I discovered John Steinbeck in my mid-teens, and went on to read everything ever published under his name in relatively short order: his classic short story collections, his novels, his travel stories, his essays, and his published letters to friends and editors, A Life in Letters.
His early “socially conscious” stories about migrant farm workers and labor disputes, and his enduring novel of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath, used art to portray the times, the issues, and the Western American sense of place with lyrical prose and generous compassion.
Steinbeck’s later acknowledged masterpiece, East of Eden, cast a wider net, and built a sprawling family epic set against a broad sweep of American history. It is rich with memorable characters, deep reflection, and a deliberate biblical scale that was both mythological and earthy.
The Winter of Our Discontent was one of Steinbeck’s last works (published in 1961—he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and died in 1968), and it is remarkably different from any of his other novels. A deceptively simple story, it was thoroughly “of its time,” and turned a sharp, judgmental eye upon the American culture and morality of the late 1950s. The tale is set in a small Long Island town, its people portrayed with humor and affection, and Steinbeck directly addresses the pressures, temptations, and moral greyness of those times — and our own.
From Main Street to Death of a Salesman to a multitude of present-day books, movies, and TV shows, those themes of modern American life remain timeless and deeply relevant. It could be said that the main character in The Winter of Our Discontent, Ethan Hawley, is not grappling with Good and Evil, but with Right and Wrong. So are we all.
I first read The Winter of Discontent many years ago, and loved it then, but a mention of an episode in the book by a friend inspired me to reread it. Like the old saying that you can’t step into the same river twice, you can never read the same book twice. But the power and significance of this novel endure, perhaps even stronger than ever, and I believe it should be considered not only among Steinbeck’s major works, but also an important American novel of the twentieth century.