John Steinbeck III (February 27, 1902—December 20, 1968) was one of the best-known and most widely read American writers of the 20th century. He wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 and the novella Of Mice and Men, published in 1937. In all, he wrote twenty-five books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books and several collections of short stories. In 1962 Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley region of California, a culturally diverse place of rich migratory and immigrant history. This upbringing imparted a regionalistic flavor to his writing, giving many of his works a distinct sense of place. Steinbeck moved briefly to New York City, but soon returned home to California to begin his career as a writer. Most of his earlier work dealt with subjects familiar to him from his formative years. An exception was his first novel Cup of Gold which concerns the pirate Henry Morgan, whose adventures had captured Steinbeck's imagination as a child.
In his subsequent novels, Steinbeck found a more authentic voice by drawing upon direct memories of his life in California. Later he used real historical conditions and events in the first half of 20th century America, which he had experienced first-hand as a reporter. Steinbeck often populated his stories with struggling characters; his works examined the lives of the working class and migrant workers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. His later body of work reflected his wide range of interests, including marine biology, politics, religion, history, and mythology. One of his last published works was Travels with Charley, a travelogue of a road trip he took in 1960 to rediscover America. He died in 1968 in New York of a heart attack and his ashes are interred in Salinas.
Seventeen of his works, including The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), and East of Eden (1952), went on to become Hollywood films (some appeared multiple times, i.e., as remakes), and Steinbeck also achieved success as a Hollywood writer, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Story in 1944 for Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat.
John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He was of German American and Irish American descent. Johann Adolf Großteinbeck (i.e. Grossteinbeck), Steinbeck's grandfather, changed the family name from Grossteinbeck to Steinbeck when he migrated to the United States. His father, John Steinbeck, Sr., served as the Monterey County Treasurer while his mother, Olive (Hamilton) Steinbeck, a former school teacher, fostered Steinbeck's love of reading and writing.
At the time of his childhood, Salinas was a small Californian town. Though growing larger, more prosperous, and modern, it was still essentially a rough-and-tumble frontier place, set amid some of the world's most fertile land. Steinbeck spent his summers working on nearby ranches and later with migrants on the huge Spreckels ranch. During this time, Steinbeck became aware of the harsher aspects of the migrant life in the region and of the darker side of human nature-- material which was to be explored in works such as Of Mice and Men. He also explored the surrounding Salinas Valley, walking across local forests, fields and farms. This material was to provide background for most of his short stories.
Steinbeck graduated from Salinas High School in 1919. He then attended Stanford University intermittently until 1925, eventually leaving without a degree, as he disliked the university lifestyle. From Stanford, he traveled to New York City and held various temporary jobs while pursuing his dream as a writer. However, he was unable to get any of his work published and returned to California where for a time he was resort handyman in Lake Tahoe.
In California he continued to write. His first novel, Cup of Gold was published in 1929. It is based on the privateer Henry Morgan's life and death. It centers on Morgan's assault and sacking of the city of Panama, sometimes referred to as the 'Cup of Gold', and the woman fairer than the sun reputed to be found there.
After Cup of Gold Steinbeck produced three shorter works between 1931 and 1933: The Pastures of Heaven, published in 1932, consisted of twelve interconnected stories about a valley in Monterey, California, which was discovered by a Spanish corporal while chasing runaway American Indian slaves. In 1933 Steinbeck brought out two works: The Red Pony is a short 100-page, four-chapter story, which recollects memories from Steinbeck's childhood. To a God Unknown follows the life of a homesteader and his family in California, depicting a character with a primal and pagan worship of the land he works. He lived for many years in a cottage in Pacific Grove owned by his father, Ernest, who provided John paper on which to write his manuscripts.
Steinbeck achieved his first critical success with the novel Tortilla Flat (1935), which won the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal. The book portrays the adventures of a young group of classless and usually homeless men in Monterey, set in the era after World War I, just before U.S. prohibition. These characters, who are portrayed in ironic comparison to mythologic knights on a quest, reject nearly all of the standard morals of American society in enjoyment of a dissolute life centering around wine, lust, comradery, and petty thievery. The book was made into a film of the same name in 1942, starring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, and John Garfield.
The stage adaptation of Of Mice and Men was a hit, starring Broderick Crawford as the mentally child-like but physically powerful itinerant farmhand "Lennie," and Wallace Ford as Lennie's companion, "George." However, Steinbeck refused to travel from his home in California to attend any performance of the play during its New York run, telling Kaufman that the play as it existed in his own mind was "perfect" and that anything presented on stage would only be a disappointment. Steinbeck would ultimately write only two stage plays (the second an adaptation of The Moon Is Down).
Of Mice and Men was rapidly adapted into a 1939 Hollywood film, in which Lon Chaney, Jr. (who had portrayed the role in the Los Angeles production of the play) was cast as Lennie and Burgess Meredith as "George. Steinbeck followed this wave of success with The Grapes of Wrath (1939), based on newspaper articles he had written in San Francisco. The novel would be considered by many to be his finest work. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, even as it was made into a notable film directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the part.
The success of The Grapes of Wrath, however, was not free of controversy, as Steinbeck's liberal political views, portrayal of the ugly side of capitalism, and mythical reinterpretation of the historical events of the Dust Bowl migrations led to backlash against the author, especially close to home. In fact, claiming the book was both obscene and misrepresented conditions in the county, the Kern County Board of Supervisors banned the book from the county's public schools and libraries in August 1939. This ban lasted until January 1941.
Of the controversy, Steinbeck wrote, "The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. The latest is a rumor started by them that the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them. I'm frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing. It is completely out of hand; I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy."
The film versions of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men (by two different movie studios) were in production simultaneously, allowing Steinbeck to spend a full day on the set of The Grapes of Wrath and the next day on the set of Of Mice and Men.
Ed Ricketts had a tremendous impact on Steinbeck's writing. Not only did he help Steinbeck while he was in the process of writing, but he aided Steinbeck in his social adventures. Steinbeck frequently took small trips with Ricketts along the California coast, to collect the biological specimens which Ricketts sold for a living, and to give Steinbeck a vacation from his writing.
Ricketts' impact on Steinbeck was so great that Steinbeck decided to base his character "Doc" in the novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday on Ricketts. Steinbeck's close relationship with Ricketts would end with the coming of the second World War, and as Steinbeck moved away from Salinas, California, to pursue a life away from his wife Carol.
During the war, he continued to work in film, writing Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), and the film A Medal for Benny (1945), about paisanos from Tortilla Flat going to war. John Steinbeck later requested that his name be removed from the credits of Lifeboat, because he believed the final version of the film had racist undertones.
His novel The Moon is Down (1942), about the Socrates-inspired spirit of resistance in a Nazi-occupied village in northern Europe, was made into a film almost immediately. It was presumed that the unnamed country of the novel was Norway, and in 1945 Steinbeck received the Haakon VII Medal of freedom for his literary contributions to the Norwegian resistance movement.
In 1948 Steinbeck again toured the Soviet Union, together with renowned photographer Robert Capa. They visited Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi and the ruined Stalingrad. He wrote a humorous report-book about their experiences, A Russian Journal, which was illustrated with Capa's photos. Avoiding political topics and reporting about the life of simple Soviet peasants and workers, Steinbeck tried to generate more understanding toward people living in the Soviet Union, in a time when anti-Communism was widespread in the U.S. and the danger of war between the two countries was imminent. In the same year he was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1952, Steinbeck appeared as the on-screen narrator of 20th Century Fox's film, O. Henry's Full House. Although Steinbeck later admitted he was uncomfortable before the camera, he provided interesting introductions to several filmed adaptations of short stories by the legendary writer O. Henry. About the same time, Steinbeck recorded readings of several of his short stories for Columbia Records; despite some obvious stiffness, the recordings provide a literal record of Steinbeck's deep, resonant voice.
Steinbeck's next to last major work, Travels with Charley (subtitle: In Search of America) is a travelogue of a coast-to-coast road trip he took across the United States in 1960, in a camper truck, with his standard poodle Charley. In the work, Steinbeck misses his lost youth and lost roots, and both criticizes and praises America on many levels. According to Thom Steinbeck, the author's older son, the real reason for the trip was that Steinbeck knew he was dying and wanted to see his country one last time. Thom says he was surprised that his stepmother (Steinbeck's wife) allowed Steinbeck to make the trip, since Steinbeck's heart disease put him at risk of dying without warning at any time.
Steinbeck's last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, was written in 1961. The book examines moral decline in America through a tragic story. The book reflected Steinbeck's increasing concern over the loss of integrity amongst members of society and the subsequent moral decay; in the book, the protagonist Ethan, like Steinbeck grows discontented both with his own moral decline and of those around him. The book is quite different in tone to Steinbeck's amoral and ecological description of the innocent thievery of the protagonists of his earlier works such as Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. Like many of Steinbeck's works, his last one was critically savaged. Many reviewers saw the quality and importance of the novel but were again disappointed, as many were still hoping for a work similar to the Grapes of Wrath.
In 1967, at the behest of Newsday magazine, Steinbeck went to Vietnam to report on the war there. Thinking of the Vietnam War as a heroic venture, he was considered a Hawk for his position on that war. His sons both served in Vietnam prior to his death, and Steinbeck visited one son in the battlefield (at one point being allowed to man a machine-gun watch position at night at a firebase, while his son and other members of his platoon slept).
In accordance with his wishes, his body was cremated and an urn containing his ashes was interred at his family gravesite at Garden of Memories Memorial Park in Salinas. His ashes were placed with those of the Hamiltons (grandparents). His third wife, Elaine was buried with him in 2004. He had earlier written to his doctor that he felt deeply "in his bones" that he would not survive his physical death, and that the biological end of his life was the final end to it.
After Steinbeck's death, his incomplete novel based on the King Arthur legends, Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights was finally published, in 1976.
The day after Steinbeck's death in New York City, reviewer Charles Poore wrote in the New York Times: "John Steinbeck's first great book was his last great book. But Good Lord, what a book that was and is: The Grapes of Wrath." Poore noted a "preachiness" in Steinbeck's work, "as if half his literary inheritance came from the best of Mark Twain—and the other half from the worst of Cotton Mather." But he asserted that "Steinbeck didn't need the Nobel Prize—the Nobel judges needed him." Poore concluded:
"His place in [U.S.] literature is secure. And it lives on in the works of innumerable writers who learned from him how to present the forgotten man unforgettably."
Many of Steinbeck's works are often included on required reading lists in American high schools. His works are often read in other countries, in particular, in schools in Canada and the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom Of Mice and Men is one of the key texts used by the examining body AQA for its English Literature GCSE. A study by the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature in the United States found that Of Mice and Men was one of the ten most frequently read books in both public high and independent schools.
Steinbeck's works have aroused controversy. For example, at the time of its release The Grapes of Wrath was banned by several school boards, who believed his work to be obscene and misrepresentational. In one case, Kern County Board of Supervisors banned the book from the county's public schools and libraries in August 1939. The Grapes of Wrath was also burned in Steinbeck's home town of Salinas on two occasions. Controversy however, still surrounds some of his work today; Of Mice and Men as another example, was banned in 2003 by a school board in Mississippi who considered the book's use of profanity as a danger to its students. The American Library Association states that Steinbeck was one of the ten most challenged and banned authors from 1990 to 2004, with Of Mice and Men the sixth highest challenged out of the 100 most frequently challenged books in the United States.
Steinbeck's boyhood home, a turreted Victorian building in downtown Salinas, has been preserved and restored by the Valley Guild, a nonprofit organization. Fixed menu lunches are served Monday through Saturday, and the house is open for tours during the summer on Sunday afternoons.
The National Steinbeck Center, two blocks away at One Main Street is the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to a single author. Dana Gioia (chair of the National Endowment for the Arts) told an audience at the Center, "This is really the best modern literary shrine in the country, and I've seen them all." Its Steinbeckiana includes Rocinante, the camper truck in which Steinbeck made the crosscountry trip described in "Travels with Charley." A detailed breakdown of all of Steinbecks work are narrated through audio and visual materials including some original manuscripts, first editions and personal possessions.
The cottage his father owned on Eleventh Street in Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck wrote some of his earliest books, has also survived.
In Monterey, "Doc" Ed Ricketts' laboratory has survived (though is not yet open to the public) and at the corner which Steinbeck describes in Cannery Row, also the store which once belonged to Lee Chong, and the adjacent vacant lot frequented by the hobos of Cannery Row. The sardine cannery next to Doc's lab has long stopped operation as a cannery, and is now the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which contains some historical treasures, including a selection of Doc's library books. The town displays a series of civic links to Steinbeck's work including an avenue of flags from famous characters from Cannery Row, as well as a series of historical display signs.
On December 5, 2007 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted Steinbeck into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts. His son, author Thomas Steinbeck accepted the award on his behalf. In 1979, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp featuring Steinbeck, starting the Postal Service’s Literary Arts series honoring American writers.
Steinbeck complained publicly about government harassment. In a 1942 letter to United States Attorney General Francis Biddle he wrote "Do you suppose you could ask Edgar's boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I am an enemy alien. It is getting tiresome". The FBI issued disingenuous denials that Steinbeck was not "under investigation". In fact, Steinbeck was indeed the object of intense FBI scrutiny. He was not under investigation, which is a technical term used by the FBI when it seeks to collect evidence in connection with a specific crime.
Steinbeck was also screened for his political beliefs by Army Intelligence during World War II to determine his suitability for an officer's commission. It found him ideologically unqualified. In later years, he would be criticized from the left by those who accused him of insufficient ideological commitment to socialism. In 1948 a women's socialist group in Rome condemned Steinbeck for converting to "the camp of war and anti-Sovietism". Then in a 1955 article in the Daily Worker his portrayal of the American Left was criticised.
In 1967, Steinbeck traveled to Vietnam to report on the war, and his sympathetic portrait of the United States Army caused the New York Post to denounce him for betraying his liberal past. Steinbeck's biographer, Jay Parini, has suggested that Steinbeck's affection for Lyndon B. Johnson, whom he considered a friend, influenced his view of the situation in Vietnam.
Steinbeck was a close associate of playwright Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. In June 1959, Steinbeck took a personal and professional risk by standing up for his companion, who was held in contempt of the United States Congress for refusing to name names in the House Un-American Activities Committee trials. Steinbeck called the period one of the "strangest and most frightening times a government and people have ever faced."
Posthumous publishings include: