John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968)

John Ernst Steinbeck gained a reputation for writing about the plight of the ordinary working man, and the dispossessed, particularly during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, and articles, and is best-known for his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1940. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962.

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California; his father was County Treasurer, and his mother a teacher. He attended Stanford University, studying marine biology. He never took his degree, but his appreciation of biological processes to do with survival fed into the themes of his writing. He later collaborated with biologist Edward F. Rickett in researching and writing about marine life in the Gulf of California, their co-authored book The Sea of Cortez being published in 1941.

Steinbeck began writing at Stanford, where some of his poems and short stories were published in university magazines. After leaving university he worked briefly as a reporter in New York, then returned to California to pursue his writing while supporting himself with a series of casual jobs, including some agricultural work, which provided first-hand contact with the types of people he depicted in his stories.

His early novels, Cup of Gold (1929), The Pastures of Heaven (1932), To a God Unknown (1935), were not successful in either commercial or critical terms. Tortilla Flat (1935), a humorous picaresque tale about Mexican-Americans, which parallels their lives with tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, brought more recognition, but his first major success came with the publication of the novella Of Mice and Men in 1937. The story tells the ultimately tragic tale of two migrant workers who fail to realise their dreams, and deals with themes - particularly the inability of the poor to change their lives after becoming trapped in circumstances beyond their control - which were realised more fully in The Grapes of Wrath.

In 1937, fearing that his growing literary success might distance him from the lives of ordinary people, and in preparation for writing The Grapes of Wrath, he joined a group of migrant workers travelling from Oklahoma to California, and lived with them in a government camp. These agricultural labourers had had to leave their Oklahoma farms because the land had become unworkable as a result of the severe drought which led to the region becoming known as the ‘Dust Bowl’. It was the time of the Depression, and California could not support the influx of migrants, many of whom starved to death.

The Grapes of Wrath, whose title is taken from the ‘Battle Hymn of the American Republic’, written in 1861, is largely documentary in style, following the journey of one family, the Joads, to California. The novel has a strong political message, and caused controversy by being critical of government policies which contributed to the fate of people like the Joads. In telling the story Steinbeck raises themes which were central to his work, such as the struggles of the poor, man’s inhumanity to man, the destructive effects of selfishness, and the saving power of the family.

During World War II Steinbeck served as a reporter for the New York Tribune, and was based in Britain and the Mediterranean. He wrote anti-Nazi propaganda, including a wartime story called ‘The Moon is Down’ (1943).

His concern with the social hardship of ordinary people continued after the war, resulting in such novels as Cannery Row (1947), which is sometimes seen as idealising the life of the lower-classes, and East of Eden (1953), which updated the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

A number of Steinbeck’s books were made into films, including The Grapes of Wrath, which was directed by John Ford in 1940, and starred Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. East of Eden was filmed in 1955, directed by Elia Kazan, and starred James Dean. Steinbeck himself wrote screenplays, including one based on his own short story The Red Pony (1948), The Forgotten Village (1949), and Viva Zapata! (1952), directed by Elia Kazan.

Steinbeck’s concern for the injustices suffered by the less privileged in society places him in a tradition of American socially-concerned writing, represented for example by Harriet Beecher Stowe with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-52), Upton Sinclair with his novel The Jungle (1906), and John Dos Passos with his trilogy USA (1930-36). Steinbeck sought to expose the oppression of the working man, not just in terms of employer/employee relations, but also the conflicts between ordinary people themselves, who often exploited one another for relatively little gain. Steinbeck offers no vision of Utopia, but does stress the positive values of endurance, companionship, acts of kindness, and the supportive nature of the family.

Steinbeck’s approach to his subject matter displays a humanist view of society, emphasising the huge external forces that bear down on his characters, and their struggles for survival. The conflict between people’s expectations and changes in society, in particular from a pastoral world to a more industrialised one, underpin his work. He displays a belief in human progress, and champions the notion that people can stake out an intellectual or moral claim in their lives, despite the evident hardships many suffer. Steinbeck was not only a social critic, and a chronicler of the Depression era, he was also a great story-teller.

One of the most popular works of his later period was Travels with Charley (1962), in which he recounted his travels around America with his pet poodle. His final work, The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, a modern update of the Arthurian legend, on which he had worked in England, was published posthumously in 1976.

Selected works: Cup of Gold (1929); The Pastures of Heaven (1932); The God Unknown (1933); Tortilla Flat (1935); In Dubious Battle (1936); Saint Katy the Virgin (1936); Nothing so Monstrous (1936); Of Mice and Men (1937); The Red Pony (1937); The Blood is Strong (1938); The Long Valley (1938); The Grapes of Wrath (1939); A Letter to the Friends of Democracy (1940); The Sea of Cortez (1941, with Edward F. Rickett); The Forgotten Village (1941); Bombs Away (1942); The Moon is Down (1942); How Edith McGillicuddy met R.L.S (1943); Steinbeck (1943, ed. Pascal Covici); Cannery Row (1945); The Wayward Bus (1947); The Pearl (1947); A Russian Journal (1948); Burning Bright (1950); East of Eden (1952); Short Novels (1953); Sweet Thursday (1954); The Short Reign of Pippin IV (1957); The Crapshooter (1957); Once There Was War (1958); The Winter of Discontent (1961); Travels with Charley (1962); Journal of a Novel (1969); Steinbeck: a Life in Letters –1902-1968 (1975); The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights (1976).

Authors: Gareth Vaughan, Ian Mackean

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