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.
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, violence, and suicide overshadows the volume's structural flaws. Throughout the collection, the majority of the characters are tormented people who are unable or unwilling to confront what Steinbeck has termed the “tragic miracle of consciousness.” “The Chrysanthemums,” for example, involves a woman who seeks love but is manipulated by a crafty vagrant, while “The Harness” focuses on a man who remains emotionally dependent on his domineering wife despite her recent death. Steinbeck further explores self-deception in “The White Quail,” a story about a woman whose obsessive identification with a white quail reflects her inability to accept herself or others.
Early critical reaction to Steinbeck's short fiction was generally favorable, but following World War II his literary reputation began to decline. During the 1950s and 1960s commentators began to fault Steinbeck's stories for being sentimental, philosophically simplistic, and overly theatrical. Contemporary critics recognize, however, that Steinbeck's short fiction reflects the social and psychological concerns evident in his novels and that his stories often served as preparatory sketches for his longer, more celebrated works. Despite critical trends, Steinbeck's realistic yet sensitive portrayal of ordinary working-class people has consistently garnered praise, and when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962, the awards committee lauded his “sympathetic humor and sociological perception.” Today he remains one of America's most respected authors.