John Steinbeck 1902–1968
American novelist, short story writer, playwright, nonfiction writer, journalist, and screenwriter. See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 13, 124.
Steinbeck's novels of the common people and the troubles that beset them have earned him the reputation as one of America's greatest writers. He has employed various forms, from short story to allegory to morality play, yet his approach is consistently realistic. Critics often feel that the realism is marred by his sentimentality, but Steinbeck's clear, forceful writing and his sensitive treatment of his characters are considered his strengths.
Steinbeck often used religious motifs to universalize his work. The Eden theme and the Cain and Abel story are predominant in East of Eden. The Grapes of Wrath relies on a combination of Old and New Testament symbols for its emotional impact. Steinbeck's work also reveals a preoccupation with biological relationships and patterns, an interest promoted by his friendship with the marine biologist Edward Ricketts. Steinbeck discerned parallels between animal and human life that he believed could produce a better understanding of human behavior. An accurate observation of the land and its inhabitants resulted from Steinbeck's interest in science.
Steinbeck was impressed with the Arthurian legends and contended that Tortilla Flat was written as a modern-day example of the Knights of the Round Table. However, some critics have difficulty finding the Arthurian theme in the book. Steinbeck later began translating Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur into more accessible, contemporary language. The incomplete work was published posthumously as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. It was received with great enthusiasm; critics praised Steinbeck's use of language in this book as the best of his career.
The social outcast is a prevalent character in Steinbeck's work. In Cannery Row Steinbeck infuses a group of these characters with a dignity and nobility that makes it possible for the reader to like them in spite of their irresponsible ways. The working class is also represented in Steinbeck's novels, especially in In Dubious Battle. Here Steinbeck attempts to present an objective view of illegal strikes and shows genuine concern for the workers not only as employees, but also as people.
The Grapes of Wrath, an accurate and moving account of the mass migration during the American Depression, is probably Steinbeck's best-known novel. Here again he attacks social injustice, but there are several other essential themes. Along with traditional religious beliefs, Steinbeck explores the implications of the transcendentalist belief that each person is a part of the over-soul and that individual actions cannot be interpreted as right or wrong. The family as a source of strength to its members and the community as a whole is another important theme of the book. The Joad family is a universal symbol for the need for group effort and support to accomplish the greater good for the greater number of people.
Steinbeck is remembered primarily as a writer who was unafraid to denounce the faults of individuals and society as he saw them. His sympathetic portrayal of the proletariat endears Steinbeck to readers of every generation, and the skill with which he wrote has earned him a place among America's most important writers. Steinbeck was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, 9, 13, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed., and Something About the Author, Vol. 9.)