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September 2015

Of Steinbeck and Sunburn

Author Affiliations
  • 1Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, DC
  • 2Dermatology Division, Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, DC
JAMA Dermatol. 2015;151(9):960. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2015.1664

John Steinbeck’s literary work is known for depictions of Depression-era rural California and for portraying the condition of exploited farm laborers. In his fiction, protagonists often have scraped hands and sunburnt skin, which serve as physical testimony to their honest, hard work. While dermatologists agree that sunburns are related to skin cancer, Steinbeck used sunburned skin to signify hard-working, straight-living characters.

Sunburn is an unsurprising descriptor for Steinbeck’s protagonists, who often drift from farm to farm across California’s arid, cloudless Central and Salinas Valleys. Of interest, however, is the context where Steinbeck uses sunburn to convey integrity, moral strength, and other favorable attributes.

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