Steinbeck, John (Vol. 124)
John Steinbeck 1902–1968
American novelist, short story writer, playwright, non-fiction writer, journalist, and screenplay writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Steinbeck's career. See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 13, 21.
A Nobel Prize laureate and widely popular novelist, John Steinbeck is among the most enduring American authors of the twentieth century. Best known for Of Men and Mice (1937), East of Eden (1952), and his Pulitzer prize-winning masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Steinbeck is distinguished for his lucid prose, engaging naturalistic descriptions, forceful symbolism, and examination of the myth of America as Edenic paradise. Sympathetic to the plight of the impoverished and downtrodden, his Depression-era fiction offers poignant depiction of socioeconomic conditions and human realities in the American West during the 1930s. Though controversial for the overt socialist views evinced in much of his work, he continues to receive critical acclaim for his best-selling novels, several of which were adapted into successful motion pictures and plays. The distinctly American perspective and journalistic realism of Steinbeck's social protest novels struck an emotional chord with the reading public and exerted an important influence on contemporary literature.
Born in California's Salinas Valley, which serves as the backdrop for much of his work, Steinbeck was one of four children of Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, a teacher, and John Ernst Steinbeck II, the treasurer of Monterey County. Steinbeck intermittently attended Stanford University for five years but never received a degree. During and after college he worked variously as a reporter, bricklayer, surveyor, store clerk, ranch hand, and laborer. These jobs, particularly the time spent working for the Spreckels Sugar Company during a period of worker unrest, served as the crucible in which Steinbeck formed his pro-labor views. In 1930 Steinbeck met Edward F. Ricketts, a marine biologist whose theories influenced Steinbeck's developing "biological" world view of mankind. After seven rejections, Steinbeck published his first book, Cup of Gold (1929), a historical novel based on the life of Henry Morgan, a seventeenth-century buccaneer. He followed with The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933). From 1933 to 1936, Steinbeck and his first wife, Carol Henning, lived in Pacific Grove, California. During this time, Steinbeck often visited Ricketts at his laboratory on Cannery Row in Monterey and later fictionalized the experience in Cannery Row (1945). Steinbeck became known to the American public in 1935 with the publication of Tortilla Flat (1935), which was a best-seller. His meeting with two union organizers in 1934 led to In Dubious Battle (1936), a novel about labor unrest in a California orchard. Soon afterward Steinbeck wrote a series of articles for the San Francisco News about the mass exodus of thousands of migrants from the Dust Bowl to California. This experience led to The Grapes of Wrath, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the next year. In 1943, he married his second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger, with whom he had two children. During the Second World War, Steinbeck went overseas as a war correspondent for the New York Herald-Tribune and wrote propaganda pieces for the United States government, including the novel The Moon is Down (1942), which he adapted as a play, and Bombs Away (1942), a non-fiction work about the U.S. Air Force. In 1948 Steinbeck suffered a double loss—his friend Ricketts was killed and his second wife left him. The emotional strain affected his work and he published nothing until two years later, when he married Elaine Scott and produced Burning Bright (1950), a study of a troubled marriage, followed by East of Eden. Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He died of a heart attack in New York City in 1968.
Noted for his descriptions of the search for the American dream and sympathy for the plight of the working class, Steinbeck's works typically describe ordinary men and women who come close to achieving greatness only when faced with a trial that requires them to join with others for the greater good. Steinbeck's brand of literature, mixed with social commentary, was influenced by his teleological view of people as parts of a larger whole who must work in concert to improve the lot of humanity. In Tortilla Flat, the first of many novels set in the Salinas Valley, a group of paisanos form an Arthurian round table and experience several seriocomic adventures. They attempt to escape a materialistic society but in the end their pursuits are not enough to hold the brotherhood together and it dissolves. "The Red Pony," (1937) a group of four stories in the short-story collection The Long Valley (1938), is a coming-of-age story about Jody, a boy who learns about birth, life, and death through his experiences with a colt given to him by his father which sickens and dies; his contact with an old man who lives on his father's ranch and leaves in order to die in the mountains; the death of a mare who dies while giving birth to a colt; and his interaction with his aging grandfather. Another initiation story, "Flight," involves a boy who commits murder in a fit of rage and achieves manhood in an aborted attempt to escape the law in the mountains. Of Mice and Men, which Steinbeck later made into a highly successful play, involves George and Lennie, two ranch hands who hope to escape the ranch for a place of their own where they can live an idyllic existence. George watches out for the simple-minded Lennie, a grown-up child who doesn't understand his own strength and cuddles mice and puppies to death. Their dreams of escape are destroyed when Lennie accidentally kills the ranch owner's wife and George must shoot him to prevent an angry mob from brutally murdering him. The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's most famous work, chronicles the exodus of the Joad family, led by the matriarch Ma Joad, from the Dust Bowl to the supposed Eden of California. They are joined by Jim Casy, a Christ archetype who sparks their evolution from a self-contained, self-involved family unit to a part of the migrant community which must work together for the greater good. Steinbeck alternates the Joads's story with intercalary chapters illustrating the conditions faced by the migrant group during their forced flight. During the course of their travels, the family's grandmother and grandfather die and Rose of Sharon, the Joads's married and pregnant daughter, is deserted by her husband. The Joads make their way to California only to become exploited workers in a migrant camp. Casy tries to organize the workers and is murdered by thugs who work for the farm owners. Finally, the migrants face a disastrous flood, during which Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn. In the ultimate affirmation of the Joads's recognition of their membership in the human family, Rose of Sharon gives her breast milk to a starving migrant man in order to save his life. Steinbeck intended East of Eden, an epic retelling of the Cain and Abel story, to be his masterpiece. It chronicles the stories of the Trask family and his real-life mother's family, the Hamiltons. Adam Trask marries Cathy Ames, a cold, malevolent woman who deserts Adam and her twin sons, Cal and Aron, who grapple for their father's favor and attention. When Aron, the innocent son, discovers his mother's true nature it destroys him, while Cal realizes he is free to choose between good and evil. Steinbeck's last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), indicts American society for its focus on materialism and individual's disregard for the family of man. Shortly afterwards he published Travels With Charley (1962), an account of his cross-country peregrinations with his poodle, Charley.
Critical assessment of Steinbeck's work varied widely throughout his career and was often influenced by its political content. Some critics expressed surprise when the Nobel Prize Committee honored Steinbeck in 1962, many years after his literary star had fallen. While many reviewers praised Steinbeck's optimistic view of humanity and its quest for improvement and redemption, others claimed that his characters, especially women, were largely one-dimensional and symbolic. Steinbeck is renowned for the clarity of his natural descriptions, especially those of his native California, which pervade his most effective work. Much critical attention is directed at the prominent sociological concerns, allegorical motifs, themes of initiation, and Christian archetypes in his novels. His most successful fiction, particularly Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, is praised by most for its universality, though faulted by others for excessive sentimentalism and melodrama. Reception of The Grapes of Wrath was distorted because the book caused a maelstrom of political controversy due to its castigation of agribusiness and the governmental system that contributed to the Dust Bowl predicament. The press and politicians attempted to discredit Steinbeck's book, accusing him of socialist sympathies. As a result The Grapes of Wrath became one of the most commonly banned books in America. Critics were disappointed with his post-Grapes of Wrath work, particularly after the publication of East of Eden. Most considered Steinbeck's attempts to experiment with the literary form in East of Eden to be a failure. They denounced the uneven structure, obvious symbolism, and flat characterization. Though Steinbeck's reputation was in decline when he died, he remains one of the most widely read and anthologized American writers of the twentieth century.
Cup of Gold: A Life of Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional References to History (novel) 1929...
The Pastures of Heaven (novel) 1932
To a God Unknown (novel) 1933
Tortilla Flat (novel) 1935
In Dubious Battle (novel) 1936
Nothing So Monstrous (short stories) 1936
Saint Kay the Virgin (short stories) 1936
Of Mice and Men (novel) 1937
Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts [with George S. Kaufman] (drama) 1937
The Red Pony (novella) 1937
The Long Valley (short stories) 1938
The Grapes of Wrath (novel) 1939
The Forgotten Village (novel) 1941
Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (travel book) 1941
The Moon is Down (novel) 1942
The Moon is Down: Play in Two Parts (drama) 1942
How Edith McGillicuddy Met R.L.S. (short stories) 1943
Cannery Row (novel) 1945
The Pearl (novella) 1947
The Wayward Bus (novel) 1947
Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form (novel) 1950
East of Eden (novel) 1952
Viva Zapata! (screenplay) 1952
Sweet Thursday (novel) 1954
The Crapshooter (short stories) 1957
The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (novel) 1957
The Winter of Our Discontent (novel) 1961
Travels with Charley: In Search of America (nonfiction) 1962
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SOURCE: "Growth of the Family in The Grapes of Wrath," in Critical Essays on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, edited by John Ditsky, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 97-108.
[In the following essay, Britch and Lewis examine the solidarity and self-preservation of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. According to Britch and Lewis, "if ever the mettle of the American spirit has been tested and found strong, it has been so with the Joads."]
Resistance to innovation indicates, in the eye of nature, senility and senility is doomed to be discarded…. That nation thrives best which is most flexible, and which has fewer prejudices to hamper adaption.
Although it addresses issues of great sociological change, The Grapes of Wrath is at its core about the family and the struggle of its members to assert their separate identities without breaking up as a family. In his treatment of the Joads, Steinbeck manages to delineate "kid-wild" Winfield through "growed-up" Tom to "lecherous" Grampa in ways that gain each an individualized life beyond their inherited roles in the family hierarchy as well as beyond the symbolic roles they serve as an "over-essence of people" to amplify the argument of the plot. The argument, as Steinbeck writes in his "Journal," is that the Joads and those like them must abandon their...
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SOURCE: "The Culpable Joads: Desentimentalizing The Grapes of Wrath," in Critical Essays on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, edited by John Ditsky, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 108-16.
[In the following essay, Owens draws attention to Steinbeck's effort to evoke sympathy for the Joad family without sentimentalizing their plight. According to Owens, Steinbeck incorporates panoramic interchapters to offset over-identification with the Joad family.]
The Grapes of Wrath is one of John Steinbeck's great experiments, perhaps his greatest, a novel that exploded upon the American conscience in 1939, bringing home to American readers both the intimate reality of the Joads' suffering and the immense panorama of a people's—the Dust Bowl migrants'—suffering. In spite of howls of outrage from opposite ends of the novel's journey—both Oklahoma and California—America took the Joads to heart, forming out of The Grapes of Wrath a new American archetype of oppression and endurance, survival if not salvation. So warmly did readers embrace the Dust Bowl Okies, in fact, that critics began almost immediately to accuse Steinbeck again of sentimentality in his portrayal of the downtrodden proletariat. Edmund Wilson was one of the first serious critics to take such a position, declaring that in this novel Steinbeck learned much from films, "and not only from the documentary pictures of Pare Lorentz, but...
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SOURCE: "The Story of a Writing: Narrative Structure in East of Eden," in Rediscovering Steinbeck: Revisionist Views of His Art, Politics, and Intellect, edited by Cliff Lewis and Carroll Britch, Edwin Mellen Press, 1989, pp. 60-76.
[In the following essay, Owens examines the plot, central themes, and characters of East of Eden. Tempering his earlier unfavorable criticism of the novel, Owens writes, "East of Eden is, I believe, Steinbeck's greatest experiment, and one that succeeds more than some of us have thus far suspected."]
When I said, in my recent study of Steinbeck's fiction, that East of Eden fails "unmistakably," it seemed to me that it was so. Now I have bent close with a glass over the fine print of the novel and reread the footnotes, and I wonder if it is true.
Most readers of East of Eden will recognize in the above statement a rather unsubtle paraphrase of Steinbeck's own comments within the novel concerning the nature of his creation called Cathy Ames Trask. It is a paraphrase designed to call to mind the manner in which Steinbeck enters into this novel, becoming not merely the omnipresent "I" who remembers the Salinas Valley and its inhabitants, but the laconic narrator who feels free to step back and comment upon and modify his fictional construct when the desire or whim seems to strike him. And with its emphasis upon the text itself,...
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SOURCE: "'And Then the Child Becomes a Man': Three Initiation Stories of John Steinbeck," in John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by R. S. Hughes, Twayne, 1989, pp. 181-8.
[In the following essay, Satyanarayana examines the theme of initiation in "The Raid," The Red Pony, and "Flight."]
In his introduction to John Steinbeck (1965) Joseph Fontenrose observes: "Myth has been a more consistent factor, profoundly affecting the form and content of all his (Steinbeck's) novels since 1929. In most of them we see a palimpsest upon which Steinbeck has inscribed a realistic tale of contemporary men." Yet, in his actual interpretation of the works, Fontenrose makes no reference to the use of myth in three stories from The Long Valley: "The Raid," The Red Pony cycle and "Flight." He considers only The Red Pony as a story of initiation in which the hero passes from "naive childhood to the threshold of adulthood through knowledge of birth, old age, and death, gained through experience with horses." As a matter of fact all the three works are about the growth of boys into men, each different from the others, in its use of myth. "The Raid" is an excellent example of a sociological initiation, in which the boy hero is initiated to an altogether new social order. In The Red Pony the hero's initiation is brought about within the same social order into which he is...
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SOURCE: "The Squatter's Circle in The Grapes of Wrath," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Autumn, 1989, pp. 203-11.
[In the following essay, Timmerman discusses the function and significance of the squatter's circle as a symbol of patriarchal authority and unity.]
In John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the indomitable Ma Joad emerges as a hero and the leader of, in her words, "the fambly of man." In so doing, however, she also displaces Pa Joad from his traditional position of authority in the family. While several critical studies have examined those qualities of Ma Joad that direct her leadership—qualities of humor, a steadfast vision, and a resilient ability to bend and adapt to new situations without breaking—Pa Joad has disappeared from critical scrutiny as if of no account. In fact, Steinbeck very carefully directs the reversal of leadership roles through the use of the "squatter's circle" motif.
That the migrant family of the 1930s was strongly patriarchal has been demonstrated by Tom Collins' detailed reports on California migrant camps during the late 1930s. Collins was the manager of the Kern County Migrant Camp and was also Steinbeck's most profitable source of information about migrant traditions. He personally escorted Steinbeck through both the established government camps and the squatters' camps. More importantly, Steinbeck took back...
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SOURCE: "Turning Wine into Water: Water as Privileged Signifier in The Grapes of Wrath," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 67-95.
[In the following essay, Cassuto examines the symbolic and socioeconomic significance of water as a scarce resource and commodity in The Grapes of Wrath, particularly in relation to the history of agriculture in the American West.]
Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.
—Henry David Thoreau
The Old Testament describes wilderness as "a thirsty ground where there was no water." When the Lord wished to punish, He threatened to "turn the rivers into islands and dry up the pools and … command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it." When granting redemption in Isaiah, God promises instead that "waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert" and that "the desert and dry land shall be glad" (Deut 8:7, 15; Isaiah 5:6, 35:1, 6, 43:20). The Garden of Eden provided the antithesis of desert wilderness, a place where water flowed freely and bounty of all sorts lay ready to spring out of the ground. This is the legacy which spawned what Henry Nash Smith termed the "myth of the garden" in the American West. At the dawn of the common era, John offered Jesus his baptism in the River Jordan. Two millennia later, Casy...
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SOURCE: "Audience and Closure in The Grapes of Wrath," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 19-36.
[In the following essay, Visser discusses the historical context of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's persuasive depiction of social injustice, and narrative strategies employed to present a politically radical message to a large public audience.]
Although The Grapes of Wrath continues to be regarded as Steinbeck's major achievement, changing critical fashions have ensured that the novel's status remains uncertain. The novel's standing came under pressure as early as the decades immediately following its publication, as literary studies with the onset of the Cold War intensified a longstanding tendency in modern poetics to strip literary texts of social and political implications. It was not difficult to decontextualize most of the literature of earlier times, but because the thirties were part of living memory, and because so much of the decade's literature was politically left-wing, the need to depoliticize it was particularly urgent. Where critics could not manage that task, if only because social content was too firmly in the foreground to be obscured, they simply declared such literary works unworthy of serious attention. So strong were these pressures that one of the first critics to write a full-length study of Steinbeck, Harry T. Moore, later wrote an...
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SOURCE: "The 'Great Mother' in The Grapes of Wrath," in Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., University of Alabama Press, 1997, pp. 76-91.
[In the following essay, Cederstrom examines the significance of archetypal maternal figures and feminine values in The Grapes of Wrath. According to Cederstrom, "An archetypal analysis of Steinbeck's novel reveals that in assessing the economic problems of the 1930s he had, perhaps unconsciously, arrived at an alternative to the dominant structures of Western civilization."]
Pagan cultures identify the earth, with its seasonal cycles of birth, growth, death, and renewal, with a feminine principle. Such cultures worship an earth goddess, on whose fecundity and compassion men depend, and depict her as a maternal figure, a "Great Mother." In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, with Ma Joad as matriarch, adopt the Great Mother's ethos and iconography. On the road to California, they become a matriarchy valuing family and nurture, a social system with roots deep in a primitive time when men lived in harmony with the land and in direct opposition to the patriarchal forces driving the Dust Bowl disaster. The novel's famous final image, in which Rose of Sharon gives her breast to a starving man, is not Christian iconography but the culmination of the...
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SOURCE: "Natural Wisdom: Steinbeck's Men of Nature as Prophets and Peacemakers," in Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., University of Alabama Press, 1997, pp. 113-24.
[In the following essay, McEntyre discusses the self-knowledge and compassion acquired by Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath and Doc in Cannery Row through solitary communion with nature. According to McEntyre, "In these two figures, Casy and Doc, Steinbeck incorporates a complex vision of wisdom derived from attentiveness to the natural world."]
Steinbeck's prophets, men of broad understanding and acceptance, draw their vision from the natural world. Jim Casy, a lapsed preacher and wise counselor to the Joad family, finds new faith in love of nature and renewed purpose through his involvement with the people of the earth. At the center of Cannery Row, is Doc, marine biologist, whose holistic vision and compassionate attention to human needs are similarly drawn from close observation of his environment and nature. Through a nonteleological acceptance of what is, both the rigorous scientist and the intuitive preacher recognize the interconnectedness of creation.
Steinbeck's indebtedness to the American transcendentalists, particularly Emerson and Whitman, has been noted frequently. That relationship...
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Davis, Robert Murray. "The World of John Steinbeck's Joads." World Literature Today 64, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 401-4.
Examines the Joad family's migratory route and provides an overview of the central social themes in The Grapes of Wrath.
McKay, Nellie Y. "'Happy[?]-Wife-and-Motherdom': The Portrayal of Ma Joad in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath." In New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, edited by David Wyatt, pp. 47-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Provides analysis of sex roles and gender stereotypes in The Grapes of Wrath, particularly in Steinbeck's presentation of Ma Joad as an archetypal Earth Mother figure.
Mitchell, Marilyn H. "Steinbeck's Strong Women: Feminine Identity in the Short Stories." In John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by R. S. Hughes, pp. 154-66. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Examines the sexual psychology and gender roles of female characters in two stories from The Long Valley—"The Chrysanthemums" and "The White Quail."
Railton, Stephen. "Pilgrim's Politics: Steinbeck's Art of Conversion." In New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, edited by David Wyatt, pp. 27-46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,...
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