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Steinbeck, John

John Steinbeck

Born: February 27, 1902
Salinas, California
Died: December 20, 1968
New York, New York

American writer

John Steinbeck, American author and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1962, was a leading writer of novels about the working class and was a major spokesman for the victims of the Great Depression (a downturn in the American system of producing, distributing, and using goods and services in the 1930s, and during which time millions of people lost their jobs).

Early life

John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, the only son of John Ernst Steinbeck Sr. and Olive Hamilton. His father was a bookkeeper and accountant who served for many years as the treasurer of Monterey County, California. Steinbeck received his love of literature from his mother, who was interested in the arts. His favorite book, and a main influence on his writing, was Sir Thomas Malory's (c. 14081471) Le Morte d'Arthur, a collection of the legends of King Arthur. Steinbeck decided while in high school that he wanted to be a writer. He also enjoyed playing sports and worked during the summer on various ranches.

Steinbeck worked as a laboratory assistant and farm laborer to support himself through six years of study at Stanford University, where he took only those courses that interested him without seeking a degree. In 1925 he traveled to New York (by way of the Panama Canal) on a freighter (boat that carries inventory). After arriving in New York, he worked as a reporter and as part of a construction crew building Madison Square Garden. During this time he was also collecting impressions for his first novel. Cup of Gold (1929) was an unsuccessful attempt at romance involving the pirate Henry Morgan.

Begins writing seriously

Undiscouraged, Steinbeck returned to California to begin work as a writer of serious fiction. A collection of short stories, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), contained vivid descriptions of rural (farm) life among the "unfinished children of nature" in his native California valley. His second novel, To a God Unknown (1933), was his strongest statement about man's relationship to the land. With Tortilla Flat (1935) Steinbeck received critical and popular success; there are many critics who consider it his most artistically satisfying work.

Steinbeck next dealt with the problems of labor unions in In Dubious Battle (1936), an effective story of a strike (when workers all decide to stop working as a form of protest against unfair treatment) by local grape pickers. Of Mice and Men (1937), first conceived as a play, is a tightly constructed novella (short novel) about an unusual friendship between two migrant workers (laborers who travel to wherever there is available work, usually on farms). Although the book is powerfully written and often moving, some critics feel that it lacks a moral vision.

Steinbeck's series of articles for the San Francisco Chronicle on the problems of migrant farm laborers provided material for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), his major novel and the finest working-class novel of the 1930s. The Grapes of Wrath relates the struggle of a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers forced to turn over their land to the banks. The family then journeys across the vast plains to the promised land of Californiaonly to be met with scorn when they arrive. It is a successful example of social protest in fiction, as well as a convincing tribute to man's will to survive. The Grapes of Wrath received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.

Other subjects

During World War II (193945), which the United States entered to help other nations battle Germany, Italy, and Japan, Steinbeck served as a foreign correspondent. From this experience came such nonfiction as Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942); Once There Was a War (1958), a collection of Steinbeck's dispatches from 1943; and A Russian Journal (1948), with photographs by Robert Capa. More interesting nonfiction of this period is The Sea of Cortez, coauthored with scientist Edward F. Ricketts. This account of the two explorers' research into sea life provides an important key to many of the themes and attitudes featured in Steinbeck's novels.

Steinbeck's fiction during the 1940s includes The Moon Is Down (1942), a tale of the Norwegian resistance to occupation by the Nazis (German ruling party that scorned democracy and considered all non-German people, especially Jews, inferior); Cannery Row (1944), a return to the setting of Tortilla Flat; The Wayward Bus (1947); and The Pearl, a popular novella about a poor Mexican fisherman who discovers a valuable pearl that brings bad luck to his family.

Later decline

In the 1950s Steinbeck's artistic decline was evident with a series of novels that were overly sentimental, stuffy, and lacking in substance. The author received modest critical praise in 1961 for his more ambitious novel The Winter of Our Discontent, a study of the moral disintegration (falling apart) of a man of high ideals. In 1962 Travels with Charley, a pleasantly humorous account of his travels through America with his pet poodle, was well received. Following the popular success of the latter work, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Steinbeck's work remains popular in both the United States and Europe, chiefly for its social consciousness and concern and for the narrative qualities displayed in the early novels. Although he refused to settle into political conservatism (preferring to maintain traditions and resist change) in his later years, his all-embracing support of American values and acceptance of all national policies, including the Vietnam War (195575; conflict in which the United States fought against Communist North Vietnam when they invaded Democratic South Vietnam), lost him the respect of many liberal (preferring social change) intellectuals who had once admired his social commitments. He died on December 20, 1968, in New York City.

For More Information

Benson, Jackson J. John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography. New York; Penguin Books, 1990.

Lynch, Audry. Steinbeck Remembered. Santa Barbara: Fithian Press, 2000.

Moore, Harry T. The Novels of John Steinbeck: A First Critical Study. Chicago: Normandie House, 1939, revised edition 1977.

Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: H. Holt, 1995.

Steinbeck, John IV, and Nancy Steinbeck. The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2001.

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John Ernst Steinbeck

John Ernst Steinbeck

John Ernst Steinbeck (1902-1968), American author and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1962, was a leading exponent of the proletarian novel and a prominent spokesman for the victims of the Great Depression.

John Steinbeck was born on Feb. 27, 1902, in Salinas, Calif., the son of a small-town politician and school-teacher. He worked as a laboratory assistant and farm laborer to support himself through 6 years of study at Stanford University, where he took only those courses that interested him, without seeking a degree. In 1925 he traveled to New York (by way of the Panama Canal) on a freighter, collecting impressions for his first novel. Cup of Gold (1929) was an unsuccessful attempt at psychological romance involving the pirate Henry Morgan.

Undiscouraged, Steinbeck returned to California to begin work as a writer of serious fiction. A collection of short stories, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), vividly detailed rural life among the "unfinished children of nature" in his native California valley. His second novel, To a God Unknown (1933), his strongest statement about man's relationship to the land, reveals a strain of neo-primitive mysticism later to permeate even his most objectively deterministic writings. With Tortilla Flat (1935) Steinbeck received critical and popular acclaim, and there are many critics who consider this humorous and idyllic tale of the Monterey paisanos Steinbeck's most artistically satisfying work.

Steinbeck next dealt with the problems of labor unionism in In Dubious Battle (1936), an effective story of a strike by local grape pickers. Of Mice and Men (1937), first conceived as a play, is a tightly constructed novella about an unusual friendship between two migratory workers. Although the book is powerfully written and often moving, its theme lacks the psychological penetration and moral vision necessary to sustain its tragic intention.

Steinbeck's series of articles for the San Francisco Chronicle on the plight of migratory farm laborers provided material for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), his major novel and the finest proletarian fiction of the decade. The struggle of a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers, forced to turn over their land to the banks and journey across the vast plains to the promised land of California—only to be met with derision when they arrive—is a successful example of social protest in fiction, as well as a convincing tribute to man's will to survive. The Grapes of Wrath combines techniques of naturalistic documentation and symbolic stylization, its episodic structure being admirably held together by the unifying device of U.S. Highway 66 and by lyrical inter-chapters which possess a Whitmanesque expansiveness. The novel's weaknesses lie in occasional lapses into sentimentality and melodramatic oversimplification, Steinbeck's tendency to depict human relationships in biological rather than psychological terms, and the general absence of philosophical vision and intellectual content. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.

During World War II Steinbeck served as a foreign correspondent; from this experience came such nonfiction as Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942); his dispatches of 1943, collected as Once There Was a War (1958); and A Russian Journal (1948) with photographs by Robert Capa. More interesting nonfiction of this period is The Sea of Cortez, coauthored with marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts. This account of the two explorers' research into sea life provides an important key to many of the themes and attitudes prevalent in Steinbeck's novels.

Steinbeck's fiction during the 1940s includes The Moon Is Down (1942), a tale of the Norwegian resistance to Nazi occupation; Cannery Row (1944), a return to the milieu of Tortilla Flat; The Wayward Bus (1947); and The Pearl, a popular allegorical novella written in a mannered pseudobiblical style about a poor Mexican fisherman who discovers a valuable pearl which brings ill fortune to his family.

In the 1950s Steinbeck's artistic decline was evident with a series of novels characterized by their sentimentality, pretentiousness, and lack of substance. The author received modest critical praise in 1961 for his more ambitious novel The Winter of Our Discontent, a study of the moral disintegration of a man of high ideals. In 1962 Travels with Charley, a pleasantly humorous account of his travels through America with his pet poodle, was well received. Following the popular success of the latter work, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Steinbeck's finest novels are a curious blend of scientific determinism, romantic mysticism, and a rudimentary, often allegorical, type of symbolism. His work remains popular in both the United States and Europe, chiefly for its social consciousness and compassion and the narrative qualities exhibited in the early novels. Although he refused to settle into political conservatism in his later years, his all-embracing affirmation of American values and acceptance of all national policies, including the Vietnam War, lost him the respect of many liberal intellectuals who had once admired his social commitments. He died on Dec. 28, 1968, in New York City.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Steinbeck. Critical studies of his work are Harry T. Moore, The Novels of John Steinbeck: A First Critical Study (1939; 2d ed. 1968), and Peter Lisca, The Wide World of John Steinbeck (1958). Peter Covici, ed., The Portable Steinbeck (1943; 3d ed. 1963), contains an extensive introduction to the writer and his works by Louis Gannett. For brief but important criticism see Edmund Wilson, The Boys in the Back Room (1941), and those chapters devoted to Steinbeck in such studies of American literature as Maxwell Geismar, Writers in Crisis (1942); Wilbur M. Frohock, The Novel of Violence in America, 1920-1950 (1950; 2d ed. 1957); and Frederick J. Hoffman, The Modern Novel in America (1951). The most comprehensive collection of Steinbeck criticism is E. W. Tedlock, Jr., and C. V. Wicker, eds., Steinbeck and His Critics: A Record of Twenty-five Years (1957). □

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Steinbeck, John

John Steinbeck, 1902–68, American writer, b. Salinas, Calif., studied at Stanford. He is probably best remembered for his strong sociological novel The Grapes of Wrath, considered one of the great American novels of the 20th cent. Steinbeck's early novels—Cup of Gold (1929), The Pastures of Heaven (1932), and To a God Unknown (1933)—attracted little critical attention, but Tortilla Flat (1935), an affectionate yet realistic novel about the lovable, exotic, Spanish-speaking poor of Monterey, was enthusiastically received. A compassionate understanding of the world's disinherited was to be Steinbeck's hallmark. The novel In Dubious Battle (1936) defends striking migrant agricultural workers in the California fields. In the novella Of Mice and Men (1937; later made into a play), Steinbeck again presents migrant workers, but this time in terms of human worth and integrity—a theme he also used in The Moon Is Down (1942; later made into a play), about Norwegian resistance to the Nazis. The Grapes of Wrath (1939; Pulitzer Prize), while treating the plight of dispossessed Dust Bowl farmers during the 1930s, presents a universal picture of victims of disaster. Steinbeck's depiction of the westward migration of the Joad family, and their subsequent struggles in the exploitative agricultural industry of California, is realistic and moving, and he endows his humble characters with nobility. Steinbeck's other works are diverse, ranging from the literal account of a voyage, The Sea of Cortez (1941; written with the marine biologist E. F. Ricketts); to a parable, The Pearl (1948); to a playful French folk piece, The Short Reign of Pippin IV (1957). Love of his native land shines through the exquisitely nostalgic story "The Red Pony" in The Long Valley (1938). The somewhat sentimental attitude of Tortilla Flat appears again in Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), and Sweet Thursday (1954). More ambitious are the novels East of Eden (1952), a family chronicle with the Cain and Abel theme, and Winter of Our Discontent (1961), about a suburbanite's moral conflict. Steinbeck also wrote notable nonfiction, particularly The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) and A Russian Journal (1948), and the screenplays for the motion pictures The Forgotten Village (1941) and Viva Zapata! (1952). Travels with Charley in Search of America appeared in 1962 and America and Americans in 1966. Steinbeck was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature.

See his letters, ed. by E. Steinbeck and R. Wallsten (1975); biographies by J. Benson (1984) and J. Parini (1995); study by J. H. Timmerman (1986).

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Steinbeck, John

Steinbeck, John (1902–68) US novelist. Steinbeck first came to notice with Tortilla Flat (1935), the success of which was consolidated by the novella Of Mice and Men (1937). Later novels include Cannery Row (1945), East of Eden (1952), and his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which earned him a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He received the 1962 Nobel Prize in literature.

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