Study Guide

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Steinbeck has given to the American consciousness a permanent portrait of America’s rural and immigrant underclasses, especially during the years of the Great Depression.

Early Life

John Ernst Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California, of German and Irish parentage. His father was of German origin and was variously a bookkeeper, accountant, and manager, and he eventually became the treasurer of Monterey County. The elder Steinbeck was an avid gardener (throughout his life, his son would always have to have a garden wherever he lived) and a somewhat introspective man. Steinbeck’s mother was of Irish descent, a woman of energy and determination, emotional and sensitive to art, and fond of stories of fantasy and enchantment. The later dichotomies observed in Steinbeck, between the romantic and the hardheaded naturalist, between the dreamer and the masculine tough guy, may be partly accounted for by inheritance from the Irish and German strains of his parents.

The young Steinbeck had a local reputation as a loner and a bit of a dreamer. He read much on his own, his favorite writings being those of Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas, père, Sir Walter Scott, the Bible, and especially Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), by Sir Thomas Malory. This last would remain an influence throughout his life, with many of his stories displaying Arthurian parallels and influences; the work which occupied much of his time in the last years of his life was a translation or redaction of the Arthurian stories, unfinished at his death.

Steinbeck grew to be a tall, gangly youth with broad shoulders, a barrel chest, and a large head. He early developed a fondness for words and a passion for language that was never to leave him. He was independent-minded, not to say stubborn, and as a freshman in high school determined to be a writer. He was graduated from high school in 1919, at best an average student and athlete. For the next six years, he attended Stanford University on and off but never took a degree. As in high school, he took what interested him and cared little for other courses, even if required; the courses he took were those he thought would help him in his writing.

During his many vacations from Stanford Steinbeck worked for the local sugar company in the field and in the office; he also worked on ranches, on a dredging crew, and in the beet harvest. He came to know well the Mexican-American workers alongside whom he labored. He rather enjoyed working with his hands and was certainly throughout his life never afraid of hard work; he also became a notable handyman and maker of gadgets. After leaving Stanford for good in 1925, he worked sporadically during the next three years at a lodge in the High Sierra near Lake Tahoe as a caretaker and handyman. The job gave him much time, especially in the winter, for writing. Steinbeck briefly sought his fortune in New York, where he worked on construction and as a cub reporter. He returned to California in the summer of 1926.

Since his early years in high school, Steinbeck had been writing. His first published stories were in a Stanford literary magazine; his first paid story, “The Gifts of Iban,” was published pseudonymously in 1927. By 1930, his apprenticeship could be said to be over: In that year, his first novel, Cup of Gold, was published, he married Carol Henning, and he met Edward F. Ricketts, who was to have a notable effect upon the ideas and content of his further work.

Life’s Work

Cup of Gold was not widely noticed, and Steinbeck and his new wife, while not subjected to grinding poverty, did live a rather hand-to-mouth existence. The publication of Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933) increased his critical reputation in narrow circles but did little for his finances or fame. Finally, the publication of Tortilla Flat (1935) made the breakthrough; the book was a best-seller and brought Steinbeck fame and money. Though Steinbeck complained about lack of money for the rest of his career, after this date he was never in any financial distress. This book was the first full-length presentation of those themes and characters that have come to be particularly associated with Steinbeck. He turned away from the mythic and legendary materials of Cup of Gold and To a God Unknown and dealt with contemporary issues, especially the plight of the socially and economically dispossessed. Like the great majority of Steinbeck’s works, Tortilla Flat presents familiar, ordinary characters based on his own firsthand acquaintance. His next major works, In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), would continue to exploit these characters and themes.

These works also displayed some of the effects of Steinbeck’s friendship with Ed Ricketts (1897-1948), a marine biologist. Steinbeck had earlier been interested, if only haphazardly, in natural science. His naturalistic view of men, especially in groups, was at least reinforced by his friendship with Ricketts. Ricketts was an exponent of nonteleological thinking (seeing what is rather than what might be, should be, or could be). This attitude accorded well with Steinbeck’s own naturalistic impulses, at least as fictional method; Steinbeck did not always accept the grim conclusions implicit in a naturalistic view of man and maintained his belief in human progress and free will. The most straightforward presentation of such views may be found in The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951), by both Steinbeck and Ricketts. The book provides the philosophical and organizational background for a tidepool collecting and survey trip taken by Ricketts and Steinbeck in 1940 in the Gulf of California.

During World War II, Steinbeck produced only a few minor works until Cannery Row (1945). He served for a few months as a war correspondent in Europe, was divorced in 1942, and married Gwyndolen Conger in 1943. He moved to New York and for the remainder of his life traveled frequently with New York as a base. During these years he also spent much of his time writing film scripts and stage plays based on his works. As much as any other American novelist, Steinbeck was attracted to and involved in the stage and the cinema.

After the war, he began the major work that critics and the public were expecting after The Grapes of Wrath. The work was eventually to be East of Eden (1952), a long generational novel into which Steinbeck poured much of his own personal experience and which he regarded as his major work and expression of whatever he had learned over the years. The public did not share Steinbeck’s regard, and the novel is perhaps best known today in its film version, starring the cult figure James Dean. Before East of Eden appeared, however, Steinbeck had published The Wayward Bus (1947), which was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and Burning Bright (1950). After East of Eden, Steinbeck published only three more novels: Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). The latter is considered to be the best of the three and expresses Steinbeck’s view of the malaise into which postwar America had fallen.

Steinbeck had divorced his second wife in 1948 and was remarried, in 1950, to Elaine Scott. In the postwar years he traveled often, seeming unable to settle down in a single place. He went several times to Russia, Europe, and especially England, but when abroad he would frequently long for home. After East of Eden, Steinbeck became preoccupied with nonfiction work. He wrote regular editorials for The Saturday Review, his wartime dispatches were published (1958), he published Travels with Charley (1962, a record of a three-month trip by truck around America with his dog), and he completed the essays that compose America and Americans (1966), designed to accompany a series of photographs showing the spirit and diversity of America and its people. In 1967, Steinbeck, who had done some speech-writing for President Lyndon B. Johnson, went to Vietnam at the request of the president and recorded his views and impressions in a series of newspaper reports. His long career as a writer was capped in 1962 with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died of coronary disease in New York in December, 1968, and his ashes were later scattered with the wind on the California coast.

In the course of his career, Steinbeck was held to be a sentimental romantic and a grim naturalist, a Communist and a Fascist, a mere journalist and the spokesman of a generation. It is a tribute to the man that his work has inspired such varying views; clearly, he has made a mark on American consciousness. Steinbeck was the writer (he disliked the word “author”) of at least one major masterpiece—The Grapes of Wrath—and several excellent works of lesser scope: Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, In Dubious Battle, and Cannery Row. All, except perhaps the last, are standard readings in high school and college English courses, as well as the subject of a large and growing body of critical analysis and opinion.

His particular contribution to the American ethos was to make uniquely his own the portraits of migrant workers, the dispossessed, dirt farmers, and manual laborers. He provided authentic portraits of a class of people seldom seen in fiction before his day. His pictures of stoop laborers, strikes, and the Depression are today the standard images by which those things are known and imagined. The Grapes of Wrath has become not only an artistic creation but also an authentic view of many of the plagues of the 1930’s. For most people, The Grapes of Wrath is what the Depression was, at least in the Western United States.

Perhaps the greatest general qualities of Steinbeck’s work, qualities which help his works continue to interest, are life and immediacy. Steinbeck was enamored of life and gloried in it. He re-created it vividly in many of his works, with color and accuracy. He took great pains to research most of his works and believed he was thus attaining to some sort of truth, as well as reality. His generally nonteleological view of life led him to concentrate on the moment, on what is. At his best, mostly in works before World War II, he re-created authentic American types and characters and placed them in contexts which partook of the great myths and patterns of life and literature: the Bible, the Arthurian myths, the eternal cycles of nature. He had a strong faith in the natural processes of renewal and continuity and thus expanded his tales of the small and the insignificant to give them resonance and universality.

His accuracy and realism can perhaps best be seen in his care for the dialogue of his novels, even to the extent, in his later works, of reading into a tape recorder his own dialogue and playing it back for himself until he felt he had got it right, testing it constantly on the ear. It was probably this attention to authentic speech which made so many of his novels good candidates for stage and screen. None of his novels made bad films and some were outstanding, notably The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. With only a few exceptions, his characters and events were equally genuine, dealing as they did with specifically American and specifically contemporary events.

Finally, Steinbeck was a patriot, but not of the flag-waving, jingoist persuasion. He displayed a deep feeling for the American people and the land both early and late in his career. He saw the values—perhaps felt them would be more correct—of family and social cohesion. He saw man as a part of a whole, often against a background of the disintegration of larger social and economic units and systems. At roughly the same time as Sinclair Lewis was skewering the middle class of America, Steinbeck was giving his public an equally authentic view of a very different class of Americans, though with less satire and more affection.

Bibliography

Astro, Richard. John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973. Indispensable work on Steinbeck’s friendship with the man who is often given credit for supplying Steinbeck with important elements of his philosophy and view of man. Astro’s conclusion, that the force of Rickett’s personality was largely responsible for Steinbeck’s success as a writer, is greatly overstated.

Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking Press, 1984. Complete biography, detailing Steinbeck’s life virtually day-by-day. Draws on many unpublished letters and personal interviews. Steinbeck’s works are viewed in relation to his life, but detailed analyses are not provided; indispensable for correcting many myths and misconceptions about Steinbeck.

Fontenrose, Joseph. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963. Considers Steinbeck an eminent novelist; emphasizes the conflict in Steinbeck between myth (especially biblical and Arthurian) and the biological basis of his fiction (especially the view of society as a group organism). One of the earliest full-length studies to take Steinbeck seriously as an artist.

French, Warren. John Steinbeck. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975. A semipopular introduction to Steinbeck for the student and general reader by a noted Steinbeck critic. It supplies a brief biography and novel-by-novel analyses and introduces the reader to the complexity, universality, and general characteristics of Steinbeck.

Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. A Study Guide to Steinbeck: A Handbook to His Major Works. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974. Well-organized, invaluable work for students and teachers; chapters on each work supply background, plot synopses, critical explications, and a selected bibliography. This volume covers most of the major novels.

Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. A Study Guide to John Steinbeck, Part II. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979. Covers East of Eden and a number of minor works. Hayashi is a member of the Steinbeck Society, Ball State University, Indiana, which sponsors conferences and publishes a monograph series on Steinbeck.

Timmerman, John H. John Steinbeck’s Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. A full-length critical study; deals more with literary craftsmanship than with Steinbeck’s social thought. Puts in perspective his agnosticism and his fascination with biblical symbolism. Also discusses Steinbeck’s concern for “authenticity,” particularly for realistic dialogue.

John Steinbeck Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

John Steinbeck was the son of Olive Hamilton, a school teacher, and John Ernst Steinbeck, a flour-mill manager and Monterey County Treasurer....

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John Steinbeck Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Steinbeck criticism has been generally less informed and more prejudiced than that accorded to other American writers of his stature. Current opinion supports the contention that Steinbeck will not weather well and that he will be forgotten long before contemporaries of his such as William Faulkner and Hemingway.

Further evaluation, however, may well prove the prophets incorrect. Steinbeck speaks to the general reader in ways that few American authors have. He has imbibed much of the storytelling style of medieval writers, and the folk elements that make his work appealing to a broad range of readers may be the elements that help his reputation to survive.

John Steinbeck Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The Salinas Valley, where John Steinbeck was born, lies about a hundred miles south of San Francisco. It is a fertile, temperate trough between two mountain ranges and encompasses some of central California’s most picturesque areas, notably Pacific Grove and the serenity of Monterey Bay. Such a landscape was at the heart of Steinbeck’s boyhood experience and forms a crucial link with the characteristics of the writer’s work. The son of a mill owner and a schoolteacher, Steinbeck grew up in the small railroad town just entering the twentieth century, a town not quite pastoral yet not quite industrial, whose people were farmers and ranchers and shopkeepers but whose location and natural resources were quickly making it an agricultural and mercantile hub. This unique duality of the Salinas Valley—the long valley of Steinbeck’s fiction—became a formative agent in the quality of Steinbeck’s work, stories at once gently romantic and mythic as they were also realistic and proletarian. His early reading was evidence of his growing dualism. The realistic novels of Gustave Flaubert and Thomas Hardy were supplemented by his readings in Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, and especially Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (c. 1469, printed 1485), the first book given to him as a child and the last to serve as a source for his fiction. (A retelling of the King Arthur stories was published posthumously in 1976).

By the time Steinbeck entered Salinas High School in 1915, he was a widely read young man, tall, with rugged good looks and a desire to write. At seventeen, he entered Stanford University, already convinced that he was going to be a writer. Like many creative artists before and since, Steinbeck found the discipline of the college curriculum too irksome. Though he enjoyed reading contemporary European and American writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, he was uninterested in much else and took a leave of absence after two years. For the next few years, he worked in the San Francisco area as a clerk and a field hand on a ranch, gaining the invaluable experience of ranch life and ranch hands that was to figure in such works as Of Mice and Men and The Long Valley.

He returned to Stanford University briefly as an English major but finally left in 1925 without a degree. He had written two stories for the Stanford Spectator, one a satire on college life and the other a bizarre tale about a strangely inarticulate woman and her marriage to a migrant worker who kept horses’ heads in a rain barrel. The story is insignificant but interesting for its odd mixture of the real and the whimsical, a characteristic typical of much of Steinbeck’s mature work.

Steinbeck was in New York during the late 1920’s, working as a construction worker on the original Madison Square Garden by day and writing stories by night. Unsuccessful, he returned to California, married, and settled in his family’s cottage in Pacific Grove. He wrote constantly, and in 1929, his first novel, Cup of Gold, was published. This thinly fictionalized account of the pirate Henry Morgan was both an artistic and a financial failure. The Pastures of Heaven (1932), Steinbeck’s second book, was a collection of short stories about the people of an almost mythically beautiful valley. Influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), published a decade earlier, neither it nor his next novel, To a God Unknown (1933), brought Steinbeck much critical or popular success.

His apprenticeship, however, was over. Beginning in 1935 with the publication of Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck was to produce half a dozen books over the next ten years, works that were to establish his reputation as a writer of power and versatility. Tortilla Flat was followed by In Dubious Battle (1936), regarded by some as one of the best strike novels ever written. Of Mice and Men was followed by The Long Valley, containing his best short stories. His masterpiece, on which he had been working for three years, was published as The Grapes of Wrath in 1939.

During World War II, Steinbeck wrote propaganda scripts for the U.S. Army and published The Moon Is Down, a short novel set in Nazi-occupied Norway. His postwar work showed a marked decline. Aside from the massive East of Eden (1952), the works of this period are marked by a bland whimsy. Cannery Row (1945) is generally recognized as the novel that signaled the beginning of Steinbeck’s decline. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, Steinbeck, then a national celebrity, continued to produce a variety of fiction, novels such as Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippen IV (1957), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). They are works of minor importance and show little of the narrative strength that won for Steinbeck the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.

His last years were spent quietly in New York City and on Long Island. By then he had become an honored American writer. In 1963, he was selected as honorary consultant in American literature for the Library of Congress. He was elected to the National Arts Council in 1966. Steinbeck died peacefully in his sleep on December 20, 1968.

John Steinbeck Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. The time and place of his birth are important because Steinbeck matured as an artist in his early thirties during the darkest days of the Depression, and his most important fictions are set in his beloved Salinas Valley. In one sense, Steinbeck’s location in time and place may have made him a particularly American artist. Born just after the closing of the frontier, Steinbeck grew up with a frustrated modern America and witnessed the most notable failure of the American Dream in the Depression. He was a writer who inherited the great tradition of the American Renaissance of the nineteenth century and who was forced to reshape it in terms of the historical and literary imperatives of twentieth century modernism.

Steinbeck’s family background evidenced this strongly American identity. His paternal grandfather, John Adolph Steinbeck, emigrated from Germany, settling in California after serving in the American Civil War. His mother’s father, Samuel Hamilton, sailed around Cape Horn from northern Ireland, finally immigrating to the Salinas Valley. John Ernst Steinbeck and Olive Hamilton were the first-generation descendants of sturdy, successful, and Americanized immigrant farm families. They met and married in 1890, settling in Salinas, where the father was prominent in local business and government and the mother stayed home to rear their four children—three daughters and a son, the third child named for his father. The Steinbecks were refined, intelligent, and ambitious people who lived a quiet middle-class life in the small agricultural service town of Salinas.

Steinbeck seems to have enjoyed a happy childhood, and in fact he often asserted that he did. His father made enough money to indulge him in a small way, even to buy him a red pony. His mother encouraged him to read and to write, providing him with the classics of English and American literature. At school, he proved a popular and successful student and was elected president of his senior class. After graduation from Salinas High School in 1919, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University. His subsequent history belies the picture of the happy, normal young man. He was soon in academic difficulties and dropped out of college several times to work on ranches in the Salinas Valley and observe “real life.” His interests were varied, but he settled on novel writing as his ambition, despite his family’s insistence that he prepare for a more prosaic career. This traumatic rejection of middle-class values would prove a major force in shaping Steinbeck’s fiction, both his social protest novels and his lighter entertainments such as Cannery Row.

Leaving Stanford without a degree in 1925, Steinbeck sojourned in New York for several months, where he worked as a laborer, a newspaper reporter, and a freelance writer. Disillusioned in all his abortive pursuits, Steinbeck returned to California, where a job as winter caretaker of a lodge at Lake Tahoe provided the time to finish his first novel, Cup of Gold. The novel, a romance concerned with the Caribbean pirate Henry Morgan, was published by a small press directly before the crash of 1929, and it earned the young writer little recognition and even less money. In 1930, he married Carol Henning and moved with her to Los Angeles and later to Pacific Grove, a seaside resort near Monterey, where he lived in his parents’ summer house. Still supported by his family and his wife, the ambitious young writer produced the manuscripts of several novels.

A friend, Edward F. Ricketts, a marine biologist trained at the University of Chicago, encouraged Steinbeck to treat his material more objectively. Under Ricketts’s influence, Steinbeck modified his earlier commitment to satire, allegory, and Romanticism and turned to modern accounts of the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck’s next two novels, The Pastures of Heaven and To a God Unknown, are both set in the valley, but both still were marked by excessive sentimentality and symbolism. Both were virtually ignored by the public and the critics. Steinbeck’s short fiction, however, began to receive recognition; for example, his story “The Murder” was selected to appear in O. Henry Prize Stories of 1934.

Tortilla Flat, a droll tale of Monterey’s Mexican quarter, established Steinbeck as a popular and critical success in 1935. (Unfortunately, his parents died just before he achieved his first real success.) The novel’s sales provided money to pay his debts, to travel to Mexico, and to continue writing seriously. His next novel, In Dubious Battle, established him as a serious literary artist and began the period of his greatest success, both critical and popular. This harshly realistic strike novel followed directions established in stories such as “The Raid,” influenced by the realistic impulse of American literature in the 1930’s. Succeeding publications quickly confirmed this development in his fiction. His short novels The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men followed in 1937, his story collection The Long Valley in 1938, and his epic of the “Okie” migration to California, The Grapes of Wrath, in 1939. His own play version of Of Mice and Men won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1938, and The Grapes of Wrath received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. Steinbeck had become one of the most popular and respected writers in the United States, a spokesperson for an entire culture.

In 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed the direction of American culture and of Steinbeck’s literary development. During the war years, he seemed in a holding pattern, trying to adjust to his phenomenal success while absorbing the cataclysmic events around him. Steinbeck’s career stalled for many reasons. He left the California subjects and realistic style of his finest novels, and he was unable to come to terms with a world at war, though he served for a few months as a frontline correspondent. Personal developments paralleled these literary ones. Steinbeck divorced his first wife and married Gwen Conger, a young Hollywood star; no doubt she influenced his decision to move from California to New York. Steinbeck began to write with an eye on Broadway and Hollywood.

Steinbeck was forty-three years old when World War II ended in 1945; he died in 1968 at the age of sixty-six. Over those twenty-three years, Steinbeck was extremely productive, winning considerable acclaim—most notably the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. Yet the most important part of his career was finished. The war had changed the direction of his artistic development, and Steinbeck seemed powerless to reverse his decline.

Again, his personal life mirrored his literary difficulties. Although his only children—Tom, born in 1944, and John, born in 1946—were with Gwen, the couple were divorced in 1948. Like his first divorce, this one was bitter and expensive. In the same year, his mentor, Ricketts, was killed in a car accident. Steinbeck traveled extensively, devoting himself to film and nonfiction projects. In 1950, he married Elaine Scott, establishing a supportive relationship that allowed him to finish his epic Salinas Valley novel East of Eden.

Steinbeck tried again and again to write his way back to the artistic success of his earlier years, notably in The Wayward Bus, but his commercial success kept getting in the way. East of Eden, Steinbeck’s major postwar novel, attempted another California epic to match the grandeur of The Grapes of Wrath. Although the book was a blockbuster best seller, it was an artistic and critical failure. Steinbeck himself seemed to recognize his own decline, and in his last years he virtually abandoned fiction for journalism.

Of his last novels, only The Winter of Our Discontent transcends mere entertainment, and it does not have the literary structures to match its serious themes. Despite the popularity of nonfiction works such as Travels with Charley, despite awards such as the Nobel Prize and the United States Medal of Freedom, despite his personal friendship with President Lyndon B. Johnson as a supporter of Vietnam, Steinbeck was only the shell of the great writer of the 1930’s. He died in New York City on December 20, 1968.

John Steinbeck Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

John Steinbeck’s upbringing and experiences in Salinas, California, generated an intense devotion to the less fortunate, especially migrant workers of the Midwestern and Western United States. Steinbeck’s early reading helped generate the idealism evident throughout his work. The Bible was the primary influence, followed closely by Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (c. 1469); Steinbeck was given a copy of Malory’s book at age nine. The Bible provided Christian idealism and Le Morte d’Arthur provided chivalric principles. Steinbeck’s life experiences provided the focus for his ideals. Doing ranch work in the Salinas Valley, he observed migrants’ daily tribulations, particularly the paisanos working the beet and barley fields. Paisanos are central to Tortilla Flat and several other Steinbeck works.

Steinbeck’s interest in nature as alternative to artificial, unjust civilization is also evident in his works. The pony he was given at age twelve may be considered the source for The Red Pony. He also made frequent exploration of the marine life of Monterey Bay, which may be considered an influence upon Cannery Row, The Pearl (1947), and other works. Marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts, Steinbeck’s friend, introduced Steinbeck to the scientific ramifications of the concept that, in natural organisms, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Along with environmental issues, this idea also influenced Steinbeck’s socialist ideas.

Primarily, however, the concrete dilemmas of the working class absorbed Steinbeck, given his work with paisanos but also his employment as a laborer in New York and as a fish sorter near Lake Tahoe. Personal struggles during the Great Depression (Steinbeck published no commercially successful literature until 1935) furthered his interest in the matter-of-fact problems of the poor, as did his personal observation of labor unrest. Steinbeck’s most compelling characters include the simpleminded migrant Lennie in Of Mice and Men and the impoverished Joad family of migrants in The Grapes of Wrath.

In the 1940’s, World War II, two divorces, and Ricketts’ death diminished Steinbeck. He was able to exhibit his greatness in Cannery Row, which is dedicated to Ricketts, but later works lack the power of Steinbeck’s most productive donnée: the plight of migrants suffering the disabling effects of an oppressive capitalistic system.

John Steinbeck Biography (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

Born into a middle-class California family, Steinbeck was graduated from Salinas High School in 1919. He attended Stanford University to study English, but during five years there, he earned only half the credits needed to graduate because he often dropped out to work in various laborer jobs. Meanwhile, he published two short pieces in The Stanford Spectator.

Steinbeck’s first three novels went largely unnoticed, but his fourth, Tortilla Flat (1935), won critical praise and became a best-seller. The book established him as one of America’s major novelists. The following year, he published In Dubious Battle (1936), a story about strike organizers in the California fruit-picking industry. His sympathetic view of the “red” strikers led many conservatives to suspect that he was a communist. This novel and his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939), about migrant workers, were Steinbeck’s most controversial books; both were banned in many areas. However, both works also became major motion pictures, but before they were considered fit for the screen they were heavily edited for language and content. Sharp public debate over both films helped to increase Steinbeck’s book sales.

In an effort to escape the controversy and publicity generated by his books, Steinbeck traveled to Mexico to film his first work written exclusively for Hollywood—the semidocumentary The Forgotten Village (1941). Release of this film was delayed by New York State censors who objected to its child-birth scene. When the film was finally released, it had little commercial success. Fearing reprisals, the studio provided the film with little publicity.

During the war years, Steinbeck continued to find himself under attack. His novel The Moon Is Down (1942) generated even more debate than The Forgotten Village. This story of Norwegian freedom fighters battling the German invaders was heavily criticized for its portrayal of German soldiers as essentially normal human beings who committed atrocities only because of pressure from their superior officers. After writing The Moon Is Down, Steinbeck felt compelled to support the American war effort and became a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune in 1943. He was fired, however, when his graphic depictions of the horrors of war led to charges that his ability to report simple facts was hindered by his literary tendencies and his emotions.

Although many of Steinbeck’s postwar writings became best- sellers, they never reached the level of critical acclaim that his work had achieved in the 1930’s. His major postwar works included the novels Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), The Wayward Bus (1947), East of Eden (1952), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961); the film Viva Zapata! (1952); and the nonfiction book Travels with Charlie (1962).

In the 1950’s Steinbeck launched caustic attacks on Senator Joseph McCarthy for his advocacy of censorship and his efforts to expose communists in the government. Steinbeck played a prominent role in Democratic presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956, and later served as an adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 amid critics’ protests that he was undeserving.

Bibliography

Astro, Richard, and Tetsumaro Hayashi, eds. Steinbeck: The Man and His Work. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1971. One of the first full-length works published after Steinbeck’s death, this superb collection of essays presents opinions which regard Steinbeck as everything from a mere proletarian novelist to an artist with a deep vision of humans’ essential dignity.

Benson, Jackson D. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking Press, 1984. This biography emphasizes Steinbeck’s rebellion against critical conventions and his attempts to keep his private life separate from his role as public figure. Benson sees Steinbeck as a critical anomaly, embarrassed and frustrated by his growing critical and popular success.

DeMott, Robert J., ed. Steinbeck’s Typewriter: Essays on His Art. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1996. A good collection of criticism of Steinbeck. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Fontenrose, Joseph. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. A good introduction, this book discusses some of the symbolism inherent in much of Steinbeck’s fiction and contains some insightful observations on Steinbeck’s concept of the “group-man”—that is, the individual as a unit in the larger sociobiological organism.

French, Warren. John Steinbeck’s Fiction Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994. The chapter on The Long Valley in this revision of French’s earlier Twayne book on Steinbeck provides brief discussions of the major stories, including “Flight” and “Chrysanthemums.”

George, Stephen K., ed. John Steinbeck: A Centennial Tribute. New York: Praeger, 2002. A collection of reminiscences from Steinbeck’s family and friends as well as wide-ranging critical assessments of his works.

Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. Steinbeck’s Short Stories in “The Long Valley”: Essays in Criticism. Muncie, Ind.: Steinbeck Research Institution, 1991. A collection of new critical essays on the stories in The Long Valley (excluding The Red Pony), from a variety of critical perspectives.

Hughes, R. S. John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1989. A general introduction to Steinbeck’s short fiction, focusing primarily on critical reception to the stories. Also includes some autobiographical statements on short-story writing, as well as four essays on Steinbeck’s stories by other critics.

Johnson, Claudia Durst, ed. Understanding “Of Mice and Men,” “The Red Pony,” and “The Pearl”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. This casebook contains historical, social, and political materials as a context for Steinbeck’s three novellas. Contexts included are California and the West, land ownership, the male worker, homelessness, and oppression of the poor in Mexico.

McCarthy, Paul. John Steinbeck. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Though much of this study is a recapitulation of earlier critical views, the book has the virtues of clarity and brevity and contains a fairly thorough bibliography.

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, eds. John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A fine selection of reviews of Steinbeck’s work.

Noble, Donald R. The Steinbeck Question: New Essays in Criticism. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing, 1993. A collection of essays on most of Steinbeck’s work; most important for a study of the short story is the essay by Robert S. Hughes, Jr., on “The Art of Story Writing,” Charlotte Hadella’s “Steinbeck’s Cloistered Women,” and Michael J. Meyer’s “The Snake.”

Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) This biography suggests psychological interpretations of the effect of Steinbeck’s childhood and sociological interpretations of his fiction. Criticizes Steinbeck for his politically incorrect gender and social views; also takes Steinbeck to task to what he calls his blindness to the political reality of the Vietnam War.

Steinbeck, Elaine, and Robert Wallsten. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. New York: Viking Press, 1975. An indispensable source for the Steinbeck scholar, this collection of letters written by Steinbeck between 1929 and his death forty years later shows a writer both well read and well disciplined. Those letters to his friend and publisher, Pascal Covici, shed light on the writer’s working methods and are particularly revealing.

Timmerman, John H. The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck’s Short Stories. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. A formalist interpretation of Steinbeck’s stories, focusing on style, tone, imagery, and character. Provides close readings of such frequently anthologized stories as “The Chrysanthemums” and “Flight,” as well as such stories as “Johnny Bear” and “The Short- Short Story of Mankind.”

John Steinbeck Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1962, John Ernst Steinbeck secured his place in American literature largely on the basis of his inimitable novel The Grapes of Wrath, which defined an epoch in American life by brilliantly combining the documentary quality of journalism with the superior insight of highly imaginative fiction. Steinbeck grew up in California, close to itinerant farm laborers and to the economic struggles brought on by the Depression. Although Steinbeck attended Stanford University intermittently in the early 1920’s and supported himself with odd jobs, his earliest stories reflect his interest in the nature-oriented lives of simple workers and peasants, not intellectual matters. Based on his acute perceptions, this early fiction has a directness and immediacy that is sometimes lacking in his later work, where his prose is unduly burdened by his theories of nature.

By 1936, Steinbeck’s focus shifted to incorporate the political conditions in which his proletarians lived. In Dubious Battle, published that year, centered on a strike of migratory fruit pickers who were identified as an exploited class of people. Of Mice and Men is one of his fullest explorations of biological determinism, the notion that men and women are shaped by nature in ways that practically ensure their fate. Lenny is a retarded giant of a man who depends on his friend, the smaller and smarter George, to protect him. Yet Lenny does not know his own strength. He crushes puppies when he means only to pet them; he breaks Curly’s wife’s neck when he means only to stroke her lovely blonde hair.

The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s masterpiece, follows the fate of the Joad family, who are evicted from their foreclosed farm in Oklahoma and make their way to the “promised land” of California. Slowly they lose their illusions as they are forced to work for starvation wages and are treated as riffraff by the police and the landowners. Tom Joad becomes a labor organizer when he realizes that his family cannot survive by itself. Steinbeck does not take a specifically socialist point of view—although he does provide an admiring glimpse of a government camp where the Joads and their fellow workers are able to establish a harmonious community based on equality of opportunity and responsibility.

What makes The Grapes of Wrath such an impressive work is its panoramic view of society. While the Joads’ story particularizes the events of an epoch, the novel contains beautifully written passages that evoke the spirit of the times and create large-scale pictures of the displacement felt by people who lose their jobs and their farms. Steinbeck’s remarkable accomplishment is that he not only makes readers empathize with a single family but also makes them identify with whole classes of people who are thrust into chaotic conditions as the result of a devastated economy.

None of Steinbeck’s subsequent work equals the breadth and the depth of The Grapes of Wrath. East of Eden, his next major novel, is turgid and overly allegorical. Set in Southern California, from the Civil War to World War I, this family saga about two brothers and their stern father is a reenactment of the story of Cain and Abel with an overlay of psychologizing that attempts to explain the genesis of good and evil.

Except for The Winter of Our Discontent, a fine novel tracing the moral collapse of a descendant of an old New England family who cannot cope with the twentieth century, Steinbeck’s best work as a writer in the postwar years is to be found in his lighthearted travel book Travels with Charley, an account of his forty-state tour with his poodle.

John Steinbeck Biography (Short Stories for Students)

John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, the setting for many of his early stories, including ‘‘The...

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John Steinbeck Biography (Novels for Students)

John Ernst Steinbeck was born February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, the son of John Ernst Steinbeck and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck....

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John Steinbeck Biography (Short Stories for Students)

John Steinbeck Published by Gale Cengage

Winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize in literature for his novel The Grapes of Wrath, the 1937 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for his theatrical adaptation of his novella Of Mice and Men, and the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature, Steinbeck enjoyed popular as well as critical success during his lifetime and beyond. Although Steinbeck's romantic portrayals of dignified and noble common folk are now seen by some as simplistic, his works continue to appeal to critics and readers of the present day, supporting Steinbeck's enduring reputation as one of the most important twentieth-century American writers.

John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He grew up in the Salinas Valley and used it as the setting for many of his works, including "Flight." He used this familiar terrain as a setting in which to test his characters' relationship to their environment. Peter Shaw comments that "[T]he features of the valley at once determined the physical fate of his characters and made symbolic comment on them." Steinbeck's studies at Stanford University in California, where he became interested in biology, led him to take an evolutionary view of human society. He referred to this as his "biological" approach to understanding and writing about human behavior. This placed him in philosophical alignment with other naturalist writers who were influenced by Charles Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection. In naturalistic works, the characters are products of their heredity as it acts upon their environment. Such stories end usually with the destruction of the main character, who by acting in response to his impulses and instincts, is crushed by the forces of the environment. However, Steinbeck is not strictly naturalistic, as he frequently casts his stones in mythic frameworks, giving them romantic or spiritual dimensions lacking in much naturalistic fiction.

Steinbeck's greatest achievement was The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939. It is the story of the migration of an Oklahoma family during the Great Depression of the 1930s from their drought-destroyed farm to the dream of prosperity in California. When the Joad family reaches California, they find many others like them, all competing for low wages to pick fruit on corporate-owned farms. Steinbeck's epic and sympathetic presentation of this story led to charges that he was a communist. In the resulting controversy, the book was both banned and praised. Steinbeck continued to write, in 1952 publishing East of Eden, a novel paralleling the biblical story of Cain and Abel. He also served briefly as a war correspondent during the Vietnam conflict. Steinbeck died in New York City on December 20, 1968.

John Steinbeck Biography (Novels for Students)

John Steinbeck Published by Gale Cengage

Born February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, not far from the setting of his novel Of Mice and Men,

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John Steinbeck Biography (Novels for Students)

John Steinbeck Published by Gale Cengage

John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He was the third of four children, and the only son born to John Ernst Sr. and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck. A fourth child, Mary, was born in 1909. Olive Steinbeck had been a teacher in one-room schools in Big Sur, California, before her marriage to John Sr. After their marriage, the Steinbecks moved to Salinas in 1894, where John Sr. became a manager at the Sperry Flour Mill and later served as treasurer of Monterey County.

Salinas is located one hundred miles south of San Francisco, near Monterey Bay. At the time of Steinbeck’s birth, it was a town with a population of approximately three thousand. During John’s early childhood, the first automobiles could be seen rumbling through town. Family life was apparently secure and happy. Steinbeck’s father quickly recognized his son’s talents and eventually both parents encouraged Steinbeck in his dream to become a writer.

Steinbeck’s best-known works of fiction, including The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men (1937), are set in central California, where he grew up. In particular, one of the principal locales in The Grapes of Wrath is the San Joaquin Valley, a fertile farming area which lies east of the Gabilan Mountains. Although Steinbeck’s family was solidly middle class, he had to earn his own money during high school. He worked on nearby ranches during the summer and he also delivered newspapers on his bike, exploring Salinas’s Mexican neighborhood and Chinatown. Later, he would use his boyhood memories of these places in his stories and novels.

As a child, Steinbeck was shy and often a loner. Other children teased him about his large ears, and he responded by withdrawing into books. He was an excellent storyteller, a lifelong trait that found its natural outlet in his writing. In 1915, Steinbeck entered Salinas High School and began writing stories and sending them anonymously to magazines. He was president of his senior class and graduated in a class of twenty-four students. Steinbeck enrolled in Stanford University in 1919, which he would attend on and off for the next six years. He left Stanford in 1925 without a degree.

During the summers and other times he was away from college, Steinbeck worked as a farm laborer, sometimes living with migrants in the farm’s bunkhouse. After leaving school for good in 1925, Steinbeck took a job on a freighter and went to New York City. There he worked in construction and later as a reporter for The American for twenty-five dollars a week. But he was fired because his reporting was not “objective” enough. When he failed to find a publisher for his short stories, he returned to California by freighter. In 1930, Steinbeck married Carol Henning and settled in Pacific Grove. While Carol worked at various jobs to support John’s career, he continued to write. Finally, in 1935 his first successful novel, Tortilla Flat, was published. In 1937, Of Mice and Men became an immediate best-seller, and Steinbeck became a respected writer. He adapted this novel into a play, which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1937.

The stress that came with success and fame hastened the collapse of Steinbeck’s marriage, which ended in 1942. A year later, Steinbeck married dancer-singer Gwen Conger, with whom he had two sons—his only children—before their divorce in 1948. By 1950, Steinbeck had married his third wife, Elaine Scott.

After leaving California in the early 1940s, Steinbeck lived the rest of his life in New York City and on Long Island in New York. His final novel, published the year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, was The Winter of Our Discontent. The story focuses on the decline of the moral climate in America. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1962, only five other Americans had received the award: Sinclair Lewis Eugene O’Neill, Pearl Buck William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.

Accepting the Nobel Prize in Sweden, Steinbeck said: “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement. Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat—for courage, compassion, and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

Steinbeck wrote no fiction after receiving the Nobel Prize. His reporting on the Vietnam War for Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, in 1967 caused many people to label him a hawk and a warmonger. Steinbeck died following a heart attack on December 20, 1968. He was sixty-six years old. His ashes were buried in Salinas, California.

John Steinbeck Biography (Novels for Students)

John Steinbeck Published by Gale Cengage

Steinbeck was the son of flour mill manager and Monterey County Treasurer, John Ernst, and a school teacher, Olive Hamilton, who lived in the Salinas Valley of California. Like other families in the valley, the Steinbecks thought themselves rich because they had land; unfortunately, they could hardly afford to buy food. There were four children but John Ernst Steinbeck, born in 1902, was the only boy. As a youth he spent much of his time exploring the valley which would become the backdrop to his fiction.

After graduating from Salinas High School in 1919, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University and attended intermittently until 1925. He worked to pay his tuition and was forced to take time off to earn money for the next term. This proved invaluable; he worked for surveyors in the Big Sur area and on a ranch in King City. This latter location became the setting for Of Mice and Men. Oftentimes he worked for the Spreckels Sugar Company, thereby, receiving firsthand experience of contemporary labor issues.

The most important learning experience, however, was a summer class in biology in 1923 at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. Steinbeck's exposure to biology led him to develop general theories about the interrelationship of all life. Edward F. Ricketts, a marine biologist, whom he met in 1930, would help him with this. Steinbeck adopted his idea that people could only be fully human once conscious of "man's" place within the entirety of creation. Humans were but one animal in life's web. From there, Ricketts and Steinbeck diverged as the latter mixed socialism with biological theory to grow his literary vision: man should act in concert with others to live happily and for the good of all creation. Essentially, Steinbeck's theory was a biological twist to the growing movement of 1930s "Proletarian Realism."

Keeping with his theory, Steinbeck fictionalized human society by observing its groupings rather than by selecting an individual. Observations of group behavior showed how humans could intelligently guide their own adaptation and natural selection. Typically, his characters begin in harmony with nature but then evil, in the form of corrupt politics or greed, upsets their order. Salvation is possible when the individual sees the rationality of cooperation and agrees to act, or adapt, to being part of a group, or phalanx. Failing to work together leads to tragedy. This theory would see Steinbeck through his greatest writing. Shortly thereafter, his inspirational friend, Ricketts, died in a train accident. In 1947, his parable, The Pearl, was published.

Steinbeck secured fame and fortune with the immensely popular novel, Of Mice and Men (1937). He followed this with his best known novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He died of heart failure in 1968. He had three wives (Carol Henning, Gwyn Conger, and Elaine Scott) and two children (Tom and John).

John Steinbeck Biography

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John Steinbeck
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Henry Fonda (center) with Jane Darwell and John Carradine in The Grapes of Wrath

Introduction

Although he spent a few years at Stanford University, the academic life did not suit John Steinbeck, because what he really wanted to do was to write. And write he did. Steinbeck penned twenty-seven novels, three collections of short stories, and numerous essays between 1929 and his death in 1968. He is best known for The Grapes of Wrath, a Depression-era (1930s) novel that follows the migratory experiences of the Joad family, who travel from the ravaged Oklahoma Dust Bowl to the “Promised Land” of California. Committed to diversity in his writing, Steinbeck’s other works of note include the semiautobiographical novel East of Eden, the comical Tortilla Flat, the travelogue Travels With Charley, and the nonfiction work Log From the Sea of Cortez.

Essential Facts

  1. Although many people believe him to be a lifelong Californian, Steinbeck spent much of his life in New York and eventually shed most of his ties to the Salinas Valley.
  2. Steinbeck had a lifelong fascination with the King Arthur tales.
  3. Hollywood loved Steinbeck. Film adaptations of his work include The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and Tortilla Flat.
  4. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 “for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception.” Privately, however, he feared that the prize usually spelled the end of a writer’s career.
  5. The two things Steinbeck found most necessary to life were “work and women.”

John Steinbeck Biography (Novels for Students)

John Steinbeck Published by Gale Cengage

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902, the son of John Ernst, a government employee, and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, a schoolteacher. He grew up in the midst of an agricultural community on the east side of the coastal mountains, and when he turned seventeen, he began a six-year relationship with Stanford University, sporadically attending classes in literature and writing but never attaining a degree. In 1925, he gave up furthering his education and moved to New York City, where he worked for a time as a laborer on the construction project of Madison Square Garden. He became discouraged about not finding a publisher for his writing, so one year later he returned to California.

He lived off and on at his parents' home, even after marrying Carol Henning, the first of his three wives. He continued to write, and in 1929 Cup of Gold, his first novel, was published. It was not until 1935 that Steinbeck enjoyed commercial success with his fourth novel, Tortilla Flat, and from that point on his career as a writer was set. In the next sixteen years, he would write eleven novels, numerous short stories, three plays, and five movie scripts. His most notable works include Of Mice and Men (1937), which was made into a play in the same year and adapted for film many times; The Red Pony (1937), which was made into a movie in 1949 and adapted for television in 1973; The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which was made into a movie in 1940 and 1991; Cannery Row (1945), which was adapted as a movie in 1984, and East of Eden (1952), which was adapted as a movie in 1954 and again in 1984.

During World War II Steinbeck worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, first stationed in North Africa and then Italy. Later, during the Vietnam War he also was a foreign correspondent, this time for Newsday.

Steinbeck's themes often revolved around what he saw as the evils of materialism, and his books were often his attempts to fight for human dignity and compassion in the wake of political and corporate corruption and rampant poverty. The Grapes of Wrath, probably his most famous work, was both widely read as well as banned and burned. Steinbeck spent two years living with farmers who had lost their lands in the Dust Bowl and migrated from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life, in order to gain firsthand experience in the hard luck of their lives. In 1940, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.

Steinbeck would go on to win many more awards in his lifetime, including the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962. He also won an Academy Award nomination for best original story for his screenplay Lifeboat. After his success with Grapes of Wrath, however, critics maintained that Steinbeck had lost the passion in his writing, some even going so far as to state that he won the Nobel Prize mostly for his early works.

Steinbeck moved back to New York in his latter years, somewhat disappointed by the reaction of the citizens of his hometown of Salinas. This was a conservative group of people who found Steinbeck and his novels too liberal and thus too disruptive for their tastes. He married Gwyndolyn Conger by whom he had two sons, one of whom was tragically addicted to codeine at the age of seven and would go on to write his own book, criticizing his father as a parent. In 1950, Steinbeck married Elaine Scott. On December 20, 1968, while in New York, he died of a heart attack.

John Steinbeck Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111200588-Steinbeck.jpgJohn Steinbeck Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Salinas, California, over the hill from Monterey and close enough to Big Sur that John Steinbeck’s mother was able to teach there, has long had the climate to grow some of the most profitable crops in the United States. When Steinbeck was born there in 1902, that part of the central California coast, some one hundred miles south of San Francisco, was quite untouched by the kind of industrial civilization that had grown up in the East, from which Steinbeck’s family had come.

The father, John Ernst Steinbeck, born in Florida, had followed his parents to Hollister, California. He was a miller and served for eleven years as treasurer of Monterey County. In 1890, he married Olive Hamilton, a teacher. The Steinbecks had four children, of whom John, their third, was the only boy. He showed an early literary bent; his favorite pastime was reading, and his favorite book was Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’ Arthur (1485).

Steinbeck contributed to the school newspaper at Salinas High School, from which he graduated in 1919. He entered Stanford University as an English major. He attended Stanford in a desultory manner from 1920 until 1925 but left without a degree. A contributor to several campus publications during his years there, Steinbeck was particularly affected by his creative writing teacher, Edith Ronald Mirrielees, for whose book, Story Writing (1962), he wrote the preface.

In the fall of 1925, Steinbeck went to New York City, working first as a day laborer. Before long, through the intervention of an influential uncle, Steinbeck had a twenty-five-dollar-a-week job on the New York American, where he had an undistinguished career as a reporter. Urged by an editor from the Robert McBride Publishing Company, Steinbeck produced a collection of short stories. When the publisher rejected the collection, a discouraged Steinbeck shipped out as a deckhand on a steamer going to California via the Panama Canal. He found work as a caretaker at a remote Lake Tahoe resort, benefiting artistically from the isolation the job assured. He wrote three novels, none ever published. In 1929, however, his novel about English pirate Henry Morgan, Cup of Gold, was published by McBride. Appearing only two months before the stock market crash of 1929, it sold few copies.

In 1930, Steinbeck married the first of his three wives, Carol Henning. They moved to Pacific Grove, California, where they lived in a modest house provided by Steinbeck’s family, who also gave them twenty-five dollars a month on which they could live decently during the Great Depression. In the same year, Steinbeck met marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who remained his closest friend for the rest of Ricketts’s life.

For his next book—and for most of his subsequent ones—Steinbeck turned to a California setting and theme. Brewer, Warren & Putnam published The Pastures of Heaven in 1932. Before the book could be bound, however, the publisher went out of business. Despite this, Steinbeck earned more than four hundred dollars in royalties from it, more than his first book or his third book, To a God Unknown (1933), brought him. Neither book sold enough copies to cover the $250 advance he had received for each.

In 1934, the year in which Steinbeck’s mother died, the North American Review accepted the first two sections of The Red Pony and two short stories, one of which, “The Murder,” was selected to appear in the O. Henry Prize Stories volume for 1934. It was in 1935, however, that Steinbeck’s star began to rise significantly, with the publication of Tortilla Flat, a latter-day Arthurian legend with Danny as King Arthur and his boys as Danny’s knights.

A number of publishers rejected Tortilla Flat, thinking its frivolity inappropriate for the mood of the Depression era. Pascal Covici, however, liked Steinbeck’s writing. When he called his agent to ask whether Steinbeck had any new manuscripts for him to read, he was sent Tortilla Flat, which he published, thus beginning a literary relationship that lasted through Steinbeck’s years of greatest celebrity. Tortilla Flat did not fare well with the critics, but the public liked it; Steinbeck’s future was assured. Steinbeck helped people to remember that there is more to life than money.

Of Mice and Men followed in 1937 and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, assuring a minimum of ten thousand sales. In the same year, Steinbeck visited a camp for migrant workers. This visit led to his most celebrated work, The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939. Sea of Cortez followed in 1941.

The next year, Steinbeck and Henning divorced, and in 1943, he married Gwen Conger, with whom he had two sons before their divorce in 1948, the same year in which Ed Ricketts was killed in an accident. Cannery Row, titled for the sardine factory area of Monterey, was well received in 1945, as was the novella The Pearl in 1947. In 1947, The Wayward Bus was rejected by the public. Steinbeck continued to write, but he never again attained the level of artistry he had reached in The Grapes of Wrath.

When Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, the academic establishment was not overjoyed, although his faithful public, recalling the work he had produced between 1935 and 1947, was less negative in its judgment. The Nobel presentation speech cited the impact of The Grapes of Wrath, but it also noted, among Steinbeck’s later work, Travels with Charley (1962) and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). Steinbeck died in New York in 1968. In 1974, his boyhood home in Salinas was opened as a museum and restaurant. A collection of his papers is in the Steinbeck Collection at San Jose State University, whose Steinbeck Room attracts numerous scholars.

Steinbeck’s close friendship with Ed Ricketts, enduring for almost two decades until Ricketts’s death in 1948, had a profound effect upon the author. Ricketts was a deeply philosophical man. Steinbeck trusted him and valued his judgment to the point that he had him read all of his manuscripts or read them aloud to him. Ricketts’s judgments were not always valid—he liked The Wayward Bus—but were necessary to Steinbeck. Ricketts got Steinbeck to think about nature in ways that the author never had before. Steinbeck began to take on the philosophical colorations of his friend and went so far as to include in Sea of Cortez Ricketts’s essay on nonteleological thinking, which had been circulating privately among Ricketts’s friends since the 1930’s.

Steinbeck wrote largely to please himself, and in so doing he often pleased vast audiences of readers as well. Seldom did he please the critics, however, after their vigorous acceptance of The Grapes of Wrath. Possibly this is because literary criticism was largely an enterprise of easterners or of people educated at eastern, often New England, schools. Their anti-California bias was seldom, if ever, expressed, but arguably it existed at the subconscious level.

Steinbeck resisted the inroads that the importunate tried to make upon his time. To protect his privacy, he moved away from California in 1945, buying a townhouse on the Upper East Side of New York City, where he continued to live until his death.

John Steinbeck Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He and his three sisters were raised by their parents in this small...

(The entire section is 529 words.)