Steinbeck, John (1902-1968)

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Steinbeck, John (1902-1968)

A native Californian, writer John Steinbeck built his career on stories based primarily in Northern and Central California, around his hometown of Salinas, near Monterey. Best known for the novels Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and East of Eden (1952), along with numerous short stories, Steinbeck also published non-fiction, plays, and screenplays. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, and, in 1962, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Steinbeck's works have been widely read and have been the subject of many motion pictures.

Born John Ernest Steinbeck in the fertile valley of Salinas, California, inland from Monterey Bay, Steinbeck grew up in an environment caught between the transition from farming and ranching to the "respectable culture" of universities and businessmen. Steinbeck's parents were middle-class citizens of Salinas (his father served as Monterey County Treasurer and his mother was a schoolteacher), but John himself often worked as a laborer on nearby farms. Attending Stanford University as a marine biology major, Steinbeck left without completing his degree, having made the decision to try making his living at writing, first in New York and then back in California. His early works, Cup of Gold (1929), Pastures of Heaven (1932), and To A God Unknown (1933), went largely unnoticed until the publication of Tortilla Flats (1935), which described the exploits of a group of Paisanos (Mexican-Americans) living in Monterey. Steinbeck's reputation as an advocate for farm labor organization began with the publication of In Dubious Battle (1936), which recounts the efforts of farm labor organizers during a fruit pickers strike. His next work, Of Mice and Men (1937), was first conceived as a stage play and was produced simultaneously as a play and a novel. The play received the Drama Critics' Circle Award, and the novel, the compelling story of two itinerant farm hands, firmly established Steinbeck as a major California writer.

Steinbeck's most acclaimed work, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), has become a classic work of the Depression era. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 in addition to being made into a classic motion picture by John Ford that same year. Following the success of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck concentrated on non-fiction works such as Sea of Cortez (with Edward F. Ricketts, 1941) and Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942). During World War II, he worked as a war correspondent—his articles were published collectively as Once There was a War in 1958. He returned to fiction with Cannery Row (1945), Sweet Thursday (1954), The Red Pony (1945), The Pearl (1947), and his most ambitious novel, East Of Eden (1952), which tells the stories of three generations of the Trask family, focusing on the conflict between two brothers. In the 1960s Steinbeck once again returned to non-fiction with Travels with Charly in Search of America (1962) and America and Americans (1966). In addition to having many of his works adapted for the screen, including Of Mice and Men (1939 and 1992), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Tortilla Flat (1942), The Moon is Down (1943), The Pearl (1947), The Red Pony (1949), East of Eden (1955), and Cannery Row (1982), Steinbeck himself wrote several original screenplays, including Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) and Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata (1952).

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Steinbeck described his belief in the power of literature to improve the condition of humankind: "I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature." The realism of his writing, along with the intensity of his belief in the transformative power of literature, has helped develop an American literary style, which influenced the protest writings, both literary and musical, of the late 1950s and 1960s.

—Charles J. Shindo

Further Reading:

Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York, Viking, 1984.

Davis, Robert. Steinbeck: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Fensch, Thomas. Conversations with John Steinbeck. Jackson, University of Mississippi Press, 1988.

Lisca, Peter. John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth. New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978.

Steinbeck, Elaine, and Robert Wallsten, editors. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. New York, Viking Penguin, 1975.

Steinbeck, John. The Portable Steinbeck. New York, Viking, 1946.

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Steinbeck, John (1902-1968)

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