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.