Steinbeck Renaissance



 February 27, 2015 - Interest in Steinbeck is surging. Steven Spielberg is reportedly preparing a remake of The Grapes of Wrath. Jennifer Lawrence has signed on to play the lead in East of Eden. Last week the actor James Franco, who starred on Broadway last year as George in Of Mice and Men, announced that next month he will start filming an adaptation of Steinbeck’s little-known 1936 novel In Dubious Battle.

Today marks the 113th anniversary of Steinbeck’s birth. To celebrate the occasion, the International Society of Steinbeck Scholars and the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University have proclaimed a Steinbeck Renaissance.

Relevance of Steinbeck’s Work Today

What is it about Steinbeck’s work that resonates with us today? The answer is a sad comment on our times. Many of the issues Steinbeck addressed in novels like The Grapes of Wrath are as relevant today as they were seventy-five years ago. Police abuse, for example, continues to be a major problem in America. As we demonstrate solidarity with the victims in Ferguson, Staten Island, and too many other communities, it’s hard not to think of Tom Joad’s famous line from his farewell speech: “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.”

American society also still discriminates against migrant laborers. The undocumented workers who harvest our fruits and vegetables are today’s “bindlestiffs,” as Steinbeck called the migrant workers George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Politicians talk about immigration reform, but nothing ever happens, and as we argue, produce rots in the fields and those laborers who dare to remain here illegally live in constant fear of deportation. 

Steinbeck in the Schools

Studying the work of John Steinbeck has never been more convenient, thanks to the availability of materials in the local libraries, bookstores, academic research centers, box offices, and websites. The Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University has created Steinbeck in the Schools, a collection of free, downloadable lesson plans developed by experts and optimized for the new Common Core State Standards. All lessons are free to download and modify for use in the classroom. Visit to get started.

Here are just a few ways school curricula can be enriched by the themes of Steinbeck’s writing:

Social Justice

Throughout his career, Steinbeck was committed to defending the rights of the voiceless. His three novels about migrant farmworkers, In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) inspire conversations about injustices in American society.

Ecology and Conservation

Steinbeck also believed in the importance of protecting our natural environment. With his friend, the biologist Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck published The Sea of Cortez (1941), a groundbreaking account of a voyage to Mexico to collect marine specimens. Decades before global climate change surfaced as the issue of our era, Steinbeck was already calling our attention to the fragile health of the natural world.


Steinbeck’s understanding of the broader world was extensive and nuanced. He traveled in many roles including wartime correspondent, public diplomat, and amateur sociologist. Works such as The Moon Is Down (1943), The Pearl (1947), and A Russian Journal (1948) depict a world of recognizable characters in unfamiliar settings, making them ideal readings in curricula of global understanding.


Steinbeck was once, and maybe still is, a controversial author; some of his books were burned and others were banned from schools and libraries. However the controversial history of a book like The Grapes of Wrath makes it a wise choice on a school reading list, as it can lead to a discussion of censorship and its repercussions.

About the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies

Founded in 1972 at San Jose State University, the Center for Steinbeck Studies is the largest publicly-accessible university archive of Steinbeck materials in the world. The Center also hosts the annual “In the Souls of the People” Steinbeck Award. The first Steinbeck Award was given in 1996 to the musician Bruce Springsteen. Recent awardees include Rachel Maddow, John Mellencamp, Ken Burns, and Khaled Hosseini.