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.
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...
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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...
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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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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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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...
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