John Steinbeck was not known for being a great stylist. Sure, he wrote classics like The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Yet he was never able to put words together the way so many outstanding writers do. Whereas Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner – all his contemporaries – wrote like no one else, Steinbeck's writing was often rather conventional. In fact, it could sometimes be quite clunky.
What is it, then, that makes Steinbeck's body of work so memorable? The answer lies in one word – empathy. Steinbeck felt for people during a time when a lot of individuals were cast by the wayside of society. Whether focusing on migrant workers or the denizens of a bay town, the man always wanted his readers to get an understanding of how others lived, struggled and felt. In short, he dedicated his craft to serving a greater purpose – the plight of the overlooked.
Of course, in our tisky, tribalized age, there are those who criticize Steinbeck for not being more inclusive, for not having enough members of minority groups in his writing. This criticism is rubbish. Scholars aren't going to call out the poet Langston Hughes for writing solely on the African American experience, nor do they have any business doing so. Like Steinbeck, Hughes wrote from a place which proved fertile ground for his own ability and imagination.
It's good to keep in mind Steinbeck's Joad family represents displacement, poverty and hope. In short, they could be of any race or era. It's the universality of Steinbeck's themes, not the background data of his characters, which allows his work to survive. For Steinbeck's greatness rests not in dazzling us with a pen, but in shining a light in places we might not otherwise look.
In an era where self is king, we can learn a lot from him.