John Steinbeck Steinbeck, John

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(Short Story Criticism)

John Steinbeck 1902-1968

(Full name John Ernst Steinbeck) American novelist, short-story writer, nonfiction writer, playwright, journalist, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents criticism of Steinbeck's short fiction works from 1992 through 2000. See also, "The Chrysanthemums" Criticism.

Steinbeck is recognized as one of America's best short-story writers. Although best known for his novels, he first began to develop a distinct literary voice and to experiment with characterization, concision, and thematic unity in his short stories. Addressing the repercussions of social exploitation, Puritanism, and materialistic values in his fiction, Steinbeck is noted for his sharp, forceful idiom, wry humor, and profound compassion for the poor, the inarticulate, and the politically oppressed.

Biographical Information

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902. After graduating from Salinas High School in 1919, he worked a variety of odd jobs, including store clerk, surveyor, and ranch hand, to pay for his college education. Steinbeck later incorporated these experiences and, by extension, his concerns about the working class into his writings. While intermittently taking biology and literature classes at Stanford University during the early 1920s, Steinbeck developed a “biological” view of humanity, a perspective that highly influenced his fiction. He believed that such evolutionary concepts as adaptation and natural selection apply to human society, and that more profound observations could be gleaned from examining social groups rather than individuals. After a brief stint as a journalist in New York City, Steinbeck returned to California and completed his first novel Cup of Gold (1929). Despite the publication of this work, Steinbeck found it necessary to sell stories to magazines in order to support himself financially. These stories were later collected in the volumes The Red Pony (1937) and The Long Valley (1938). Steinbeck continued to write short fiction throughout the 1930s, but after the success of his novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Of Mice and Men (1937), he focused almost exclusively on writing novels until his death in 1968.

Major Works of Short Fiction

The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and The Red Pony, two volumes of thematically linked stories, are not generally considered short-story collections in the traditional sense, but most critics deem them integral to Steinbeck's development as a short-story writer. The Pastures of Heaven is a loosely related collection set in California's Corral de Tierra Valley. These stories concern a group of people who fail in their attempt to establish an idyllic farming community free from restrictive urban pressures. Most critics agree that the characters in this volume—ordinary people whose illusions and self-deceptions prevent them from confronting life's realities—illustrate the frustration, despair, and isolation associated with contemporary American life. The Red Pony originally comprised three stories—“The Gift,” “The Great Mountains,” and “The Promise”—and the volume was expanded in 1945 to include “The Leader of the People.” This collection details a boy's maturation and his acceptance of death when he loses his colt to pneumonia. Exploring such themes as the loss of innocence and faith, these stories evince Steinbeck's belief that suffering and grief are inevitable and must be experienced to live life fully.

The Long Valley, Steinbeck's most popular short-story collection, contains all of his extant stories, including The Red Pony, the previously published Saint Katy the Virgin (1936), and those stories set in the Long Valley. The volume also includes such widely anthologized stories as “The Chrysanthemums,” “The Harness,” and “The White Quail.” While critics agree that the work suffers organizational problems because of its all-inclusive nature, they concede that Steinbeck's insightful treatment of such psychological concerns as repression, fear,...

(The entire section is 63,472 words.)