John Steinbeck 2

John Steinbeck’s Portrayal Of Alcoholics Essay, Research Paper

John Steinbeck’s Portrayal of Alcoholics

By V. Kayt Whitten,

Lila L. Anastas has said of John Steinbeck: “Steinbeck

the person wanted … to experience everything and then

write about it. He was the versatile author of over thirty

full-length books and short story collections, as well as

plays, filmscripts, numerous articles, and volumes of

letters. He received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962.

In my view, he is one of the top ten American novelists, not

just because he was a great storyteller but because he dealt

with important concepts and universal themes” (150).

Steinbeck’s reputation as both a person and a writer has

been considered on the negative side of perfection.

Considered a very private person, not impressed by his own

or others acquisition of wealth, he is rumored to have had a

drinking problem.

His was not a success story that followed the normal

pattern for writers of his day and caliber. A few of his

books were banned at the time of publication (including

Grapes Of Wrath) because of their language and rebellious

spirit. His depiction of certain components of society have

been met with disbelief and anger. However, Steinbeck is,

without a doubt, one of the greatest writers of American

fiction. Like most writers, he uses those he knows and

studies, as well as his own personal experiences, to draw on

to create realistic and memorable characters. Many writers

use archetypes or draw from different aspects of themselves

in order to give a character depth and meaning in context.

John Steinbeck was known to draw his characters and settings

from either mythical, archetypal and, or, personal


“Later in life, Steinbeck wrote to a friend: “Long ago,

I knew perhaps that mine was not a truly first-rate talent.

I had then two choices only–to throw it over or to use what

I had to the best of my ability. I chose the second, and I

have tried to keep it clean.” … Steinbeck based many of

the characters on his real-life Salinas neighbors (and

embellished things as he saw fit). This did not sit well

with the neighbors” (Anastas 153). He also used a lot of

his own memories and experiences in his writing.

“As a writer and a man, Steinbeck did have strikes

against him. He never graduated from college. He suffered

through two failed marriages before finding bliss with his

third wife, Elaine. Furthermore, he never achieved critical

acclaim after his early work, despite the popularity of The

Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. He suffered from the

judgment of critics who believed his work should not be

accepted as real art, and that Steinbeck lacked the fictive

imagination of Hemingway or Faulkner” (Allison 245). His

opinion of himself was rather low and demeaning. He fit the

profile of an alcoholic, even if he wasn’t truly limited by

its influence.

He grew up in Salinas and attended Stanford University.

“Steinbeck, however, did not fit in with the Stanford scene

and attended classes only sporadically. He preferred

working as a hired hand in various ranches in Monterey

County or working in a variety of other jobs, including one

with the Big Sur highway project and one at Spreckels Sugar

Company near Salinas. In 1925, Steinbeck left Stanford

permanently and went to New York City to seek his fame and

fortune as a writer. He returned to California in a year.

These were difficult times for the young writer, as he

collected rejection slips and watched his early novels bomb”

(Anastas 153). If he was to have had a problem with

alcohol, this time in his life certainly reflects the


If it is true that he was an alcoholic, it is not seen

in his work ethics as they apply to writing – however, it

may be seen in his sporadic and time limited employment as a

young man, before his writing career took off. Where it

could be seen in his writing is in the portrayal of some of

his characters. The people who populate Steinbeck’s novels

are portrayed as real within time and context and so must,

surely, be somewhat modeled after people that were known to

the author. It cannot be denied that his books almost

always had a character that was closer to the darker aspects

of living than others.

In Steinbeck’s most famous work, Grapes of Wrath, the

character of Uncle John can be compared to the accepted view

of Steinbeck. Uncle John can be regarded as the black sheep

of the Joad family. He was an eccentric loner, and a lonely

guilt-ridden man. He is a man who has a history of sadness

that follows him like a shadow he can no longer see as it

lengthens in the view of others. Long ago, his young wife,

who was pregnant, had told him one night that she had a

stomach-ache, which he ignored to the extent that he

suggested she take some medicine. She died that night of a

burst appendix. The pattern of Uncle John’s life alternates

between periods of severe abstinence and brief binges, the

evil side taking over when he’s drinking and the warm

hearted man who gives candy to children appearing in his

sober moments. In many ways, Uncle John shows signs of a

classic case of alcoholism: the cyclic nature of his

bingeing and ‘going sober’; the self centered attitude that

would not see that his wife was in real and mortal danger;

and the self pitying stance that guilt was his by right and

could only be assuaged by alcohol. The fact that Steinbeck

gave him his own name could be coincidence, or it could

point to the fact that Steinbeck based Uncle John on those

aspects of himself.

The Palace Flophouse Boys in Cannery Row are certainly

portrayed as drifters who care more for their next drink

than their next shower and hot meal – although they are

given a certain amount of character strength, they are

mostly seen as vagabonds and idlers. Theirs is the

occupation of the drunk on the street, the man who chooses

to be free within the bounds of his deviance.

Danny Taylor, a character in Winter Of Our Discontent,

is a man who has been destroyed by failure in his last year

at school, and is now left with only the drunk’s sense of

danger crowding in. He is a victim in the struggle for

success within the American culture; a man who has fallen

abut is aware of the distance he must re-tread in order to

get his life back. At least one person – Margie – believes

him to be a kind and decent person and this gives the reader

hope as well.

Whether it is true or not that John Steinbeck had a

problem with alcohol, it can be said that he fit some of the

patterns of an alcoholic and that he portrayed the alcoholic

in one of his novels in a realistic and understanding

manner. Not all realism must come from personal experience,

however, the patterns in his own life as well as his

knowledge to portray the lifestyle and thinking of the

alcoholic certainly lends validity to the rumor.


Allison, Stephen. “John Steinbeck: A Biography.” The Antioch

Review, (1996): March, pp. 245(1

Anastas, Lila L. “You Can Go Home Again.” World and I,

(1999): January, pp. 150(7).

Steinbeck, John. Cannery row. (New York, NY: The Viking

Press, 1945).

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes Of Wrath. (New York, NY::

Penguin, 1992).

Steinbeck, John. The winter of our discontent.(New York, NY:

Viking Press, 1961).


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