Steinbeck, John (Ernst)

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STEINBECK, John (Ernst)

Nationality: American. Born: Salinas, California, 27 February 1902. Education: Salinas High School, graduated 1919; Stanford University, California, intermittently 1919-25. Family: Married 1) Carol Henning in 1930 (divorced 1942); 2) Gwyn Conger (i.e., the actress Gwen Verdon) in 1943 (divorced 1948), two sons; 3) Elaine Scott in 1950. Career: Worked at various jobs, including reporter for the New York American, apprentice hod-carrier, apprentice painter, chemist, caretaker of an estate at Lake Tahoe, surveyor, and fruit picker, 1925-35; full-time writer from 1935; settled in Monterey, California, 1930, later moved to New York City; special writer for U.S. Army Air Force during World War II; correspondent in Europe, New York Herald Tribune, 1943. Awards: New York Drama Critics Circle award, 1938; Pulitzer prize, 1940; King Haakon Liberty Cross (Norway), 1946; O. Henry award, 1956; Nobel prize for literature, 1962; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1964; U.S. Medal of Freedom, 1964. Member: American Academy, 1939. Died: 20 December 1968.



The Essential Steinbeck. 1994.

Short Stories

The Pastures of Heaven. 1932.

Saint Katy the Virgin. 1936.

The Red Pony. 1937.

The Long Valley. 1938.

The Moon Is Down (novella). 1942.

Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form (novella). 1950.

The Short Novels. 1953.

The Chrysanthemums and Other Stories. 1995.


Cup of Gold: A Life of Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History. 1929.

To a God Unknown. 1933.

Tortilla Flat. 1935.

In Dubious Battle. 1936.

Of Mice and Men. 1937.

The Grapes of Wrath. 1939; edited by Peter Lisca, 1972.

Cannery Row. 1945.

The Wayward Bus. 1947.

The Pearl. 1947.

East of Eden. 1952.

Sweet Thursday. 1954.

The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication. 1957.

The Winter of Our Discontent. 1961.


Of Mice and Men, from his own novel (produced 1937). 1937.

The Forgotten Village (screenplay). 1941.

The Moon Is Down, from his own novel (produced 1942). 1942.

A Medal for Benny, with Jack Wagner and Frank Butler, in Best Film Plays 1945, edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols. 1946.

Burning Bright, from his own novel (produced 1950). 1951.

Viva Zapata! The Original Screenplay, edited by Robert E. Morsberger. 1975.


The Forgotten Village (documentary), 1941; Lifeboat, with Jo Swerling, 1944; A Medal for Benny, with Jack Wagner and Frank Butler, 1945; La perla (The Pearl), with Jack Wagner and Emilio Fernandez, 1946; The Red Pony, 1949; Viva Zapata!, 1952.


Their Blood Is Strong. 1938.

Steinbeck Replies (letter). 1940.

Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, with Edward F. Ricketts. 1941.

Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team. 1942.

The Viking Portable Library Steinbeck, edited by Pascal Covici.1943; abridged edition, as The Steinbeck Pocket Book, 1943; revised edition, as The Portable Steinbeck, 1946, 1958; revised edition, edited by Pascal Covici, Jr., 1971; 1946 edition published as The Indispensable Steinbeck, 1950, and as The Steinbeck Omnibus, 1951.

The First Watch (letter). 1947.

Vanderbilt Clinic. 1947.

A Russian Journal, photographs by Robert Capa. 1948.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez. 1951.

Once There Was a War. 1958.

Travels with Charley in Search of America. 1962.

Speech Accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature…. 1962(?).

America and Americans. 1966.

Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. 1969.

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and RobertWallsten. 1975.

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, From the Winchester Manuscripts of Malory and Other Sources, edited by Chase Horton. 1976.

Letters to Elizabeth: A Selection of Letters from Steinbeck to Elizabeth Otis, edited by Florian J. Shasky and Susan F. Riggs. 1978.

Conversations with Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch. 1988.

Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938-1941, edited by Robert DeMott. 1989.



A New Steinbeck Bibliography 1929-1971 and 1971-1981 by Tetsumaro Hayashi, 2 vols., 1973-83; Steinbeck: A Bibliographical Catalogue of the Adrian H. Goldstone Collection by Adrian H. Goldstone and John R. Payne, 1974; Steinbeck Bibliographies: An Annotated Guide by Robert B. Harmon, 1987; John Steinbeck, World War II Correspondent: An Annotated Reference Guide edited by Robert B. Harmon, 1997.

Critical Studies:

The Novels of Steinbeck: A First Critical Study by Harry T. Moore, 1939, as Steinbeck and His Novels, 1939; Steinbeck and His Critics: A Record of Twenty-Five Years edited by E. W. Tedlock, Jr., and C. V. Wicker, 1957; The Wide World of Steinbeck, 1958, and Steinbeck, Nature, and Myth, 1978, both by Peter Lisca; Steinbeck by Warren French, 1961, revised edition, 1975, and A Companion to The Grapes of Wrath edited by French, 1963; Steinbeck by F. W. Watt, 1962; Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation by Joseph Fontenrose, 1964; Steinbeck Monograph series, from 1972, A Study Guide to Steinbeck: A Handbook to His Major Works, 2 vols., 1974-79, and Steinbeck's Literary Dimenson, 1991, all edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi; Steinbeck: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Robert Murray Davis, 1972; Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist by Richard Astro, 1973; The Novels of Steinbeck: A Critical Study by Howard Levant, 1974; Steinbeck: The Errant Knight: An Intimate Biography of His California Years by Nelson Valjean, 1975; The Intricate Music: A Biography of Steinbeck by Thomas Kiernan, 1979; Steinbeck by Paul McCarthy, 1980; The True Adventures of Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography by Jackson J. Benson, 1984; Steinbeck: The California Years by Brian St. Pierre, 1984; Steinbeck: Life, Work, and Criticism by John Ditsky, 1985; Steinbeck's New Vision of America by Louis Owens, 1985; Steinbeck, The Voice of the Land by Keith Ferrell, 1986; Steinbeck's Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken, 1986, and The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck's Short Stories, 1990, both by John H. Timmerman; Beyond The Red Pony: A Reader's Companion to Steinbeck's Complete Short Stories, 1987, and Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction, 1989, both by R. S. Hughes; New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath edited by David Wright, 1990; The Short Novels of Steinbeck edited by Jackson J. Benson, 1990; John Steinbeck: A Biography by Jay Parini, 1994; Parallel Expeditions: Charles Darwin and the Art of John Steinbeck by Brian E. Railsback, 1995; Steinbeck's Typewriter: Essays on His Art by Robert J. DeMott, 199 6; John Steinbeck's Nonfiction Revisited by Warren G. French, 1996; John Steinbeck: The War Years, 1939-1945 by Roy S. Simmonds, 1996.

* * *

Like many another American writer who got his start in the early twentieth century, John Steinbeck devoted himself to writing short stories as well as novels early in his career. Magazine sales of stories were, after all, highly remunerative, and the market for longer fiction was chancy. But after the enormous success of The Grapes of Wrath, with his financial security assured, Steinbeck's story output slowed to a trickle. Only a Japanese collection of the later stories exists (not easy to locate), and though some of the stories in it are worth study, they are likely to elude the nonspecialist reader. By the same token a quartet of studies in later years has made us aware of the existence of even more stories, many of them early efforts; but once again few will encounter them. For the most part Steinbeck's considerable achievement in the short story form is found in two volumes from the 1930s, The Pastures of Heaven and The Long Valley.

Steinbeck's short fiction also possesses some unusual features that make criticism unconventional. Not only do some pieces (such as The Pearl) straddle the borderline between novel and novella (the work is in effect a film scenario), but Steinbeck also composed three "play-novellas" that exist in both formats, the most famous of these being the classic Of Mice and Men. Of the more conventional stories that deserve treatment here, the ones in The Pastures of Heaven can be said to constitute a novel in the form of an interlinked suite of separable stories, generally called by their central characters' names, and criticism has stressed their interdependence. Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio can be claimed as a model for Pastures, and certainly its characters can be studied as Andersonian grotesques.

Steinbeck's evident narrational detachment is based on his interest in science, particularly the marine biology he investigated with his biologist—and fellow amateur philosopher—friend Edward F. Ricketts, whose laboratory is still passed by thousands of tourists each day, uncomprehending as they might be, in Cannery Row, Monterey, California. Practically all the worthwhile short stories of Steinbeck are set in California, where he grew up; and the local landscape seems inseparable from his treatment of character. Additionally confusing to early readers was Steinbeck's apparent link to the literary naturalists, whereas in fact he was a romantic ahead of his time in terms of his prevision of metafiction. "Tularecito" and "Johnny Bear" from the works already cited, along with Lennie from Mice, are mental defectives; many of Steinbeck's characters are also hardly quiz kids, nor their sometimes irresponsible ways admirable. Yet they are presented not sentimentally, as some used to claim, but sympathetically, because their values stand in marked contrast to those of the success-oriented society as a whole, the standards and smugness of which Steinbeck abhorred.

Steinbeck's variegated reading shows up in his stories in ways that might surprise the reader, who at first might find them seemingly simple pieces. He was early taken with Arthurian themes, and he was familiar with researches into myth; Joseph Campbell was an early friend. His interest, with Ricketts, in what they called "is-thinking" led him to eschew moral stances in his stories, leading some to presuppose that he approved of all that he presented. These subtleties and traps still threaten the unwary, as in the Long Valley story "The Murder." Does Steinbeck or his unidentified narrator see Jim Moore's "foreign" wife Jelka (she is a Yugoslav and as strange to his culture as he is to hers) in animal terms, or does Jim do this, perhaps in error or misjudgment? Jim rejects also as foreign his father-in-law's advice to give his wife the occasional beating, and instead he neglects her, treating her little better than his livestock; this leads to her eventual adultery with a cousin whom Jim murders. Throughout this story the Gothic towers of a local natural formation loom, as if to epitomize Steinbeck's merging of natural landscape and European literary tradition.

Teachers who regularly assign Steinbeck works to their pupils often do so in the face of attempts at censorship from school boards and parents. Yet it is only fair to note that Steinbeck's fictions contain a great amount of violence that is neither judged nor condoned and thus may elude the sensitivity of the reader not tipped off as to what he or she is expected to be upset by. Even some noted critics have missed the challenge to their own moral resources in Steinbeck's stories and have found little but lower-class humor in searingly bitter material. The often-reprinted classic "Flight," which prefigures The Pearl in many respects, does not spend much time examining the rightness of the act of violence that sets young Pepé running away from his pursuers. Steinbeck is interested in the process by which the boy, in accepting the implications of his actions, becomes a man even as he loses his father's estate, a few possessions, and then his life. Here the stoicism of Native American characters, as elsewhere in Steinbeck stories set in Mexico or California, is counterpointed by the universal theme that the establishing of one's integrity and the losing of one's life are a tradeoff, as is clearly the case in our relentlessly violent contemporary society.

Similarly "Junius Maltby" from Pastures is also frequently anthologized, perhaps as instruction to teachers tempted to back down from community criticism. Young Junius's son is raised on the very sort of reading that Steinbeck held in high regard, and yet the way he is being raised arouses community hackles, in spite of the sympathy of the teacher Miss Morgan. Because the boy is being raised as something of a "wild child" without conventional restraints, he must be put into a normally fitting strait jacket, which does at last occur. The story is rife with literary lore, as Steinbeck imputes to Junius many of his favorite readings; and it is also a nutshell encapsulation of Californian values as eventually embodied years later by hippies and "flower children."

Because his stories raise far more questions than they imply judgments, they are seemingly eternally fascinating to the reader. Steinbeck understood both hard toil and knightly quests after the ideal, and his stories set in balance the perils of both. The neglect of his writing in academic and critical circles through the 1950s and 1960s has been replaced by an enormous resurgence of critical and scholarly attention. His endings, even when seemingly tragically final, are ultimately open-ended and provocative of endless discussion. His treatment of human beings as animals with a difference, but basically different animals nevertheless, seems keyed to the new awarenesses of the 1990s and beyond. Boys who grow up relating to horses and women who grow old relating to flowers are all parts of his acknowledgment of the ambiguity of the human condition, so ably reflected in his major short stories.

—John Ditsky

See the essays on "The Chrysanthemums" and The Red Pony.

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Steinbeck, John (Ernst)

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