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Steinbeck, John

John Steinbeck

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

American writer

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

Early life

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

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

Begins writing seriously

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

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

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

Other subjects

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

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

Later decline

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

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

For More Information

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

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

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

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

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

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John Ernst Steinbeck

John Ernst Steinbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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Steinbeck, John

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

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

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Steinbeck, John

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

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Steinbeck, John

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck is considered one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century.

Steinbeck was born into a comfortable life on February 27, 1902. His parents were highly respected within their California community, and he was the only son of four children. A loner by nature, Steinbeck began writing short stories at the age of fifteen.

The young author graduated high school and attended Stanford University. He took only those courses that would help him achieve his goal of becoming a published writer and did not earn a degree. From 1919 to 1925 he combined college studies with a job at the Spreckels Sugar Company. From 1925 to 1929 he worked at a resort in Lake Tahoe. He quit his job in late 1929 and married Carol Henning early the following year. His wife was outgoing and fun-loving, the perfect balance to his own shy nature. As the typist and proofreader of his book manuscripts, she contributed a great deal to his eventual success.

Although Steinbeck managed to publish a few short stories in the early 1930s, he remained largely unknown until the publication of his first novel, Tortilla Flat, in 1935.

In the previous year, Steinbeck had interviewed a farm-labor organizer who was hiding from the law after having taken part in a 1933 cotton strike in California. The interview had a major impact on the author, and the migrant workers in rural America during the Great Depression (1929–41) became the subject for several of his greatest novels, including Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Steinbeck received the Pulitzer Prize for his 1939 novel, which is considered the masterpiece of his career.

Steinbeck served as a foreign correspondent in World War II (1939–45). Much of his nonfiction from that era was collected and published in book form during the 1940s and 1950s. He continued publishing fiction after the war. His best known work from this time was The Pearl (1947), a novella about a poor Mexican fisherman who discovers a valuable pearl that brings nothing but bad luck.

Steinbeck had his own share of bad luck when his wife announced in 1948 that she had never loved him and had been unfaithful to him for years. Steinbeck, overcome with shock and heartache, suffered a major nervous breakdown. He eventually married again in 1950, but although his marriage to Elaine Scott was generally happy, Steinbeck had grown uncertain of his writing ability and was riddled with self-doubt.

As a result, the 1950s was a rather unproductive decade for the writer. He did publish several novels, including the epic East of Eden in 1952, but his failure to produce another critically acclaimed novel cemented his frustrations. His 1961 novel The Winter of Our Discontent, arguably his most ambitious, studied the moral disintegration of a man of high ideals. The following year, he published an account of his travels across America with his pet poodle. Travels with Charley was a popular book, yet Steinbeck felt himself to be a failure as a writer. No one was more stunned than he when he received the Nobel Prize in 1962. Critics were harsh and attacked Steinbeck's talent. As a result, he never wrote another word of fiction.

He went to Vietnam as a war correspondent in 1966. His reporting reflected his pro-war stance and caused him to fall into disfavor with intellectuals who earlier had admired his social commitments. While overseas, he sustained a back injury that ultimately led to a decline in health. He died in New York City in 1968 at the age of sixty-six. His novel The Grapes of Wrath is considered a literary classic of the twentieth century.

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Steinbeck, John

STEINBECK, JOHN

John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr., (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) was an American writer and winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature. His 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath is the single most important literary work dealing with the Great Depression.

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, and the area around Salinas became the setting of his best books. He graduated from Salinas High School in 1919 and attended Stanford University off and on without completing a degree. His first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), about the seventeenth-century pirate Henry Morgan, and his next two books, Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), received little attention. Carol Henning, who became his first wife in 1930, helped him focus his fiction on the suffering resulting from the Depression, and Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist he met shortly after his marriage, helped crystallize Steinbeck's vague notions about group behavior, individualism, and ecology. Ricketts's scientific outlook tempered Steinbeck's inveterate sentimentality. Tortilla Flat (1935), Steinbeck's first financially successful book, was the first to treat marginalized characters he had observed first hand. In Dubious Battle (1936) concerned a strike among migrant fruit pickers. Of Mice and Men (1937) is the tragic story of a pair of itinerant ranch hands. Steinbeck's greatest achievement, the crucial literary text of the Depression, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), is the story of an Oklahoma family who leaves the Dust Bowl and heads for California in search of the American dream. The Grapes of Wrath, a huge best-seller and Pulitzer Prize winner in 1940, assured Steinbeck's place in American literature.

Although Steinbeck published eighteen more books in his lifetime, nothing afterwards ever matched the critical success of The Grapes of Wrath. His writing after the 1930s lacks the power of his Depression novels. Perhaps what critics have regarded as Steinbeck's "decline" can be attributed to the prosperity after the war and his own financial success, which may have cost Steinbeck his affinity with those who are down and out. The divorce from his first wife in 1943 and the death of Ed Ricketts in 1948 contributed to his turning away from the concerns of the Depression-era novels. His moving to New York from California cut him off from the region so central to his best works. His return to that setting in Cannery Row (1945) and East of Eden (1952) resulted in books that were thematically incoherent and sentimental. Despite the critics' views about his later work, his books remained popular with the reading public. Travels with Charley (1962), an account of driving across the United States with his pet poodle to get a sense of the mood of the country in the 1960s, sold well but did not enhance his standing with literary critics. The Nobel Prize for literature that he was awarded in 1962 was clearly for his work more than two decades earlier. He died in New York in 1968. His ashes, taken across the country by his third wife and one of his sons from his second marriage, were interred in the Salinas cemetery.

See Also: GRAPES OF WRATH, THE; LITERATURE; OKIES.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

French, Warren G. John Steinbeck's Fiction Revisited. 1994.

Kiernan, Thomas. The Intricate Music: A Biography of John Steinbeck, 1979.

Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. 1995.

Steinbeck, Elaine, and Robert Wallsten, eds. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. 1975.

Austin Wilson

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Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.