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One of America’s most treasured novelists, John Steinbeck confused many critics during his lifetime by the broad variation of topics, themes and styles in his writing. His widely acknowledged masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), appeared early in his career, and many critics believe he never repeated the success. Through his active role in politics and his efforts in fiction, essay, and screen writing, however, Steinbeck continued to have an impact on readers until his death in 1968. Today, he is considered one of the foremost American novelists of all time.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A California Native
John Ernst Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 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 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 that would lead to a degree.
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 January 14, 1930. Later that year, Steinbeck first met Edward “Doc” Ricketts, a marine biologist 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 twenty-five-dollar-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 the friends shared a number of concerns and interests that helped to shape Steinbeck’s writing in significant ways. 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.
Tough Times and Eventual Success
Steinbeck published his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929. It was dismissed by critics; even Steinbeck himself concluded that the novel was ”on the whole, utterly worthless.” Making a living as a writer proved difficult, especially with the onset of the Great Depression, a worldwide economic slowdown that began with substantial losses in the American stock market at the end of 1929. Businesses failed, families were forced from their homes, and the added burden of poor agricultural production during the Dust Bowl—a series of dust storms during the 1930s exacerbated by drought and over farming—left millions of Americans without a means of support. At the height of the Depression, one in four able-bodied workers could not find a job.
Steinbeck continued writing, though his following two novels sold poorly. Yet, he had a few fans. One day in 1934, as Steinbeck was actively looking for a new publisher, Pat Covici of the publishing firm Covici-Friede, overheard a Chicago bookseller berating a customer because he had not heard of John Steinbeck. Covici had never 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.
Fortunately for both men, the first book Steinbeck wrote for Covici-Freide, Tortilla Flat (1935), also turned out to be his first success. The novel—a darkly mock-Arthurian and often comic tale of paisanos struggling for food, wine, women, and community—became a bestseller, and won a gold medal award for fiction from the Commonwealth Club of California.
Creating a Classic
Steinbeck’s appreciation of his newfound 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.
Personal tragedy, however, did not diminish Steinbeck’s dedication to his craft. In 1936 he published In Dubious Battle, a brutal strike novel and a far cry from the comic Tortilla Flat. In Dubious Battle was the first book in a trilogy of migrant farmworker novels Steinbeck produced in the 1930s. The second, Of Mice and Men, appeared in 1937. The story of two hoboes who travel together and dream of owning a farm, Of Mice and Men took the themes Steinbeck had worked out on a societal level in his previous novel and brought them down to the personal level with his protagonists Lenny and George. He wrote it both in novella and in play form in order to reach the widest audience possible, and both versions were successful.
Steinbeck’s success with these novels 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 News 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 News and later collected as Their Blood Is Strong (1938)—Steinbeck began his research for what would become The Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck became a national figure in 1939 with the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. This final novel in his migrant-worker trilogy, and the top-selling book of the year, won Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize—the highest national award in the United States for writers. It tells the story of migrant workers during the Dust Bowl. Unable to eke a living out of their own land, many Americans were forced to sell their farms and move to California in hopes of earning a living as migrant farmers.
The publication of Grapes of Wrath changed both Steinbeck’s writing career and his personal life forever. He thought he had taken the novel as far as it could go and began working in other genres. His increasing fame put further strain on his already tumultuous marriage. Around 1940, he began having an affair with the young Gwendolyn “Gwyn” Conger, whom he married almost immediately after Carol sued him for divorce in 1942. Despite their mutual attraction, Steinbeck and Conger’s marriage was never a happy one.
The War and After
The years of World War II—a global conflict that had begun in 1939, but which the United States entered at the end of 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—were hectic for Steinbeck, who had taken advantage of his growing fame to become something of a moral and political counselor for many government officials, including President Franklin Roosevelt. Gwyn wanted a settled life; but, they moved from home to home and were constantly apart while Steinbeck was doing a variety of jobs for various branches of the government. Despite his new marriage and occupations, however, he continued to write, producing the nonfiction work Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942) and the novel The Moon Is Down (1942), which tells the story of the conquest and occupation of a Scandinavian town by a brutal enemy. He also produced numerous newspaper articles, which were published as a collection entitled Once There Was a War in 1958.
In response to soldiers telling him they wanted to read something funny that didn’t remind them of the war, Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row, his first work that could be called fully postmodern. It is a comic work, full of rowdy fun and goodwill. Nevertheless, 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. Its protagonist, Doc, considered to be Steinbeck’s best drawn character, was inspired by his friend Ricketts.
After the war, Steinbeck and his wife moved to New York, where he continued to write and to be involved in political activities. He wrote A Russian Journal (1948) after a trip to the Soviet Union in 1947 during which he gained access to certain parts of the country that were typically closed to visitors from the West. Soviet authorities, however, kept Steinbeck constantly moving and plied with vodka, and the result was a fairly superficial account of life in the country that would soon become America’s most frustratingly unknown foe.
Steinbeck’s homecoming was not a happy one. On May 7, 1948, Steinbeck’s friend, Ricketts, drove his car around a blind turn and into the path of an oncoming train. On Steinbeck’s return to New York, Gwyn, who had grown increasingly irritated that she was raising their two children while her husband traveled around the world, demanded a divorce. Steinbeck moved back to California that September, and in December he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
A Culmination of All His Work
In late May 1949, Steinbeck met Elaine Anderson Scott, a former Broadway stage manager and native Texan. They married on December 28, 1950, in a union that would last for the rest of Steinbeck’s life. Elaine became his traveling partner and confidante, and the two of them traveled extensively around the world, often on political errands. Meanwhile Steinbeck continued to work. In 1948 he had begun research in the morgue of the Salinas-Californian newspaper for his next book, which was to be the culmination of everything he had ever done. East of Eden (1952), a narrative consisting of two interwoven stories: the story of the fictional Trask family and the history in the Salinas Valley of Steinbeck’s mother’s family, the Hamiltons. The book was dedicated to Pat Covici with the statement: ”[H]ere’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it.”
Despite what was perhaps his intention to give up writing fiction, Steinbeck continued to write long after East of Eden was published. Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row, appeared in 1954; the satirical The Short Reign of Pippin IV, based on his experiences in Paris, in 1957; and his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, in 1961.
In 1960, despite his increasingly poor health, Steinbeck took a journey across America and back with his poodle, Charley. 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. The trip did not go well. California depressed him, because he no longer belonged there. The cheerleaders who led crowds in taunting young African American students at a newly desegregated school in New Orleans sickened him. One white hitchhiker’s belligerent racism caused Steinbeck to toss him out of the truck. Nevertheless, the book that came from the trip was a success: Travels with Charley (1962) includes sections of vintage Steinbeck reportage, and sales began at a better rate than for any of his previous works.
Taking the Prize
One morning in 1962, Steinbeck turned on the television expecting to see some news about the Cuban Missile Crisis and instead saw a report that he himself had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Steinbeck was stunned. His great pride in being chosen for the award was nearly overcome by worries that he might not be able to continue as a working writer, due to official responsibilities and the complacency of fame. His declining health and increasing public persona were more powerful than his determination to beat what he thought of as the Nobel’s curse. After two more mildly successful publications, Steinbeck died of emphysema and blockages of the coronary arteries on December 20, 1968.
Works in Literary Context
Steinbeck often puzzled critics during his lifetime because early in his career his style and subject matter seemed to change with each new story, and after World War II, there was a generally acknowledged, but inexplicable decline, in his artistic powers. Now, however, Steinbeck’s work can be seen as a consistently developing vision of man’s relation to his environment. His work forms a bridge between the social realism popular in American writing during the early 1900s, and postmodernism, with environmental themes apparent throughout.
This consistent interest in the environment also helps explain why Steinbeck has been considered a regional writer, or a writer whose works tend to relate only to a particular region. Sometimes used pejoratively, the term does not adequately describe the scope of Steinbeck’s writings, which ranged in setting from the American Midwest to the West to marine environments and even foreign countries.
Popular in the United States during the early half of the twentieth century, social realism focused on ordinary people, rather than on aristocrats or heroes, and their relations with society through their daily existence. It brought attention to widespread social issues such as segregation and poverty, and illuminated the day-to-day life of average Americans. Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath is often considered to be social realism, since the novel focuses on a lower-middle-class family as it struggles with poverty, the journey west, and the almost insurmountable difficulties of starting a new life. However, The Grapes of Wrath also contains elements of mysticism, the idea that humankind’s connection to the land is not only pragmatic but spiritual, in addition to the highly modernist characteristic of irony.
Postmodernism has been defined by Terry Eagleton as ”a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity, and objectivity.” Essentially, postmodernists believe that nothing can be known absolutely; their art, therefore, often incorporates a variety of techniques to view its subjects from numerous perspectives. Cannery Row is considered the first of Steinbeck’s novels that can be placed decisively in the postmodernist era. An extended play on the ways in which language and narrative shape experience, it is both a collection of episodes and a coherent novel. Postmodernist works like this novel can often be compared to a collage, in which many pictures or pieces of pictures are glued together to create a larger effect.
Works in Critical Context
Throughout most of his career, Steinbeck’s work was problematic to critics who could not keep up with his frequent changes in subject matter and tone, and therefore, could not classify his work as belonging to a particular movement or group. Because many of his works were political, their reception often hinged on whether critics agreed with him politically. Even after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, Steinbeck was criticized by many who thought he did not deserve the prize—particularly since his best work had been written more than twenty years before. The New York Times editorial headline read, ”Does a Moral Vision of the Thirties Deserve the Nobel Prize?” and Steinbeck himself fueled criticism by admitting in a press conference that he felt he did not.
The Grapes of Wrath
Despite mixed reactions to his work during his lifetime, The Grapes of Wrath has been almost universally acclaimed as a masterful work. In a review for New Republic, Malcolm Cowley writes that the book ”has the force of the headlong anger that drives ahead from the first chapter to the last, as if the whole six hundred pages were written without stopping.” Cowley places the book ”very high in the category of the great angry books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin that have roused a people to fight against intolerable wrongs.” In a contemporary review of the novel, critic and novelist Christopher Isherwood calls Steinbeck ”a master of realistic writing” and states, ”a writer of Mr. Steinbeck’s caliber can only be insulted by mere praise; for his defects are as interesting as his merits.” Isherwood’s statements suggest that by this time Steinbeck’s reputation as a great writer could be taken for granted, as indeed it was at certain times during his career and has certainly become today.
- Astro, Richard. ”John Steinbeck: A Biographical Portrait.” John Steinbeck: A Dictionary of His Fictional Characters, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973, pp. 1-24.
- Benson, Jackson L. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography. New York: Viking, 1984.
- Eagleton, Terry. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996.
- Fensch, Thomas. Steinbeck and Covici: The Story of Friendship. Middlebury, Vt.: Erikson, 1979.
- Farrell, Keith. John Steinbeck, the Voice of the Land. New York: M. Evans, 1986.
- Hughes, R. S. John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
- Kiernan, Thomas. The Intricate Music: A Biography of John Steinbeck. Boston: Atlantic/Little, Brown, 1979.
- O’Connor, Richard. John Steinbeck. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.
- Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: Holt, 1995.
- Simmonds, Roy S. John Steinbeck: The War Years, 1939-1945. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1996.
- Valjean, Nelson. John Steinbeck: The Errant Knight. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1975.
- Isherwood, Christopher. ”The Tragedy of Eldorado.” Kenyon Review 1, no.4 (Autumn 1939): 450-53.
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