John Steinbeck Steinbeck, John (Vol. 124)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

Noted for his descriptions of the search for the American...

(The entire section is 49,520 words.)