming his new horse "Black Demon", and using him in adventures of saving the town. But when the horse's birth is complicated and results in the loss of Nellie, Jody is forced to realize the ridiculousness of his fantasy and understand that idealistic dreams of the world often don't work out. This realization seems to also occur to the Shimerdas as they find themselves in poverty in the new country and when Mr. Shimerda commits suicide. Both stories deal with ideas of lost illusion and realization of the true nature of the world.


Both authors use nature to foreshadow what will happen in the stories: The buzzards fly over Gabilan before he is going die in The Red Pony, and in My Antonia the weather reflects Jim's life. A fierce winter appears before Mr. Shimerda commits suicide.

Both authors explore the idea of sympathy and open-mindedness. With Antonia's family moving to Nebraska it is hard for the immigrants to communicate and to connect with Jim's family due to culture/language barriers. Acceptance and understanding help the two families to make a bonding relationship. In contrast, Carl Tiflin is not accepting of Gitano and does not sympathize with his need to return to his birth town. Carl makes no effort to befriend the Mexican and because he is different casts him aside immediately.

In The Red Pony, and in My Antonia, Steinbeck and Cather explore the common theme: "coming of age." Both Jody and Jim go through events in their lives that cause them to grow and mature whether it is the harsh loss of a pony, or the intense loss of a friend's father.

Both books focus on people in the same time period of America. Jim and Jody grow up on a self-sufficient farm that their families own. The stories describe lives of normal Americans with a realistic style. Both authors incorporate nature which gives strong visuals and images that reflect both depth & meaning.


Both Willa Cather and John Steinbeck use descriptions of nature and the surroundings to make a large picture of what is taking place. In My Antonia and in Paul's Case we discussed this as "being part of a grand design." Though the scenery may seem wide open and plain, it creates a feeling of belonging.

In The Red Pony, when Jody shows his schoolmates his horse, "...they looked at Jody with eyes in which there was a new admiration and a new respect...They knew instinctively that a man on a horse is spiritually as well as physically bigger than a man on foot." (p. 11) This transformation from boy to man is also seen in My Antonia when Jim kills the large rattlesnake. Steinbeck and Cather both comment on the fact that situations, actions, and events would be different if one were rich rather than poor. Both novels contrast the lives of the more well-off with those of the very poor. Both stories also show that in order for people to get what they want or have what they need, they must be willing to work for it. Antonia works because she realizes it is something she needs to do to help her family, while Jody works for his father in order for him to breed Nellie with the Stallion and ultimately to be able to raise his own colt.


Both Cather and Steinbeck emphasize people "melting" into the big scheme of things. Gitano rides off into the wilderness to die and Jim disappears willingly into the fields for a while. Both deal with the idea that humans are a part of a bigger meaning. The books also glorify the farm while showing the tragedies which take place within it.

The stories also deal with social structure and how people can be unwillingly bound to other human's ideas. Steinbeck & Cather each express the idea of growing up and starting anew in a strange environment. They portray the difficulties that farmers face in every day life.

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Copyright February 15, 2008 Marie M. Furnary All rights reserved.