Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth 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.
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.
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...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
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...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
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...
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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...
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Biography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
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...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised 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...
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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 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.
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).
IntroductionAlthough 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.
- 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.
- Steinbeck had a lifelong fascination with the King Arthur tales.
- 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.
- 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.
- The two things Steinbeck found most necessary to life were “work and women.”
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.
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
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