John Steinbeck’s America Syllabus

taught by David M. Wrobel

Download complete syllabus at this link.


“John Steinbeck’s America” is a 3-credit cross-listed course that can be taken for ENGL or HIST credit.  While working on his Pulitzer Prize-winning study The Grapes of Wrath in 1938, Steinbeck communicated to a friend, “I’m trying to write history while it is happening, and I don’t want to be wrong.”  The course examines the intersections of history and literature from the Great Depression and World War II to the early Cold War years and the 1960s.  Steinbeck’s “years of greatness,” 1936-1939—which featured his strike novel, In Dubious Battle, “The Harvest Gypsies” (1936), a series of newspaper articles on migrant labor conditions, the novella Of Mice and Men (1937), the short-story collection The Long Valley (1938), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939)—receive special attention.  Steinbeck emerged as the most influential and controversial chronicler of the conditions endured by the working poor during the Depression era.

However, the story of Steinbeck’s centrality to American history and letters does not end with the 1930s.  He served as a government propagandist during World War II, writing Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942) and The Moon Is Down (1942), traveled to England, North Africa, and Italy as a war correspondent (June-December 1943), and wrote what might be considered the first novel of the American Counterculture, Cannery Row (1945).  Then, as the nation entered the Cold War, Steinbeck traveled to the Soviet Union with photographer Robert Capa and crafted an insightful account of the lives of ordinary people there, A Russian Journal (1948).  He also wrote his second “big” novel and perhaps his greatest one, East of Eden (1952), a work that reflected some of the major shifts taking place in American thought and culture.  Later in his career Steinbeck produced one of the classics of the American travel-writing genre, Travels With Charley in Search of America (1962); received the Nobel Prize for Literature (1962); and served briefly as a war correspondent in Vietnam (1966-1967).

While Steinbeck (1902-1968) is perhaps less significant as an innovator in literary form than his contemporaries William Faulkner (1897-1962), Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), he was the most important chronicler of the common strivings of Americans during the middle third of the twentieth century.  We will use Steinbeck as a guide to American cultural history, combining close textual analysis with historical contextualization and research.  We will also employ some digital humanities approaches during the semester, including the software annotation package, and Omeka-based website building.


The course is designed to provide a detailed introduction to the writings of John Steinbeck, and to the larger backdrop of American thought and culture during the Depression, WWII, and early Cold War years.  In addition, “John Steinbeck’s America” is intended to underscore the significance of literary sources for students of history and the parallel significance of historical context for students of literature.  The course is also designed to enhance writing, critical thinking, and research skills, and to introduce you to digital humanities approaches.


  • John Steinbeck, Novels and Stories, 1932-1937 (New York: Library of America, 1994);
  • John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings, 1936-1941 (New York: Library of America, 1996);
  • John Steinbeck, Novels, 1942-1952 (New York: Library of America, 2002).


Week 1:               W, Jan. 18: Introduction: Steinbeck & America, 1930-1935


Week 2:               M, Jan. 23:  In Dubious Battle (Ch. 1-6)

W, Jan. 25: In Dubious Battle (Ch. 7-12)

Week 3:               M, Jan. 30: In Dubious Battle (Ch. 13-15)

W, Feb. 1: Session 1: In Dubious Battle

Week 4:               M, Feb. 6: “The Harvest Gypsies,” “Starvation,” “Leader,” “Breakfast”

W, Feb. 8: Of Mice and Men                         Paper 1 Due


Week 5:               M, Feb. 13: The Grapes of Wrath (Ch. 1-6)

W, Feb. 15: The Grapes of Wrath (Ch. 7-10)

Week 6:               M, Feb. 20: Session 2: The Grapes of Wrath (Ch. 11-15)

W, Feb. 22: The Grapes of Wrath (Ch. 16-18)

Week 7:               M, Feb. 27: The Grapes of Wrath (Ch. 19-21)

W, Mar. 1: The Grapes of Wrath (Ch. 22-24)

Week 8:               M, Mar. 6: Session 3: The Grapes of Wrath (Ch. 25-27)

W, Mar. 8: The Grapes of Wrath: Endings Ch. 28-30        Paper 2 Due


Week 9:               M, Mar. 20: Website Building + The Log from the Sea of Cortez, selections

W, Mar. 22: The Moon Is Down (Ch. 1-4)

Week 10:            M, Mar 27: The Moon Is Down (Ch. 5-9)

W, Mar 29: Bombs Away and Once There Was a War, selections (PDF)

Week 11:            M, Apr. 3: Steinbeck in the Archives (WHC and CAC)

W, Apr. 5: Cannery Row (Ch. 1-17)

Week 12:            M, Apr. 10: Cannery Row (Ch. 18-32)

W, Apr. 12: A Russian Journal, selections (PDF):

Week 13:            M, Apr. 17: East of Eden, selections

W, Apr. 19: East of Eden, selections:                      Research Paper Due

 Week 14:            M, Apr. 24: Travels with Charley, selections (PDF), Nobel Prize Speech (PDF)

W, Apr. 26: Steinbeck in Vietnam, America and Americans, selections (PDF)

Group Website Initial Upload

 Week 15:            M, May 1: Omeka Website Presentations, Groups 1-3

W, May 3: Omeka Website Presentations, Groups 4-6