Steinbeck, John Ernst

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(b. 27 February 1902 in Salinas, California; d. 20 December 1968 in New York City), Nobel–and Pulitzer Prize–winning American writer, noted as a champion of the ordinary working person and for his moral commitment to the traditional ideals of American democracy.

Born and raised in the rural community of Salinas, California, the third of four children and the only son of John Ernst Steinbeck, the county treasurer, and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, a schoolteacher, Steinbeck attended Stanford University following graduation from high school but dropped out before earning a degree. He moved to New York City in 1925 to find work. With the help of relatives, he worked first as a laborer and then as a reporter for the New York American. Finding journalism too sordid for his tastes, he worked his way back to California and settled in Lake Tahoe to write. His first three novels went unpublished, and his first two published novels were dogged by the publishers' financial woes.

In 1935, however, Steinbeck's star began to rise with the publication of Tortilla Flat, which depicted the lives ofMexican Americans in Monterey, California. Readers liked Steinbeck's depiction of impoverished but noble characters, and Steinbeck's reputation soared even higher with the publication of Of Mice and Men (1937), a tale of two ranch hands who hope to buy a place of their own, and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The latter novel tells the story of migrant workers who travel to California in search of a better life but find only degradation and starvation. Steinbeck won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, firmly establishing him as a great American writer.

Steinbeck tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps during World War II but was prevented from serving because of false charges that he was a Communist. (These accusations arose from the controversy surrounding his depiction of the California fruit growers in The Grapes of Wrath.) Instead, Steinbeck worked from June to December 1943 as a special correspondent in the European theater and wrote propaganda pieces for the U.S. government. In 1945 he moved to New York, eventually coming to feel at home there and considering himself a successful transplant to the city.

Steinbeck published East of Eden, a retelling of the biblical Cain and Abel story, in 1952. Although he intended this to be his masterpiece, it was not well received by critics, who compared it unfavorably with The Grapes of Wrath. Throughout the 1950s, his career seemed to be fading, and his antimaterialistic, pro-labor stance, as well as his anger at big business, further alienated a society that was increasingly nervous about socialist and Communist infiltration. Indeed, The Grapes of Wrath was one of the most frequently banned books in the United States in the mid-twentieth century.

Steinbeck was a private person, a loner from his adolescent years, and he based most of his works on people and events he observed, rather than on his own experiences. By 1960, however, he apparently felt that he had lost touch with the ordinary working Americans whose lives he had always celebrated, so he set off on a journey to renew his acquaintance with them. Equipping a three-quarter-ton pickup with a cabin similar to that on a boat, he set out on a three-month, ten-thousand-mile trip with an elderly French poodle named Charley. He documented his journey in Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962). In addition to describing the people and places he saw, the book also contains musings on topics of the time, such as racial tensions, the exodus of people from small towns to cities, the growth of superhighways, and the disappearance of local dialects and customs. Most critics considered the book light and pleasant reading, and the public agreed; it sold well and won the Paperback of the Year Award in 1964.

In 1962 Steinbeck was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature, ostensibly for his novel The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). Most reviewers panned the book, and many critics believed the prize had been awarded mainly because of the quality of Steinbeck's early work. According to Warren French, Steinbeck himself told reporters that he did not think he deserved it. Other critics disagreed. F. W. Watt wrote of Steinbeck, "Like America itself, his work is a vast, fascinating, paradoxical universe: a brash experiment in democracy; a naive quest for understanding at the level of the common man; a celebration of goodness and innocence; a display of chaos, violence, corruption and decadence." In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Steinbeck summed up his view of the writer's mission: "The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love." He also said, "I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."

The Nobel Prize win aroused renewed public interest in Steinbeck's work, and sales of his books soared. In recognition of his status, he was chosen to make a nine-week tour of Europe by the Department of State's Cultural Exchange Program in 1963. In the same year, he was appointed an honorary consultant in American literature to the Library of Congress. Steinbeck campaigned for the reelection of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and on 14 September 1964 Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Following the 1964 election, Steinbeck remained one of Johnson's intimate advisers, even spending a weekend at the presidential retreat, Camp David. In 1966 Johnson appointed Steinbeck to the National Arts Council.

In 1965 Steinbeck began writing a weekly column for Newsday in which he decried the turbulence and lack of respect for law and order that he saw among younger Americans, who were increasingly rebelling against traditional values. Steinbeck originally wrote the column from his Sag Harbor, New York, home, but later he reported from Ireland, Israel, and South Vietnam. While in Vietnam, he strongly supported President Johnson's increasingly unpopular war policies, a view opposed by almost every other major American writer.

Steinbeck was married three times and had two children. His first wife, Carol Henning, played an important role in his initial literary success, but they were divorced in 1943 after thirteen years of marriage. He married the singer Gwyn Conger, who gave birth to their two sons, on March 29 of the same year. Following a bitter divorce in 1948, Steinbeck married Elaine Scott on 29 December 1950. Steinbeck died of a heart attack in New York City on 20 December 1968. He is buried in Salinas, California.

The most important collections of Steinbeck's papers are in the Stanford University Libraries; the University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library; the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin; the Morgan Library in New York City; the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California; and the Steinbeck Research Center at San Jose State University. Biographies of Steinbeck include F. W. Watt, John Steinbeck (1962); Warren G. French, John Steinbeck (1975); and Jackson J. Benson, True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography (1984). Critical examinations of Steinbeck's work include Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, eds., John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews (1996), and John Ditsky, John Steinbeck and the Critics (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (21 Dec. 1968).

Kelly Winters

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Steinbeck, John Ernst

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