Steinbeck, John (27 February 1902 – 20 December 1968)
Steinbeck, John (27 February 1902 – 20 December 1968)
John Steinbeck (27 February 1902 – 20 December 1968)
This entry was expanded by Hearle from his entry in DLB 212: Twentieth-Century American Western Writers, Second Series. See also the Steinbeck entries in DLB 275: Twentieth-Century American Nature Writers: Prose; DLB 309: John Steinbeck: A Documentary Volume; DLB 9: American Novelists, 1910–1945; and DLB 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, First Series and DS 2: James Gould Cozzens, James T. Farrell, William Faulkner, John O ’Hara, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, and Richard Wright.
BOOKS: Cup of Gold (New York: Robert M. McBride, 1929; London: Heinemann, 1937);
The Pastures of Heaven (New York: Brewer, Warren & Putnam, 1932; London: Philip Allan, 1933);
To A God Unknown (New York: Robert O. Ballou, 1933; London: Heinemann, 1935);
Tortilla Flat (New York: Covici-Friede, 1935; London: Heinemann, 1935);
In Dubious Battle (New York: Covici-Friede, 1936; London: Heinemann, 1936);
Of Mice and Men (New York: Covici-Friede, 1937; London: Heinemann, 1937);
The Red Pony (New York: Covici-Friede, 1937; London: Chatto & Heinemann, 1940);
The Long Valley (New York: Covici-Friede, 1938; London: Heinemann, 1939);
Their Blood Is Strong (San Francisco: Simon J. Lubin Society of California, 1938);
Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts (New York: Covici-Friede, 1939);
The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking, 1939; London: Heinemann, 1939);
Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (New York: Viking, 1941) by Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts; revised with addition of “About Ed Ricketts” and deletion of scientific appendices as The Log from the Sea of Cortez (New York: Viking, 1951; London: Heinemann, 1958);
The Forgotten Village (New York: Viking, 1941);
The Moon Is Down (New York: Viking, 1942; London: Heinemann, 1942);
The Moon Is Down: A Play in Two Parts (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1942; London: English Theatre Guild, 1943);
Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (New York: Viking, 1942);
Cannery Row (New York: Viking, 1945; London: Heinemann, 1945);
The Pearl (New York: Viking, 1947; London: Heinemann, 1948);
The Wayward Bus (New York: Viking, 1947; London: Heinemann, 1947);
A Russian Journal (New York: Viking, 1948; London: Heinemann, 1949);
Burning Bright, a Play in Story Form (New York: Viking, 1950; London: Heinemann, 1951);
Burning Bright: Play in Three Acts (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1951);
East of Eden (New York: Viking, 1952; London: Heinemann, 1952);
Viva Zapata! (Rome: Edizioni Filmcritica, 1952); new edition, Viva Zapata!: The Original Screenplay edited by Robert Morsberger (New York: Viking Compass, 1975); revised and enlarged as Zapata! edited by Morsberger (Covello: Yolla Bolly Press, 1991);
Sweet Thursday (New York: Viking, 1954; London: Heinemann, 1954);
Un Americain à New York et à Paris translated into French by Jean-Francois Rozan (Paris: Rene julliard, 1956);
The Short Reign of Pippin IV (New York: Viking, 1957; London: Heinemann, 1957);
Once There Was a War (New York: Viking, 1958; London: Heinemann, 1959);
The Winter of Our Discontent (New York: Viking, 1961; London: Heinemann, 1961);
Travels with Charley in Search of America (New York: Viking, 1962; London: Heinemann, 1962);
America and Americans (New York: Viking, 1966; London: Heinemann, 1966);
Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (New York: Viking, 1969; London: Heinemann, 1970);
The Uncollected Stories of John Steinbeck (Tokyo: Nan’undo, 1986);
John Steinbeck on Writing, Steinbeck Essay Series, no. 2, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi (Muncie, Ind.: Steinbeck Research Institute, Ball State University, 1988);
Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, edited by Robert DeMott (New York: Viking, 1989);
America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, edited by Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson (New York: Viking, 2002).
MOTION PICTURES: The Forgotten Village, documentary screenplay by Steinbeck, Arthur Mayer, and Joseph Burstyn, 1941;
Lifeboat, initial screen treatment by Steinbeck, rewritten by Alfred Hitchcock, Twentieth-Century Fox, 1944;
A Medal for Benny, initial screen treatment by Steinbeck and Jack Wagner, Paramount, 1945;
The Pearl, initial screen treatment by Steinbeck, screenplay by Steinbeck, Emilio Fernandez, and Jack Wagner, RKO, 1948;
The Red Pony, screenplay by Steinbeck, Republic, 1949;
Viva Zapata! initial screen treatment and screenplay by Steinbeck, Twentieth-Century Fox, 1952.
PLAY PRODUCTIONS: Of Mice and Men, New York, Music Box Theatre, 23 November 1937;
The Moon Is Down, New York, Martin Beck Theatre, 7 April 1942;
Burning Bright, New York, Broadhurst Theatre, 18 October 1950.
OTHER: Vanderbilt Clinic (New York: Presbyterian Hospital, 1947);
Speeches of Adlai Stevenson; With a Foreword by John Steinbeck (New York: Random House, 1952);
Positano (Salerno: Ente Provinciale Per II Turismo, 1954);
Speech Accepting The Nobel Prize for Literature (New York: Viking, 1962);
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights: From the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and Other Sources, translated by Steinbeck and edited by Chase Horton (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976; London: Heinemann, 1976).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATION-UNCOLLECTED: “Letters to Alicia,” Newsday, 20 November 1965–28 May 1966; 12 November 1966–20 May 1967.
John Steinbeck has the seemingly oxymoronic distinction of having been both a Nobel laureate and best-selling author and yet also being among the most underrated and misunderstood American authors of the twentieth century. After having produced an assortment of brilliant short stories, novels, and one play during the 1930s, Steinbeck became a national figure in 1939 with the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book was denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives as a “dirty, lying, filthy manuscript,” but its veracity was also publicly attested to by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Although the reading public which had followed him through comedies with sad endings, tragedies-in-miniature, and compelling strike novels continued to buy his increasingly varied post- Grapes of Wrath works in great numbers, most leading American critics never forgave Steinbeck for continuing to change. When the Swedish Academy announced that Steinbeck was the 1962 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, The New York Times titled their editorial, “Does A Moral Vision of the Thirties Deserve The Nobel Prize?” Arthur Mizener’s editorial concluded that Steinbeck was not worthy of being a laureate, and–despite the high esteem in which he is held by the general public and by literary critics around the world–the mistaken view that Steinbeck’s sole importance is as a social realist who documented agricultural labor strife in the 1930s continues to dominate what little discussion of his work there is at American universities.
John Ernst Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on 27 February 1902. He was the third child born to John Ernst Steinbeck and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck. Olive had been a schoolteacher, and John Ernst senior, after weathering a period of economic reversals beginning in 1910, served as Treasurer of Monterey County until 1935. After a bookish but rambunctious childhood as the only brother of three sisters, Steinbeck entered Stanford University in 1919. His older sisters Beth and Esther had graduated from women-only Mills College, but Mary, three years younger than he, followed him to Stanford a few years later. A serious student of writing, literature, and marine biology, Steinbeck attended Stanford sporadically, regularly taking time off to earn money as a laborer. He left the university for good in 1925, never having made any attempt to fashion a program which would lead to a degree.
After a brief, disappointing first sojourn in New York City–during which he supported himself with varying degrees of success as a newspaper reporter and hod carrier–Steinbeck returned to California and earned his room and board as the caretaker for a cabin near Lake Tahoe. Although the roof collapsed under the weight of the snow, the stay was not a complete disaster. While working at a fish hatchery in the summer of 1928, Steinbeck met Carol Henning (later Brown) who would be his first wife, in-house editor, intellectual sounding board, typist, and greatest early supporter. They were married on 14 January 1930. Later that year, Steinbeck first met Edward “Doc” Rick-etts, with whom he formed what was to become the closest and the most intellectually vital friendship of his life. During the first years of the Steinbecks’ marriage they lived primarily in his parents’ summer cottage in Pacific Grove and subsisted on Carol’s paychecks from a variety of jobs, a $25-a-month allowance from Steinbeck’s father, and the harvest from their garden and the nearby Monterey Bay.
It is still a matter of debate among critics as to how much of Steinbeck’s philosophy can be directly attributed to Ricketts’s influence. Ricketts was a brilliant marine biologist of wide-ranging interests whose Between Pacific Tides (1938) would prove instrumental in shifting the focus of marine biology from taxonomy to ecology, but Steinbeck’s study of marine biology and his interest in animals–including people–in their environments predated his acquaintance with Ricketts. What is clear is that, despite their important differences on matters of social and political reform, the two friends shared a number of concerns and interests which helped to shape Steinbeck’s writing in significant ways. Many early critics of Steinbeck, notably Edmund Wilson, deplored his tendency to animalize–and therefore, according to the critics, often also to sentimentalize–his characters, but those critics missed the point. Steinbeck brought the eye of a modern ecological biologist to the study of people. His characters have instinctual needs, and they exist and compete and sometimes cooperate with each other in specific–primarily Californian–environments. Although some of his characters are mentally deficient, the difference between the majority of Steinbeck’s characters and lower animals–including most characters in naturalist fiction–is that Steinbeck’s characters have free will. Their ability to choose may ultimately prove insufficient for them to alter their material circumstances; however, their consciousness of choice creates the possibility for moral distinctions, delusions, unhappiness, personal improvement, and social reform.
Steinbeck was also, in many ways, a literary descendant of Frederick Jackson Turner. True to his heritage as a Westerner, Steinbeck again and again depicted his California as a microcosm of America after the close of the frontier. Although his work has often been dismissed as merely regional or primarily documentary, Steinbeck was interested from the beginning in the relationship between myth and reality. In fact, the mythologist Joseph Campbell acknowledged that when he and Steinbeck and Ricketts were all neighbors in 1932 he had probably learned more from Steinbeck about the nature and power of myth than Steinbeck had learned from him. That the Arthurian legends–which were Steinbeck’s first childhood literary revelation–and the various national myths of America, especially those of the frontier West, remained particularly important to Steinbeck throughout his life has become something of a critical commonplace. What still is insufficiently appreciated, however, is the extent to which Steinbeck’s works are concerned with the fundamental power of myth and language to shape experience.
Steinbeck’s adept handling of myth is one of the redeeming features of his first book, Cup of Gold (1929), which fictionalizes the life of the historical Henry Morgan. Although he had spent much of the years 1924 through 1928 converting “A Lady in Infra-Red,” a short story he had written while still a student at Stanford, into what would become his first novel, his letters of 1928 and 1929 make it clear that he was dissatisfied with almost every aspect of the published book. His complaints included that the cover made the book appear to be a swashbuckling tale for adolescents; however, he reserved his harshest criticism for the contents. Although Steinbeck thought of it as autobiographical and approved of the “lyric” qualities of various passages, in one letter he concluded that it was, “as a whole, utterly worthless.” In another letter he called it “the Morgan atrocity.” Most critics have been only slightly kinder in their evaluations of Cup of Gold than was Steinbeck; however, his college friend and early unpaid agent Amassa “Ted” Miller thought it was Steinbeck’s most characteristic and best work, and Jackson Benson claims it is Steinbeck’s most ambitiously literary work.
The title derives from the popular name among buccaneers for the city of Panama, but Steinbeck also uses it as an allusion to the grail legend of Arthurian lore, and, ironically, it is Henry Morgan’s Welsh heritage, with all its Arthurian echoes, which Henry is rejecting in his continual quest for material wealth and fame. Steinbeck traces the young Henry Morgan from a rural childhood through his adventures as an apprentice seaman, indentured servant, embezzling overseer, pirate captain, leader of the sack of Panama, and finally Governor of Jamaica; however, when Henry confronts the legendary beauty, “the Red Saint” of Panama City, both her scorn and her merely human beauty reveal to Henry how hollow his run of audacious successes has truly been. Because he begins by rejecting knightly values, the young man who becomes Sir Henry Morgan is an unworthy quester, and the object of his quest proves to have been not worth the price he has paid.
After the publication of Cup of Gold, Miller convinced the New York firm of Mclntosh and Otis to represent Steinbeck, and Elizabeth Otis was to be Steinbeck’s friend and agent for the rest of his life. In The Pastures of Heaven (1932), his second book to be published but his third book to be completed, Steinbeck examines the myths of the American “pastoral” West. As in Cup of Gold, the title of this short-story cycle-novel is the highly ironic place name of the crucial setting. The difference was that this time, the setting was in that region of central California which has since come to be known as Steinbeck Country. Through its structure, The Pastures of Heaven enacts the collapse of Jeffersonian agrarianism upon the intrusion of urban, industrial culture into the valley. The body of the book is the story of two symbolically conflicting families and forces–the Munroes and the Whitesides. The conflicts between the notions of the urban escapee Munroes as to what rural life should be and the traditions of this isolated farming community, led by the dynastic Whitesides, reveal the flaws and contradictions in the agrarian ideal, and serve as the catalyst for the action in the various chapters. In most of the stories or chapters the Munroes are merely obtuse; however, their actions consistently create situations which reveal the delusions around which the various inhabitants of the Pastures of Heaven have established their lives.
Initially, The Pastures of Heaven was mostly ignored. It was only after Steinbeck was recognized as a major American writer that the book began to receive serious but sporadic critical attention: Joseph Fontenrose outlined most of its structural elements, and other critics noted the book’s indebtedness to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and to local tales of the real valley called Corral de Tierra. Although recently there has been critical appreciation of the subtlety of Steinbeck’s social criticism in The Pastures of Heaven and of his reinterpreta-tion of such core works of Western American literature as Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Owen Wister’s The Virginian, this little masterpiece has yet to receive the sort of sustained critical respect and attention it deserves.
Although Steinbeck wrote To A God Unknown (1933) before he wrote The Pastures of Heaven, the books were published in reverse order. To A God Unknown began as a student play at Stanford by Steinbeck’s friend, Webster “Toby” Street; however, by 1926 Street had decided he wasn’t capable of properly rewriting “The Green Lady,” so he gave Steinbeck the manuscript and his permission to make of it what he would. Street’s plot had focused on Andy Wane’s fatherly desire to keep his daughter close, but Steinbeck dropped the daughter altogether. What Steinbeck eventually took from his friend’s play was the protagonist’s mystically and sexually charged love of the land. Andy Wane eventually became Joseph Wayne, but the big change which allowed him to complete the book was moving the setting down the coast. Street’s play had ended in Mendocino; so, in 1929 while working on an early draft of the novel, Steinbeck visited that area for the first time. That visit wasn’t enough to make him feel comfortable with Mendocino as a setting. Eventually, he moved the story to a fictionalized version of Jolon, a town he had known from childhood and which was just west of the southern end of the Salinas Valley. To A God Unknown thus marks Steinbeck’s first significant recognition of the importance of place to his work.
To A God Unknown is also important because it was one of the first examples of Steinbeck’s ability to engage with another author’s work positively. With Cup of Gold, Steinbeck had congratulated himself on having written through the bad influences of James Branch Cabell and Donn Byrne on his work, but with To A God Unknown Steinbeck was able to draw directly on the example of another author–in this case, Robinson Jeffers–without being overwhelmed or feeling the need to rid himself of the influence. Steinbeck understands the power of Joseph Wayne’s (and also Jeffers’s) mystical attachment to the land; however, he makes it clear that mysticism alone is not only insufficient, it may be dangerous. Knowledge of the land and its history is also required. Like Jeffers, Joseph Wayne is not from the West originally, but Joseph quickly prospers in California and sends for his brothers to join him. However, when drought comes, he is surprised. His identification with the land is so strong that when all else eventually fails and everyone leaves him and his plot of parched earth, he sacrifices himself to bring the fertilizing rain back to the land. That it begins to rain as the blood drains out of him is significant; however, not in the way assumed by those early critics who derided the ending as softheaded mysticism. The echoes of the various dying fertility gods chronicled by James George Frasier in The Golden Bough are clearly intentional; however, as Louis Owens notes, Steinbeck establishes early on in the book that drought regularly comes to the region in seven-year cycles, and Joseph’s sacrifice comes at the point in the cycle when rain would normally return.
Steinbeck had predicted To A God Unknown would not be a popular book, and, as with his two previous books, sales were slight and Steinbeck had to find a new publisher. One day in 1934, Pascal “Pat” Covici of the publishing firm Covici-Friede overheard Ben Abramson, a Chicago bookseller, berating a customer because he hadn’t heard of John Steinbeck. Covici hadn’t heard of him either, and Abramson pressed on him copies of Steinbeck’s first two books. Covici was impressed enough to sign Steinbeck to the first of what was to be a series of contracts over the remaining thirty-four years of Steinbeck’s life.
Covici’s judgment was soon rewarded. Steinbeck’s first book for Covici-Friede was Tortilla Flat (1935), his darkly mock-Arthurian and often comic tale of paisanos struggling for food, wine, women, and community. Not only was Tortilla Flat a best seller, but Steinbeck received his first gold medal for fiction from the Commonwealth Club of California. The germ of Tortilla Flat was in the various stories of Monterey’s paisanos which Steinbeck heard from Sue Gregory, the dedicatee of the book and a local Spanish teacher and friend of the paisanos; however, Steinbeck was collecting the stories in Tortilla Flat during his early twenties when he worked as a laborer around Salinas, and he knew personally many of the legendary local characters on whom he modeled characters in the book. As Steinbeck explains in the preface, Tortilla Flat “is the story of Danny and Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing,” and he goes on to note the parallels between the cycle of stories about Danny’s house and those about the Round Table of King Arthur. Danny returns from World War I to discover that he has inherited two houses. Early on, one of the houses burns down, and the friends who had been living there move in with Danny. Pilon, the instigator of more than a few outrages on the women and property of Monterey society, is amusingly Jesuitical in his argumentation; however, when faced with the opportunity to make off with the Pirate’s hoard of coins, the friends are stopped by their admiration of the slow-witted bum’s commitment to a cause greater than his own benefit, and they become a chivalrous force in the community. Ultimately, however, Tortilla Flat is, as Owens notes, a post-Camelot world, because Artur Morales is “dead in France.” The harmony cannot last, and the loneliness which consumed Danny when he was a landlord with two houses returns to haunt him. After Danny in a fit of madness falls to his death, the friends burn the last house down and go their separate ways.
Steinbeck’s appreciation of his new-found success was limited. He had always been wary of what fame did to writers, and his natural shyness only made the experience that much more uncomfortable when fame first descended upon him. Also, the two years before the book’s publication had been personally painful. Steinbeck’s mother had died in February 1934, after a long illness during which both Steinbeck and his wife had for prolonged periods helped care for her. Steinbeck’s father never recovered from the loss, and he died a year later.
Steinbeck had written Tortilla Flat more as an escape from his mother’s sickroom than as a serious work of fiction, and he was surprised to find himself famous for what he called “this second-rate book.” Although at the time the Monterey Chamber of Commerce agreed with Steinbeck’s assessment of the book, most readers and critics have been more generous. Reviewers recognized in the deftness of the humor and pathos of the book both a new voice and a highly skilled writer. Steinbeck’s depiction of the paisanos in Tortilla Flat has received posthumous negative critical attention from the Chicano community both for its alleged condescension and for its alleged reinforcing of ethnic stereotypes. In fact, the paisanos are neither Mexicans nor Chicanos, but instead an amalgam of many races and ethnicities including Spanish, American Indian, Portuguese, and Italian. Steinbeck neither intended any condescension to the paisanos nor had patience with those readers who he felt did look down on them. His attitude toward Danny and his friends is comparable to his later attitude toward Mac and the boys in Cannery Row, who are white.
Because Steinbeck feared being labeled a comic writer, he wanted In Dubious Battle (1936) to be a brutal book. Initially, Steinbeck had intended to write a non-fiction account of the life of the agricultural labor organizer Pat Chambers, as drawn from his interviews with Cecil McKiddy, who had been Chambers’s assistant. Otis advised him to use that material for fiction instead, so he set out to write a novel as impersonally observational as possible. As Benson has noted, the strike novel Steinbeck eventually created grafted a few details from the Tagus Ranch peach strike of August 1933 onto the chronology of the Central Valley cotton strike of October 1933 and the geography of the Pajaro Valley near Watsonville. The violence of the strike, the workers’ desperation, the tactics employed by the Communist organizers, and the extraordinary power of the growers are all fairly accurate depictions of the conditions in the fields of California in the 1930s; other aspects of the novel are significantly fictional. Steinbeck’s labor organizers are two men for whom the workers are means to an end. The care that Pat Chambers and Caroline Decker felt for the workers they helped to organize is well documented. Steinbeck’s workers are white men. The actual strikers were an ethnically and racially diverse group of men and women. Also, the real strikes were in peaches and cotton. Steinbeck’s choice of apples works with the title to give a symbolic resonance and an appropriately Miltonic echo (the title is from Paradise Lost) to the conflict.
In Dubious Battle is significant for several reasons. It is the first book of Steinbeck’s great farmworker trilogy of the 1930s. It is his first work in which a character modeled after Ricketts appears. And it is the best statement in his fiction of his theory of the group man or the phalanx. In Dubious Battle is at once a strike novel, tracing the development of young Jim from a new recruit to the Party into an effective labor organizer, and Steinbeck’s working out of his theories about how the group is itself an organism that can subsume the will of the individual. Mac is an older labor organizer who teaches Jim to manipulate and to sacrifice individuals to further the cause. As Jim becomes increasingly impersonal, his gifts as an organizer become more apparent. At the same time, Mac’s affection for Jim grows, and that renewed capacity for emotion makes it harder for Mac to do his job. The novel ends with Mac forcing himself to make an impromptu but nevertheless formulaic funeral oration over Jim’s faceless corpse.
Notwithstanding the opinion of a reader for Covici-Friede–a Marxist who in Covici’s absence initially rejected the book— In Dubious Battle remains one of the greatest strike novels ever written. The novel was nationally praised by critics on both the Left and the Right, though some have, with reason, complained that Steinbeck ignored the role of women and minorities. But in California Steinbeck was regarded as having a potentially dangerous concern about California’s agricultural labor situation.
Whereas In Dubious Battle focuses on man as part of a group, Of Mke and Men (1937), Steinbeck’s next book and the second book of his great 1930s trilogy on migrant farm-workers, is his attempt to write a nonteleo-logical book focused on two characters: George Milton and Lennie Small, two bindle stiffs who travel together. Written under the working title, Something That Happened, Steinbeck confided in his journal that he hoped his characters would “act with all the unexpectedness of real people.” Eventually, the book would take its title from the lines “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley,” from Robert Burns’s poem “To A Mouse.” Of Mice and Men is also an experiment in genre bending. Steinbeck’s doubts about the viability of the novel, and his observation that working-class people eagerly attended the productions of traveling troupes, led him to write the story as a play in novella form.
Steinbeck not only combines a realistic depiction of the geography of the Salinas Valley seamlessly with a sensitive psychological rendering of the social spaces of a bunkhouse, he also brings into relief the symbolic nature of landscape in America. His ranch hands spend most of their meager pay on women and drink in nearby Soledad–a real town whose name is the Spanish word for both solitude and loneliness. By contrast, George keeps the gigantic but mentally retarded Lennie under control by repeating to him a myth straight out of the Homestead Act: someday they will own a little farm and be able to profit from their own labor. Just when it begins to seem possible that they can buy such a place, Lennie accidentally kills the wife of the ranch owner’s disagreeable son. Arriving just ahead of the posse, George tells Lennie to picture their little farm, and then he shoots Lennie in the back of the head.
Both the novella and the play Steinbeck quickly crafted from it with the help of George S. Kaufman were immediate successes. Although no Pulitzer Prize was given that year in drama, Of Mice and Men beat out Thornton Wilder’s Our Town for the New York Drama Critics Circle award for the best play of the 1937–1938 season. Some literary critics have complained of the work’s alleged sentimentality; however, Of Mice and Men remains, in either form, a work of great economy and power. Of late, critics have begun to move from their early concern with genre to examinations of the roles of gender, sexuality, and race in this abidingly popular work.
While Steinbeck was working on both versions of his novella, he and Carol were having a new house built in Los Gatos, and Covici-Friede was compiling a book of Steinbeck’s previously uncollected short stories. Steinbeck had written most of the stories in The Long Valley (1938) during the early 1930s for publication in The North American Review and other magazines, so the volume has neither the continuity nor the consistency of The Pastures of Heaven. The Long Valley includes a vignette, a medieval fabliau about the conversion of a pig, one coherent short-story sequence, and other unrelated short stories. For all its oddity as a collection, it has long been recognized as an important book in the Steinbeck canon. “The Raid” had been written as a warm-up for Ln Dubious Battle .The vignette “Breakfast” became a scene in The Grapes of Wrath, and “Snake” is a precursor of Cannery Row. Stories such as “Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail” include some of his best writing about women and his most fully realized female characters. “Johnny Bear,” the story of a mentally retarded savant who earns his way by being a perfect mimic, is a brilliant examination of literary realism and the role of the artist relative to society. The best-known portion of The Long Valley remains the sequence of stories, later published separately as The Red Pony (1937), which enacts Jody Tiffin’s maturation process as he learns about death and responsibility and the peculiarly American history of westering–the movement of people westward in the hope of finding a better life that was a major theme for Steinbeck. The first three stories had appeared in magazines, but the sequence was completed when Steinbeck sent Covici a copy of the previously unpublished “The Leader of the People.”
Steinbeck’s success with Ln Dubious Battle led to his being increasingly identified with the cause of migrant workers and, in turn, to his greater involvement with that cause. In the summer of 1936, The San Francisco Mews commissioned Steinbeck to do investigative reporting on the living conditions of the recently arrived refugees from the Dust Bowl. With that seven-part series–titled “The Harvest Gypsies” in the Mews and later collected as Their Blood Ls Strong (1938)—Steinbeck began his research for what would become The Grapes of Wrath. Early in his research he had the good fortune to befriend Tom Collins, the manager of the Weedpatch unit of the Farm Security Administration’s migrant camps in California’s great Central Valley. Collins gave Steinbeck access to his extensive reports on the migrants and their lives on the road and in the federal camps, and he introduced Steinbeck to many families. The two men traveled to the Central Valley together, working alongside the migrants, and, later as conditions worsened, offering aid.
“The Harvest Gypsies” is significant because the articles mark Steinbeck’s first literary attempt to help effect social change and therefore represent a break from the quietism of Ricketts’s nonteleological thinking. In the articles, Steinbeck narrates the history of exploitative agricultural labor practices in California, describes in a moving but restrained combination of statistics and anecdotes the appalling conditions in California’s fields, and argues for the need to help the Okies.
Steinbeck’s reasoning on behalf of the migrants follows the position of The San Francisco News in its editorials at the time: California agriculture, he proclaimed, would need to change fundamentally because the new agricultural workers were Americans–implicitly “white” Americans–and therefore they would be settling down and would not stand for the same treatment as foreign laborers. This racist argument may have been merely a strategy for getting the Okies the help they desperately needed, or it may have been an unintentional echo of eugenic racial theories Steinbeck was repeatedly exposed to while studying evolutionary biology in the 1920s and 1930s. There will probably never be a definitive answer as to why Steinbeck in the articles he wrote for The San Francisco News chose to call for the preference of one race over another, but it is important to acknowledge that it was completely out of character with the rest of his life’s work.
Steinbeck’s initial attempt to turn the story of the Okies to fiction was a never-finished and now presumed-destroyed manuscript titled The Oklahomans. Abandoning that work in January of 1938, Steinbeck began work on a bitter satire; however, the completed L’Affaire Lettuceburg did not please him, and Carol agreed. After mulling it over in early May 1938, Steinbeck destroyed the manuscript. He explained to his agent and to his publisher that: “My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other and then I deliberately write this book, the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding.” For Covici, it was a disaster. Covici-Friede was in desperate financial trouble, and Covici had ignored Steinbeck’s warnings and advertised L’Affaire Lettuceburg on their future list. A month later, Covici-Friede was bankrupt, and, with Steinbeck’s backing, Covici was installed at Viking as Steinbeck’s editor. Meanwhile, The Grapes of Wrath was under way.
On 26 October 1938, having persevered through marital discord, numerous interruptions, illness, and recurring self-doubt, Steinbeck completed the novel. The published novel is Steinbeck’s first draft, with some of the profanity cut out at Viking’s request. Apparently, Steinbeck began work on his masterpiece with the conception for the novel as a whole already in mind. What he didn’t have was a title. He wanted one that would emphasize that the book was revolutionary in an American, as opposed to an international, and Communist, sense. Carol found the title in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Steinbeck insisted that Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics be printed on the book’s endpapers. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) was the final book in his great 1930s trio of books about California farmworkers, and it was an instant sensation. It was both the top-selling book of the year and the Pulitzer Prize winner. It combined biblical symbolism and Emersonian transcendentalism with impassioned critique of both modern agribusiness and Jeffersonian agrarianism. Carey McWil-liams’s classic study of California agriculture, Factories in the Field, appeared later that year and provided factual support for Steinbeck’s fictional account. Nonetheless, Steinbeck was denounced throughout California and Oklahoma and in the U.S. Congress.
The Grapes of Wrath alternates chapters that tell the story of the fictional Joad family as it leaves Oklahoma for California and begins to break up, with those that document the larger social forces at work. The effect of the mixture is to present a brutally naturalistic universe in which individuals retain the ability to make significant decisions that will affect their lives and possibly the ways of the world. Thus, even though the book concludes in the middle of a flood with Rose of Sharon having a miscarriage and then breastfeeding a starving man, the ending is hopeful. In the worst of circumstances, these people have found that the human family is what is important and that it is far more expansive than they had previously imagined it to be. Even those critics who tend to be dismissive of Steinbeck’s works generally concede that The Grapes of Wrath is among the indispensable treasures of American literature.
Neither Steinbeck’s life nor his literary reputation would ever be the same. He thought he had taken the novel as far as it could go; he was desperately tired of his increasing fame; and his marriage, which had always been tempestuous, was falling apart. He decided to go on a marine biological expedition to the Gulf of California with his friend Ricketts. They chartered a boat, hired a crew, and took off. The nonfiction Sea of Cortez (1941), despite having long been a minor classic among marine biologists, remains one of Steinbeck’s most important and least read works. The original plan had been for both men to keep a log and for Steinbeck to cobble them together into a narrative when they got back. Ricketts was to be in charge of the scholarly appendices that take up the second half of the book. Instead, Ricketts kept a log from which Steinbeck borrowed in constructing the narrative.
Chapter 14, “The Easter Sermon,” is the best expression we have of Ricketts’s philosophy, and because of that scholars have long regarded this book as crucial to an understanding of Steinbeck’s thinking. Early Steinbeck scholars were right to focus on this book; however, they failed to recognize the extent to which Steinbeck himself contributed to the philosophical depth of the work. In addition to being a book about a voyage and about the importance of reorienting science toward descriptive “as-is” thinking rather than toward the search for causal relationships, it is also fundamentally a nonfiction book about language and perception and the impossibility of any written work being “true” in some final way. Although the extremely well-read Steinbeck would have been more likely to see the link backward to Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, and any number of eighteenth-century English novels that were also experimental treatises on the form of the novel, Sea of Cortez is a forerunner of what we now know as postmodernism.
Sea of Cortez also marks a major break from Steinbeck’s early works. After The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck tired of the essentially realist trappings of the novel and began to write books that focused in almost postmodernist fashion on the many ways in which language and narrative shape perception. Although that had been an aspect in even his most realistic fiction, with The Sea of Cortez it became a dominant thread in his work.
After Steinbeck and Ricketts returned from the Gulf of California, the Steinbecks’ marriage continued to deteriorate, and Steinbeck’s affair with the young Gwendolyn Conger took up increasingly more of his emotional life. In the spring of 1940, Steinbeck escaped to Mexico to write the script for a documentary movie about bringing medical care to a rural Mexican village. Ricketts visited the Steinbecks on location, and wrote an antiscript decrying the changes in village life brought on by modernization. Although the friendship easily weathered the disagreement, filming The Forgotten Village was contentious, and later problems with U.S. distribution were deeply disappointing to Steinbeck. Upon his return to the United States, Steinbeck informed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the inroads Nazi propaganda was making in Latin America and urged the president to set up a counterpropaganda effort. Roosevelt not only took Steinbeck’s advice and formed the OSS (forerunner of today’s CIA), but also he enlisted Steinbeck’s help with early propaganda efforts.
Steinbeck and Carol separated in April of 1941 and sold the ranch in Los Gatos that summer. She moved to New York. John and Gwendolyn tried to settle in Monterey, but it was a small town where Gwendolyn was the other woman and where his fame had changed the way people–including many old friends–reacted to him. When Carol decided to return to Monterey, John and Gwyn (as she herself began to spell it) moved to New York. In March 1942 Carol filed for divorce, and the divorce was granted on 18 March 1943. Steinbeck and Gwyn were married on 29 March in New Orleans. Although Gwyn gave birth to two sons–Thorn in 1944 and John IV two years later–it was otherwise not a happy marriage for either one of them.
The war years were tumultuous for Steinbeck. Gwyn wanted a settled life; but they moved from home to home and were constantly apart while Steinbeck was doing a variety of often make-work jobs for various branches of the government. At different times, various branches of the military and intelligence services wanted Steinbeck’s help, and generals were sending letters informing the the local draft board that they wanted Steinbeck’s help on matters of national importance; but the FBI considered him a security risk because of his supposed Communist sympathies. The draft board in Salinas–which was clearly antagonistic– continually threatened to draft him even though he was in his forties. While waiting for a security clearance, he worked on public-service radio programs and speeches. He also provided the story and a screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat; however, he was so angered by Hitchcock’s extensive changes, especially making the African American steward into a stereotype, that he asked that his name be removed from the credits.
Of the books Steinbeck wrote specifically related to World War II, Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942) is the least consequential. Written as a propaganda piece for the U.S. Army-Air Force, the book is a journalistic account that describes the training of a bomber crew. Steinbeck saw the training operation from the perspective of his phalanx theory of individuals molded into a group-conscious team.
The Moon Is Down (1942) is Steinbeck’s portrayal of the conquest and occupation of a small Scandinavian town by a brutal outside enemy. Although neither the conquering army nor the occupied country is ever identified in either the novel or the play version, it was widely understood that the conquerors were a phalanx of Germans and that the occupied country was Norway. Although some critics in the United States–notably James Thurber–attacked Steinbeck for making his Nazis too human, the work’s message that a united, democratic people could–through force of will and individual courage–overcome a dictatorial occupying army was immensely popular in much of occupied Europe. After the war the Norwegian government awarded Steinbeck the King Haakon Cross. The Moon Is Down is not one of Steinbeck’s great works; however, it served a significant purpose, and it does have literary merit.
Steinbeck’s final World War II book, Once There Was a War (1958), is a compilation, published thirteen years after the fighting ended, of most of the newspaper articles Steinbeck wrote as a war reporter. His dispatches were not, strictly speaking, news. Instead, Steinbeck masterfully depicted the human aspects of the war: the grinding periods of anticipation, the boredom, the personalities of individual GIs, and the impersonality of the war machine. The book begins with Steinbeck’s depiction of a troop ship crossing the Atlantic and moves on to his capsule views of life among the rear echelons in England and North Africa. Eventually, Steinbeck got his wish for combat, and the book concludes with the dispatches he sent after participating in commando raids in Italy in September 1943. His descriptions of the horror of those battles are perhaps his most emotionally persuasive nonfiction. Although it was important to Steinbeck to have proven himself brave in combat, war was hard on the physical and mental health of the forty-one-year-old author. Deeply shaken by what he had seen, Steinbeck returned to an angry young wife in New York. Asked later to cover the war in the Pacific, he declined.
In response to soldiers telling him they wanted to read something funny that didn’t remind them of the war, Steinbeck wrote a book dubbed by critic Malcolm Cowley a “poisoned creampuff.” Cannery Row (1945) is Steinbeck’s first work of fiction that could be called fully postmodern, but it could just as correctly be called a pastoral. It is an extended play on the ways in which language and narrative shape experience. It contains pastiches of characters and brief episodes from his previous fiction. And it includes, but subverts, many of the traditions of pastoral space. Although the Row is a place of escape in which many problems of the world are discussed but not resolved, it is ultimately a flawed community. For all the rowdy good humor of the parties which are the book’s main events, and for all the goodwill which Mack and the boys feel for Doc, Cannery Row is a profoundly lonely place in which relations between men and women tend to be short-lived, based on money and biology, or bitter failures.
In October 1944, shortly after he finished the manuscript, Steinbeck and Gwyn and baby Thorn moved to Monterey. Although Cannery Row is now recognized as one of the highlights of Steinbeck’s career, the initial reviews were overwhelmingly negative. Steinbeck was hurt that most reviewers had wanted him to write a worthy successor to The Grapes of Wrath and had felt that Cannery Row was a sentimental rehashing of his least serious previous work. Eventually, he would write Sweet Thursday (1954), his only sequel, in response to what he quite reasonably felt had been a general failure of the critics to understand what he had been doing in i Row.
Steinbeck’s next book, The Pearl (1947), developed through many different versions. It began as a folktale which Steinbeck mentioned briefly in Sea of Cortez. In 1944, Steinbeck told the story to the Mexican film director Emilio Fernandez, who convinced Steinbeck to turn it into a filmscript. Steinbeck polished the script with Fernandez in Mexico and later that year turned the folktale into an allegorical novella.
In the novella, the young pearl diver Kino finds a pearl of singular beauty and size and dreams of selling it for enough money to allow his wife Juana and their infant son Coyotito to live a comfortable life with a little prestige. Juana’s goal throughout is to protect the family. When it becomes obvious that the local pearl buyers would rather kill Kino than pay him a fair price for the pearl, Juana tells him to throw it back into the sea. Although Kino’s attempt to find a buyer outside the town leads to Coyotito’s death and the destruction of Kino’s boat and their home, Kino and Juana are together at the end when he throws “the pearl of the world” back into the ocean. The Pearl is not one of Steinbeck’s great works, but it began to develop a following in the 1950s and has remained popular in secondary-school English classes.
Back in New York after finishing The Pearl, Steinbeck was anxious to complete a new Mexican novel, but El Camion Vacilador quickly moved to a fictional California landscape and became The Wayward Bus (1947). Wanting to work fast, he dictated and revised the novel on tape. It is the story of Juan Chicoy, the owner and driver of a bus named Sweetheart, and his passengers on a trip from Rebel Corners to San Juan de la Cruz. The bridge across the river is washed out, so Juan takes them by an old road where they get mired in the mud. When the party seeks shelter, a variety of events illuminate the characters differently according to their understanding of the nature of sex. Juan, whose initials are J.C., eventually “saves” them and gets the bus on its way once more, but nothing has changed. The Wayward Bus is an attempt to explore the ways in which Hollywood and Madison Avenue have corrupted sex and American society, and it contrasts the goal-oriented postwar affluence in America with the sacred and the cyclical nature of the world. It is also, however, an awkward mixture of allegory and realism peopled by mostly unsympathetic characters. Steinbeck later called it “a paste-up job” and regretted letting it be published.
A Russian Journal (1948) is the result of Steinbeck’s trip to Soviet Union with Robert Capa in August and September of 1947. Capa was one of the leading combat photographers of the 1930s and 1940s, and Steinbeck had gotten to know him during his own tour as a war correspondent. Together they cooked up the idea of putting together a book on the “real” Russia. Although Steinbeck and Capa managed to get permission to visit parts of the Soviet Union that were normally closed to visitors from the West, they were kept moving and constantly plied with vodka. The result is a fairly superficial account of the country by two brilliant foreigners who weren’t given much opportunity to observe anything in depth. As Warren French notes, the greatest significance of A Russian Journal probably lies in the shift it marks between Steinbeck’s early detached-observer stance and that of much of his later fiction and nonfiction in which his role as narrator is a central concern.
Steinbeck’s return to the United States was tumultuous. On 7 May 1948 Ricketts drove his car around a blind turn and into the path of an oncoming train. Four days later, Steinbeck arrived in Monterey, only to learn that his best friend had died a few hours earlier. On his return to New York, Gwyn, who had grown increasing irritated that she was raising their two children while her husband traveled around the world, demanded a divorce, which was granted in August. Steinbeck moved back to California that September and played, often halfheartedly, at being a ladies’ man. Gwyn kept custody of the two boys and most of Steinbeck’s library. And in December, Steinbeck was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In late May 1949 Steinbeck met Elaine Anderson Scott, a former Broadway stage manager and native Texan. Her marriage to the actor Zachary Scott, whom she met in college, had become little more than a social formality. On 1 December 1949, Elaine and Zachary Scott were divorced. Within a week Elaine and her daughter Waverly moved into an apartment in New York adjoining Steinbeck’s. John and Elaine were married on 28 December 1950.
Burning Bright (1950), Steinbeck’s first book after his breakup with Gwyn, was his third, last, and least successful dual play and novel. The title comes from the first line of William Blake’s “The Tyger,” and the story traces the conflict between the sterile Joe Saul, his much younger wife Mordeen, and Victor, the young man she selects to father the child she wants so much to give Joe. By changing the setting and the characters’ professions in each act, Steinbeck emphasizes the universality of his message that every man is a father to every child; however, it is an awkward device. John Ditsky’s claim that Burning Bright is better understood as a piece of Brechtian theatre than as a realistic work has some merit, but as fiction or drama Burning Bright remains a preachy allegory with painfully unrealistic dialogue.
In fall 1950 Steinbeck worked with the producer Jules Buck to prepare a script based on the copious research Steinbeck and Gwyn had done in 1945 on Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. He had signed on the year before to write a screenplay at the urging of Elia Kazan, but what he had written was an idiosyncratic cultural biography of Zapata and a series of notes for the cast and crew. With Buck as a sounding board, Steinbeck completed the first draft in eleven days. Steinbeck’s script showed Zapata as a man and a myth, focusing on his life and martyrdom as both a peculiarly Mexican story and as a universal story of the moral and political relationship of the individual to government. Unfortunately for Steinbeck, by the time Kazan got around to making the movie, the political climate was unfavorable. Mexican authorities denied the company permission to film in Mexico, and anti-Communist political pressure was at it peak. (Kazan had been forced previously to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.) Both studio head Darryl Zanuck and director Kazan made compromising changes to Steinbeck’s script. Still, despite a paltry publicity budget and limited distribution, Viva Zapata! (1952) garnered four Academy Award nominations, including best original screenplay. Anthony Quinn won the Oscar for best supporting actor. Steinbeck never disparaged the film publicly, but it was the last screenplay he would write.
Rather than retreat from politics, Steinbeck got more involved. During the 1952 presidential election, Steinbeck wrote the foreword to a campaign volume of Adlai Stevenson’s speeches, contributed ideas, and wrote speeches for celebrities endorsing Stevenson. Stevenson’s loss in the general election did not deter Steinbeck. He wrote pieces attacking the HCUA and Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1956, at the behest of the Stevenson campaign, he wrote a nominating speech for Estes Kefauver to deliver at the Democratic National Convention, and in 1960 he joined a group seeking once again to draft Stevenson. In the 1960s Steinbeck and Elaine made several overseas trips at the request of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The young writer who had dreaded fame and had avoided first-person narrative had become a writer who enjoyed the role of public wise man and counselor to the powerful. That change did not always serve him well.
Steinbeck’s initial plan for The Salinas Valley, as East of Eden (1952) was first titled, called for it to be not only his next great book but the culmination of everything he had ever done. His research had begun in 1948 in the morgue of the Salinas-Californian newspaper, and he wrote the book simultaneously with a series of letters addressed to Covici later published as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969).
In the manuscript version of East of Eden, a sequence of narrative asides to his young sons about what it is to be a man frame the two interwoven main stories: the story of the fictional Trask family and the history in the Salinas Valley of Steinbeck’s mother’s family, the Hamiltons. The various plotlines of East of Eden draw upon a single theme: moral choice as the essence of human possibility. With attendant biblical echoes of Cain and Abel, Steinbeck traces the story of Adam Trask and his family. Sam Hamilton, Steinbeck’s grandfather, appears often in the book as Adam’s advisor and as an exemplar of both the real and metaphoric need for perspective. After Adam marries Cathy and brings her to the ranch he buys in the valley, she bears him Aron and Caleb (who may actually be Adam’s brother’s sons), shoots him, and goes off to Salinas to be a whore. Once there, she murders the previous madam and takes over a brothel which quickly becomes renowned for its depravity. Most commentators agree that Steinbeck modeled Cathy after his second wife, Gwyn.
The later discovery by the teenage Cal that Cathy the madam is his mother causes him to confront what he at first believes to be his essentially evil nature. Caleb is eventually shown to be heroic because he recognizes his fallen nature as a call to learn to live a moral life. The favorite son Aron, however, can no longer believe in his own innocence after seeing his mother; in despair he runs away to die in World War I. As always with Steinbeck, the novel was greeted by mixed reviews. Most critics complained that it lacked structure, and some dismissed it altogether; but other reviewers called it his best book, and East of Eden quickly developed a following of readers who responded to its seriousness and personal warmth. Twenty years later Ditsky began the movement among critics to consider what Steinbeck’s structural intentions were and to analyze the book accordingly. A portion of the small circle of critics now argue that East of Eden is, as Steinbeck intended it to be, his greatest accomplishment. These few critics give particular attention to Steinbeck’s use of an intrusive narrator who grows through the process of telling the tale. They argue that East of Eden is a book about nothing less than the creation of meaning through narration. That argument has merit but it is complicated by the fact that, under orders from Viking, Steinbeck cut from the published book much of the intrusive narrative framework of the manuscript addressed to the boys.
Steinbeck and Elaine spent from March to mid December of 1954 in Europe. They stayed primarily in Paris but visited Spain, England, and Italy. Steinbeck wrote a series of articles for the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro which were collected in Un Americ-ain à New York et à Paris (1956). A few of the articles were reprinted in English and American journals, but the book has been published only in French. Steinbeck soon grew tired of being the writer-as-polite-guest, but he could not find another satisfactory posture toward the city. In early 1955 Steinbeck and Elaine bought an oceanfront cottage on two acres in Sag Harbor on Long Island. Between their travels, they lived there or in their townhouse in New York for the rest of Steinbeck’s life.
Sweet Thursday was greeted initially as Steinbeck’s sequel to Cannery Row; however, it is far more arch than that. As Robert DeMott has noted, Sweet Thursday is a comedy about writing a novel. As the original version of the book’s prologue by Mack makes clear, the novel is a pastiche of what critics said Steinbeck should have written in Cannery Row .It is also a charming self-parody, an attack on materialism and the middle class, and a farewell to California. Everyone has changed from the previous book. Doc gets the girl. Mack and the boys sound literary. On the other hand, the changes are unsettling. Sweet Thursday is the day before Good Friday, yet no one seems to recognize the need for sacrifice, and no redemption is in sight. As with Cannery Row, many reviewers praised Sweet Thursday’s good humor, but few recognized its underlying seriousness of purpose.
The one book in English to come out of the Stein-becks’ Paris experience of 1954 is The Short Reign of Pippin IV (1957). Steinbeck first conceived of it as a short story while in Paris but put it off as unimportant. He finally got around to writing it in March of 1956, and by the end of that month he had completed the first draft. The revision was a slow and painful process for Steinbeck; however, his enjoyment in writing comes across on the page. The Short Reign of Pippin IV is a charming satire of French politics and culture, and of Americanization. The story of the book–Steinbeck called it “a fabrication” rather than a novel–is that as every party’s compromise candidate during a constitutional crisis in France, a gentle, scholarly astronomer is thrust into unwanted power as King Pippin IV. While his daughter falls in love with a rich American boy, another political crisis develops because Pippin decides not to be a figurehead. The book closes with a wiser Pippin going back to his telescope. Most reviewers regarded it as a merry piece of fluff with just a little bite, aimed on one level at American politics; consequently, it has never attracted much serious critical attention.
Steinbeck and Elaine spent most of 1959 in England while he consulted with the medieval scholar Eugene Vinaver and worked on translating Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. Parts of the translation are wonderful, but Malory had been so important to Steinbeck for so long that he put too much pressure on himself. After years of on-and-off attempts he eventually gave up on completing the work. The posthumous publication of what he did finish offers a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. Despite the inconsistent progress with his work, both Steinbecks treasured their year at Discove Cottage in Somerset.
The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Steinbeck’s last novel and the only one set in the American East, was immediately recognized as a morality tale about materialism and the devaluation of honesty and other public virtues. Steinbeck took his title from the opening line of William Shakespeare’s play about a murderous, Machiavellian king: Richard III The story revolves around Ethan Allen Hawley, a descendant of the pirates who founded New Baytown. After Harvard and a stint in the Army during World War II, Hawley has failed at business because he is ethical. When the book begins, he is working in the grocery store he once owned, and his wife and children are complaining to him about not having the things everyone else in town has. Drawing in part on his humorous short story “How Mr. Hogan Robbed a Bank,” Steinbeck changes the comic tone of that story to trace Ethan’s simultaneous financial success and descent into a moral collapse that threatens his family and kills his best friend.
Making reference to the contemporary payola and quiz show scandals, many reviewers remarked positively on Steinbeck’s criticism of American ethics, but others complained that the secondary plot of Ethan’s son’s plagiarism was not believably developed. The dialogue, especially the profusion of Ethan’s pet names for his wife, has often been attacked as awkward and unbelievable. Only recently has Susan Shillinglaw suggested that one of Steinbeck’s themes in The Winter of Our Discontent is the relationship between language and morality. Allen Hawley’s patchwork of classic American speeches almost wins him a national essay prize; he is a basically decent man struggling to find a shared vocabulary that will allow him to reestablish a sense of himself as an ethical and effective participant in his family and his community. The Winter of Our Discontent ends without Ethan Hawley’s having found that language, but his love and his hopes for his daughter have kept him from committing suicide.
Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962) is a non-fiction account of Steinbeck’s drive across America and back with his poodle Charley. Although his health had not been good for a few years, and although Elaine had opposed him going alone, Steinbeck, driving the pickup truck he had dubbed Rodnante and equipped with a custom camper shell, left Sag Harbor on 23 September 1960. His goal was to escape his own fame and to reacquaint himself with his country and the people, so he tried to avoid the interstate highways. Charley was a big help to him in breaking the ice in small-town America, but the trip did not end well. His claim to have met no strangers rings false. California depressed him, because he no longer belonged there. And far from getting to know his fellow Americans again, the Deep South constantly found ways to remind him that he was an outsider. The cheerleaders who led crowds in taunting young African American students at a newly desegregated school in New Orleans sickened him. And one white hitchhiker’s belligerent racism caused Steinbeck to toss him out of the truck. When Steinbeck could find a like-minded white man to talk with about race, they agreed the immediate future looked bleak. The African Americans he gave rides to did not cheer him up either. An old man pretended they had reached his destination because talking about race with a white man scared him. A young man Steinbeck liked and respected told him he had grown tired of waiting for change and relying on peaceful resistance. Steinbeck scurried home from there. Despite what some critics recognized as the failure of the mission of the book, and despite Steinbeck’s eventual dissatisfaction with the completed work, Travels with Charley includes sections of vintage Steinbeck reportage, and sales began at a better rate than for any of his previous works.
On the morning of 25 October 1962, Steinbeck turned on the television set in his Sag Harbor, New York, home to get news of the Cuban Missile Crisis; instead, an announcer informed the audience that Steinbeck had that day in Stockholm been named the newest Nobel Laureate in Literature. Steinbeck’s initial reaction to the news was great pride. His wife Elaine’s initial reaction was to put the frying pan in the refrigerator. The crush of incoming phone calls was overwhelming. Steinbeck conferred with Covici, and they quickly agreed on a press conference that afternoon at Viking’s offices in New York. Asked by reporters what his first reaction had been, Steinbeck replied, “Disbelief.” Asked to name his favorite authors, he answered, “Faulkner and Hemingway.” Then a reporter asked, “Do you really think you deserve the Nobel Prize?”
“Frankly, no,” he replied, and a feeding frenzy was on. The New York Times let the world know it agreed that Steinbeck was not deserving of the prize. Time Magazine followed suit. Suddenly any critic worth a column inch was denouncing Steinbeck’s laureateship.
The Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm made up for much of the cruel criticism back home. Anders Österling, the Secretary of the Swedish Academy, broke with protocol in his presentation address to Steinbeck by addressing the author not as “Mr. Steinbeck” but as “Dear Mr. Steinbeck,” and the King of Sweden, for the first time in his reign, chose as his companion for the concluding dinner the wife of the literature laureate, Mrs. Elaine Steinbeck.
Steinbeck had consulted widely for help with the address and had, he wrote one friend, rewritten it twenty times before he gave up on being “suave and diplomatic” and finally “wrote exactly what I wanted to say.” After a few acknowledgments, Steinbeck struck back directly at his critics. He began, “I thank the Swedish Academy for finding my work worthy of this highest honor. In my heart there may be doubt that I deserve the Nobel award over other men of letters for whom I hold respect and reverence–but there is no question of my pleasure and pride in having it for myself.” He continued his attack by comparing critics to writers, “Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches–nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tinhorn mendicants of low calorie despair.” Exalting in his descent from “the skalds, the bards,” Steinbeck, reaching for grandeur, proclaimed, “I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.” Although the twentieth-century propensity for giving rise to genocidal systems for the “perfectibility of man” makes that proclamation suspect, Steinbeck ended on an appropriate note of caution and hope. In the new and dangerous nuclear age, he told the assembled dignitaries, humanity must find the wisdom to handle its newfound power responsibly. Literature, he implied, would be a part of that process.
Having received the Nobel Prize, Steinbeck fretted over whether he would ever be able to return to being a working writer rather than some near-dead canonical figure whose every action was a public event. As a young writer he had concluded that hardly anyone who won it ever wrote anything worthwhile afterward, and he wanted to be the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, Steinbeck’s declining health and his increasingly public persona were more powerful than his determination to beat what he thought of as the Nobel’s curse.
Steinbeck’s final book published in his lifetime was America and Americans (1966). What began at Viking as a coffee-table book of photographs for which Steinbeck would write an introduction became the author’s chance to describe his vision of America. Although America’s racism saddened him and he feared that it had damaged the country’s moral fiber, he saw major changes ahead and was optimistic about America’s future. For a scholar or general reader interested in Steinbeck’s views of the American literary tradition or in knowing the thinking behind his post-World War II fiction, America and Americans provides a wealth of information. In the end the book says far less about America than it does about Steinbeck’s attitudes toward America. Reviewers greeted America and Americans with the measured praise it deserved.
Steinbeck’s final nonfiction project was less successful. Elaine Steinbeck and Lady Bird Johnson had known each other at the University of Texas, and the renewal of their acquaintance during the Kennedy administration had drawn Steinbeck further into American politics. When Steinbeck became a special correspondent for the Long Island daily Newsday in 1965, he wrote a series of occasional “Letters to Alicia” addressed to the late Alicia Guggenheim, the founding editor of the paper, supporting President Lyndon Johnson’s policies in Vietnam. Though Steinbeck privately recanted his position later, those articles severely damaged his already faded reputation among liberals and mainstream literary critics.
In October 1967, Steinbeck underwent successful back surgery, but his body was beginning to give out. He had mild emphysema and severe blockages of the coronary arteries. With Elaine at his side, Steinbeck died on 20 December 1968.
Although Steinbeck’s literary reputation was at a low point when he died, those critics who predicted that his importance in American literature had been buried with him were wrong. Too few American critics would rate John Steinbeck as one of the great writers of the twentieth century; however, much of his work has proved enduringly popular. The most influential scholars of twentieth-century American literature continue to ignore Steinbeck or to dismiss his work, often unread, as not being worth their consideration. Those U.S. critics who do consider Steinbeck seriously as a writer tend to be critics whose methods call into question the received canon of American literature. Critics who specialize in Western American literature have long made up the majority of Steinbeck scholars, and in the last fifteen years the increasing popularity of ecocriticism and the recognition of Steinbeck’s ecological focus has increased his reputation among Western critics. Early feminists lumped Steinbeck together with Ernest Hemingway and attacked his works as being misogynist, but later-feminist-literary critics have been kinder to Steinbeck and his works. Second-generation feminist scholars have found in Steinbeck an author not only sympathetic to women but one who depicts societies crippled by their male domination.
John Steinbeck’s greatness is widely recognized outside the United States, but in the United States his enduring literary legacy is carried less by a coterie of devoted critics than by the general reading public and the many authors–including Native American novelists such as Louis Owens, Sherman Alexie, and James Welch–who have found in his words inspiration for their own lives and works.
Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (New York: Viking, 1975; London: Heinemann, 1975);
Letters to Elizabeth: A Selection of Letters from, John Steinbeck to Elizabeth Otis, edited by Florian J. Shasky and Susan F. Riggs (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1978);
Steinbeck and Covici: The Story of a Friendship, edited by Thomas Fensch (Middlebury, Vt.: Paul S. Eriksson, 1979).
Conversations with John Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1988).
Tetsumaro Hayashi, A New Steinbeck Bibliography, 1929–1971 (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973);
Adrian Homer Goldstone with John R. Payne, John Steinbeck: A Bibliographical Catalogue of the Adrian H.Goldstone Collection (Austin: Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, 1974);
“Cumulative Index to Volumes I-X (1968–1977),” Steinbeck Quarterly, XI 2 (Muncie, Ind.: Ball State University, 1978);
Hayashi, A New Steinbeck Bibliography, 1971–81 (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1983);
“Cumulative Index to Volumes XI-XX (1978–1987),” Steinbeck Quarterly, Steinbeck Bibliography Series, no. 2 (Muncie, Ind.: Ball State University, 1989);
Harmon, Cannery Row: A Selected Fifty Year Bibliographic Survey (San Jose, Cal.: Dibco Press, 1995).
Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (New York: Viking, 1984; London: Penguin, 1984);
Roy Simmonds, John Steinbeck: The War Years, 1939–1945 (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1996).
Richard Astro, John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973);
Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney Jr., eds., Steinbeck and the Environment (Tus-caloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997);
Donald Coers, Paul D. Ruffin, and Robert DeMott, eds., After The Grapes of Wrath: Essays in Honor of Tetsumaro Hayashi (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995);
DeMott, Steinbeck’s Reading: A Catalogue of Books Owned and Borrowed (New York: Garland, 1984);
DeMott, Steinbeck’s Typewriter: Essays on his Art (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1996);
John Ditsky, Essays on East of Eden, Steinbeck Monograph Series, no. 7 (Muncie, Ind.: International John Steinbeck Society, 1977);
Warren French, John Steinbeck’s Non-fiction Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1996);
Tetsumaro Hayashi, ed., John Steinbeck: The Years of Greatness, 1936–1939 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993);
R. S. Hughes, John Steinbeck, A Study of the Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne, 1989);
Joseph R. McElrath Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Shillinglaw, eds., John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, American Critical Archives, no. 8 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996);
Donald Noble, ed., The Steinbeck Question (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1993);
Louis Owens, The Grapes of Wrath: Trouble in the Promised Land, A Student’s Companion to the Novel (Boston: Twayne, 1989);
Owens, Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985);
Brian Railsback, Parallel Expeditions: Charles Darwin and the Art of John Steinbeck (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1995);
Shillinglaw and Kevin Hearle, eds., Beyond Boundaries: Rereading John Steinbeck (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002);
Steinbeck Newsletter, 1987–2000;
Steinbeck Quarterly, 1968–1993;
Steinbeck Review, 2004– ;
Steinbeck Studies, 2001– ;
John Timmerman, John Steinbeck’s Fiction: The Esthetics of the Road Taken (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990);
David Wyatt, ed., New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
The most important collections of John Steinbeck letters, manuscripts, and related materials are those held by the Department of Special Collections at Green Library of Stanford University and by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The J. P. Morgan Library in New York houses important material from Steinbeck’s later years.Other significant collections of Steinbeck material and related ephemera are those of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University; Columbia University; the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California; and the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.