illustrated portrait of American author John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

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Discussion Topics

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What is the nature of John Steinbeck’s medieval interest, especially in Tortilla Flat?

What is the basis of the friendship of George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men?

What distinguishes the social criticism of The Grapes of Wrath from Marxist-inspired social criticism of the 1930’s?

Are the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath typical migrant laborers?

What factors led critics to downgrade Steinbeck’s fiction after The Grapes of Wrath?

What conclusions about the United States does Steinbeck reach as a result of the journey described in Travels with Charley: In Search of America?

Other Literary Forms

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Besides two volumes of short fiction, John Steinbeck produced numerous novels, among which is his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). He also authored several screenplays and three dramas, two of which were based on his novels, Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Moon Is Down (1942). Among his nonfiction are several travel books and a collection of war sketches. His last work was a translation of Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthurian stories. A volume of letters was published posthumously.


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John Steinbeck assumes an important place in American literature chiefly for his powerful and deft portrayal of the common people—the migrant worker, the ranch hand, and the laborer—whose capacity for survival surpassed the attempts of economic and corporate forces to defeat them. His novels, especially, render the human condition with sensitivity and lyrical grace. His work often shows a versatility unrivaled among his contemporaries. The comic, the tragic, the whimsical, and the naturalistic all merge in such a way as to make Steinbeck one of the United States’ most popular writers, one whose art form is particularly suited to the cinema. Many of his books have been turned into successful films. Though much of Steinbeck’s best work was written in the 1930’s, he is not only a propagandist of the Great Depression era but also a writer who is deeply concerned with the dignity of human beings. A human being as an individual may pass away, but the human being as a group, humankind as a species, is immortal. As Ma Joad remarked in the final pages of The Grapes of Wrath: “We’re the people. We go on.”

Other literary forms

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In addition to his seventeen novels, John Steinbeck published a story collection, The Long Valley (1938), and a few other uncollected or separately printed stories. His modern English translations of Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthurian tales were published posthumously in 1976. Three plays he adapted from his novels were published as well as performed on Broadway: Of Mice and Men (pr. 1937), The Moon Is Down (pr. 1942), and Burning Bright (pr. 1951). Three of the six film treatments or screenplays he wrote have been published: The Forgotten Village (1941), A Medal for Benny (1945), and Viva Zapata! (1952). The other three—Lifeboat (1944), The Pearl (1945), and The Red Pony (1949)—also were produced as films, the latter two adapted from his own novels. His nonfiction is voluminous, and much of it remains uncollected. The more important nonfiction books include Sea of Cortez (1941, with Edward F. Ricketts), Bombs Away (1942), A Russian Journal (1948, with Robert Capa), Once There Was a War (1958), Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), Journal of a Novel (1969), and Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (1975; Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, editors).


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From the publication of his first best seller, Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck was a popular and widely respected American writer. His three earlier novels were virtually ignored, but the five books of fiction published between 1935 and 1939 made him the most important literary spokesperson for the Depression decade. In Dubious Battle, The Red Pony ,...

(This entire section contains 220 words.)

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andOf Mice and Men established him as a serious writer, and his masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath, confirmed him as a major talent. During these years, his popular and critical success rivaled that of any of his contemporaries.

Although his immense popularity, public recognition, and the impressive sales of his works persisted throughout his career, Steinbeck’s critical success waned after The Grapes of Wrath, reaching a nadir at his death in 1968, despite his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. During World War II, his development as a novelist faltered for many reasons, and Steinbeck never recovered his artistic momentum. Even East of Eden, the work he thought his masterpiece, proved a critical failure although a popular success. Steinbeck remains widely read, both in the United States and abroad, while his critical reputation has enjoyed a modest revival. Undoubtedly the appreciation of his considerable talents will continue to develop, as few writers have better celebrated the American Dream or traced the dark lineaments of the American nightmare.


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Astro, Richard, and Tetsumaro Hayashi, eds. Steinbeck: The Man and His Work. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1971. One of the first full-length works published after Steinbeck’s death, this superb collection of essays presents opinions which regard Steinbeck as everything from a mere proletarian novelist to an artist with a deep vision of humans’ essential dignity.

Benson, Jackson D. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking Press, 1984. This biography emphasizes Steinbeck’s rebellion against critical conventions and his attempts to keep his private life separate from his role as public figure. Benson sees Steinbeck as a critical anomaly, embarrassed and frustrated by his growing critical and popular success.

DeMott, Robert J., ed. Steinbeck’s Typewriter: Essays on His Art. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1996. A good collection of criticism of Steinbeck. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Fontenrose, Joseph. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. A good introduction, this book discusses some of the symbolism inherent in much of Steinbeck’s fiction and contains some insightful observations on Steinbeck’s concept of the “group-man”—that is, the individual as a unit in the larger sociobiological organism.

French, Warren. John Steinbeck’s Fiction Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994. The chapter on The Long Valley in this revision of French’s earlier Twayne book on Steinbeck provides brief discussions of the major stories, including “Flight” and “Chrysanthemums.”

George, Stephen K., ed. John Steinbeck: A Centennial Tribute. New York: Praeger, 2002. A collection of reminiscences from Steinbeck’s family and friends as well as wide-ranging critical assessments of his works.

Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. Steinbeck’s Short Stories in “The Long Valley”: Essays in Criticism. Muncie, Ind.: Steinbeck Research Institution, 1991. A collection of new critical essays on the stories in The Long Valley (excluding The Red Pony), from a variety of critical perspectives.

Hughes, R. S. John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1989. A general introduction to Steinbeck’s short fiction, focusing primarily on critical reception to the stories. Also includes some autobiographical statements on short-story writing, as well as four essays on Steinbeck’s stories by other critics.

Johnson, Claudia Durst, ed. Understanding “Of Mice and Men,” “The Red Pony,” and “The Pearl”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. This casebook contains historical, social, and political materials as a context for Steinbeck’s three novellas. Contexts included are California and the West, land ownership, the male worker, homelessness, and oppression of the poor in Mexico.

McCarthy, Paul. John Steinbeck. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Though much of this study is a recapitulation of earlier critical views, the book has the virtues of clarity and brevity and contains a fairly thorough bibliography.

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, eds. John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A fine selection of reviews of Steinbeck’s work.

Noble, Donald R. The Steinbeck Question: New Essays in Criticism. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing, 1993. A collection of essays on most of Steinbeck’s work; most important for a study of the short story is the essay by Robert S. Hughes, Jr., on “The Art of Story Writing,” Charlotte Hadella’s “Steinbeck’s Cloistered Women,” and Michael J. Meyer’s “The Snake.”

Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. This biography suggests psychological interpretations of the effect of Steinbeck’s childhood and sociological interpretations of his fiction. Criticizes Steinbeck for his politically incorrect gender and social views; also takes Steinbeck to task to what he calls his blindness to the political reality of the Vietnam War.

Steinbeck, Elaine, and Robert Wallsten. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. New York: Viking Press, 1975. An indispensable source for the Steinbeck scholar, this collection of letters written by Steinbeck between 1929 and his death forty years later shows a writer both well read and well disciplined. Those letters to his friend and publisher, Pascal Covici, shed light on the writer’s working methods and are particularly revealing.

Timmerman, John H. The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck’s Short Stories. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. A formalist interpretation of Steinbeck’s stories, focusing on style, tone, imagery, and character. Provides close readings of such frequently anthologized stories as “The Chrysanthemums” and “Flight,” as well as such stories as “Johnny Bear” and “The Short-Short Story of Mankind.”


Critical Essays