John Steinbeck didn’t believe in God — but he didn’t believe much in humanity either. When push came to shove, he saw people as cruel, selfish, dishonest, slovenly and, at their very best, outmatched by environmental forces. Like his friend, the biologist Ed Rickett, Steinbeck considered human beings to be no better and no worse than any community of organisms: they might aspire to do great things, but they always ultimately failed.
In The Grapes of Wrath, the hard-working Joad family travel west, seeking a good life, and get taken apart by poor wages, malignant farm cooperatives and company stores. In Cannery Row, Mack and his boys want to repay their friend Doc for all his generosity, and end up burning down his lab after a drunken party.