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Steinbeck, Johnfree

(27 February 1902–20 December 1968)
  • Susan Shillinglaw

John Steinbeck.

Charcoal on paper, 1935, by James Fitzgerald.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Steinbeck, John (27 February 1902–20 December 1968), author, was born John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr., in Salinas, California, the son of John Ernst Steinbeck, a businessman, accountant, and manager, and Olive Hamilton, a former teacher. As a child growing up in the fertile and sharply beautiful Salinas Valley—dubbed early in the century the “Salad Bowl of the Nation”—Steinbeck learned to appreciate his environment, not only the verdant hills surrounding Salinas, but also the nearby Pacific coast, where his family spent summer vacations. “I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers,” he wrote in the opening chapter of East of Eden (1952). “I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like.” The observant, shy, but often mischievous only son had, for the most part, a happy childhood growing up with two older sisters, one adored younger sister, an assertive mother, and a quiet, self-contained father. Never wealthy, the family was nonetheless prominent in the small town of 3,000, for both parents engaged in community activities. Mr. Steinbeck was a Mason; Mrs. Steinbeck, a member of Eastern Star. Children of immigrants, the elder Steinbecks established their identities by sending deep roots into the community. Their son, on the other hand, was something of a rebel and a loner. Respectable Salinas circumscribed the restless and imaginative young man. Encouraged by his freshman English teacher, he decided at age fifteen that he wished to be a writer and spent hours as a teenager living in a world of his own making, writing stories and poems in his upstairs bedroom.

To please his parents, he enrolled at Stanford University in 1919; to please himself, he signed on only for courses that interested him: classical and British literature, creative writing, a smattering of science. The president of the English Club said that Steinbeck, who regularly attended meetings to read his stories aloud, “had no other interests or talents that I could make out. He was a writer, but he was that and nothing else” (Benson, p. 69). Writing was, indeed, his obsession. For five years the struggling author dropped in and out of the university, eventually taking off fall quarters to work for Spreckels Sugar in the factory near Salinas or on company ranches spread up and down the state. He worked closely with migrants and itinerants, and that association deepened his empathy for workers, the disenfranchised, the lonely, and the dislocated—an empathy that is a defining characteristic of his best work. Without taking a degree, he left Stanford for good in 1925, briefly tried construction work and newspaper reporting in New York City, and then returned to his native state in order to find leisure to hone his craft. During a three-year stint as a caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate, he found the time both to write several drafts of his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), and, at length, to woo a young woman vacationing at Lake Tahoe, Carol Henning, a San Jose native. After their marriage in 1930, he and Carol settled into the Steinbeck family’s summer cottage in Pacific Grove, she to search for jobs to support them, he to continue writing.

Works of the 1930s

During the 1930s Steinbeck wrote most of his best California fiction, from the stories composed in 1933–1934 and collected in The Long Valley (1938), to his recognized masterpieces: Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). But it took him the early years of the decade to test his stride, to polish his style, and to chart his fictional terrain. The prose in his first novel—the tale of Henry Morgan, pirate—is lush; the artist who loved words strikes exotic chords and burdens sentences with modifiers. In the other apprentice novels, To a God Unknown (1933) and The Pastures of Heaven (1932), Latinate phrases are trimmed, adjectives are struck, and the setting shifts to California. To a God Unknown, second written and third published, tells of patriarch Joseph Wayne’s quest to tame and, at the same time, worship the land. Mystical and powerful, the novel testifies to Steinbeck’s awareness of an essential bond between man and nature. In a journal entry kept while working on this novel—a practice he continued all his life—the young author wrote, “The trees and the muscled mountains are the world—but not the world apart from man—the world and man—the one inseparable unit man and his environment. Why they should ever have been understood as being separate I do not know.” His conviction that characters must be seen in the context of their environments remained constant throughout his career. His was not a man-dominated universe but an interrelated whole, where species and the environment were seen to interact and where commensal bonds between people, among families, and with nature were acknowledged. The author observes life with a kind of scientific detachment, as The Pastures of Heaven demonstrates. Set in another tight California valley, this collection of loosely connected stories traces the lives of troubled, lonely, vulnerable farm families. By 1933 Steinbeck had found his terrain, had chiseled a prose style that was more naturalistic and far less strained, and had claimed his people—not the respectable, smug Salinas burghers, but those on the edges of polite society. Steinbeck’s California fiction, from To a God Unknown to East of Eden, envisions the dreams and defeats of common people shaped by the environments they inhabit.

Influential Figures in Steinbeck’s Life

Undoubtedly Steinbeck’s holistic vision was determined both by his early years roaming the Salinas hills and by his long and deep friendship with the remarkable Edward Flanders Ricketts, a marine biologist. Founder of Pacific Biological Laboratory, a marine lab eventually housed on Cannery Row in Monterey, Ricketts was a careful observer of intertidal life: “I grew to depend on his knowledge and on his patience in research,” Steinbeck writes in “About Ed Ricketts,” a lyrical tribute composed after his friend’s 1948 death and used as the preface to The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). But Ricketts’s influence on Steinbeck struck far deeper than the common chord of detached observation. Ricketts was a lover of Gregorian chant and Bach, Spengler and Krishnamurti, and Walt Whitman and Li Po. His acceptance of people as they were and of life as he found it was remarkable, articulated by what he called nonteleological or “is” thinking. Steinbeck adapted the term and the stance. His fiction examines “what is.” The working title for Of Mice and Men was “Something That Happened.” Several seminal “Doc” figures in Steinbeck’s California fiction, all wise observers of life, epitomize the idealized stance: Doc Burton in In Dubious Battle, Slim in Of Mice and Men, Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, Lee in East of Eden, and of course Doc himself in Cannery Row (1945) and the sequel, the rollicking Sweet Thursday (1954). Ricketts, patient and thoughtful, a poet and a scientist, helped ground the author’s ideas. He was Steinbeck’s mentor, alter ego, and soul mate. Considering the depth of his eighteen-year friendship with Ricketts, it is hardly surprising that the bond acknowledged most frequently in Steinbeck’s oeuvre is friendship between and among men.

Steinbeck’s social consciousness of the 1930s was ignited by an equally compelling figure in his life, his wife Carol. She helped edit his prose, urged him to cut the Latinate phrases, typed his manuscripts, suggested titles, and offered ways to restructure. To write, Steinbeck needed buffers to keep the world at bay, and the gregarious and witty Carol willingly and eagerly fulfilled that role. In 1935, having finally published his first popular success with tales of Monterey’s paisanos, Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck, goaded by Carol, attended a few meetings of nearby Carmel’s John Reed Club. Although he found the group’s zealotry distasteful, he, like so many intellectuals of the 1930s, found the communists’ stance unassailable: workers suffered. Intending to write a “biography of a strikebreaker,” he interviewed a fugitive organizer, and from the words of that hounded man came not a biography but one of the best strike novels written in the twentieth century, In Dubious Battle. Not a partisan novel, it dissects with a steady hand both the ruthless organizers and the grasping landowners. The author focuses not on who will win the struggle between organizers and farmers but on how profound is the effect on the workers trapped in between, manipulated by both interests.

National Acclaim

At the height of his powers, Steinbeck followed this large canvas with two books that round out what might be called his labor trilogy. The tightly focused Of Mice and Men was one of the first in a long line of “experiments,” a word he often used to identify a forthcoming project. This “play-novelette,” a book that he intended to be both a novella and a script for a play, is a tightly drafted study of bindle stiffs whose dreams he intended to represent the universal longings for a home, “the earth longings of a Lennie who was not to represent insanity at all but the inarticulate and powerful yearning of all men,” he wrote his agent. Both the text and the critically acclaimed 1937 Broadway play (which won the Drama Critics Circle Award for best play that year) made Steinbeck a household name, assuring his popularity and, for some, his infamy. (The book’s language shocked many, and it is still listed with frequency on lists of “objectionable reading” or “banned books” for secondary school students.)

Steinbeck’s next novel intensified popular debate about his gritty subjects, his uncompromising sympathy for the disenfranchised, and his “crass” language. The Grapes of Wrath sold out an advance edition of 19,804 by mid-April 1939, was selling 10,000 copies a week by early May, and won the Pulitzer Prize for the year (1940). Published at the apex of the depression, the book about dispossessed farmers forced west captured the decade’s angst as well as the nation’s legacy of fierce individualism, visionary prosperity, and determined westward movement. It was, like the best of Steinbeck’s novels, informed in part by documentary zeal and in part by Steinbeck’s ability to trace mythic and biblical patterns. Lauded by critics nationwide for its scope and intensity, the book attracted an equally vociferous minority opinion. Oklahomans said that the story of the dispossessed Joads was a “dirty, lying, filthy manuscript,” in the words of Congressman Lyle Boren. Californians claimed the novel was a scourge on the state’s munificence, and an indignant Kern County, its migrant population burgeoning, banned the book well into World War II.

The author abandoned the field, exhausted from two years of research trips and personal commitment to the migrants’ woes, from a five-month push to write the final version, from a deteriorating marriage to Carol, and from an unnamed physical malady. He retreated to Ricketts and science, announcing his intention to study seriously marine biology and to plan a collecting trip to the Sea of Cortez. The text Steinbeck and Ricketts published in 1941, Sea of Cortez (reissued in 1951 without Ricketts’s catalog of species as The Log from the Sea of Cortez), tells the story of that expedition. It does more, however. The log portion that Steinbeck wrote (from Ricketts’s notes) in 1941—after having worked on a film in Mexico, The Forgotten Village (1941), and struggling with a manuscript about Cannery Row bums, “God in the Pipes”—contains his and Ricketts’s philosophical musings as well as keen observations on Mexican peasantry, hermit crabs, and “dryball” scientists. Quipped Lewis Gannett, there is “more of the whole man, John Steinbeck, than any of his novels.”

Less Successful Years

With the exception of the knotty and underrated Cannery Row, composed immediately after he returned from a four-month stint overseas as a war correspondent in 1943, Steinbeck’s work of the 1940s was less successful. His determination to shift directions was real enough. After writing The Grapes of Wrath, he declared that the novel was dead. He explored divergent paths: filmmaker, biologist, documentary historian (Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team [1942]), and journalist. As war correspondent, he could make the commonplace intriguing (writing about the popularity of the song “Lilli Marlene” or his driver in London, Big Train Mulligan) and the uncommon riveting (as in his participation in a diversionary mission off the Italian coast). These columns were later collected in Once There Was a War (1958), and his postwar trip to Russia with Robert Capa in 1947 resulted in A Russian Journal (1948). During the 1940s Steinbeck published what many viewed as slight volumes, each a disappointment to critics who expected another tome to weigh in next to The Grapes of Wrath. By far the most fulsomely reviewed and controversial book of the decade was his first novel after Grapes, The Moon Is Down (1942). Set in an unnamed Northern European village, this play/novelette (his second experiment with this form he had invented) tells of a town’s resistance to what is obviously a Nazi invasion. The book, distributed by underground presses in occupied countries, inspired European readers and appalled many Americans. Two influential critics, James Thurber and Clifton Fadiman, declared in the nation’s most prestigious circulars that Steinbeck was “soft” on Germans—his were too understandably human—and that his text in fact threatened the war effort because the author suggested that resistance meant a dogged belief in democratic ideals. Critics’ barbs rankled the sensitive writer, as they had for years and would continue to throughout his career. Reviewers seemed either to misunderstand his biological naturalism or to expect him to compose another strident social critique like The Grapes of Wrath. Commonplace phrases such as “complete departure” or “unexpected” recurred in reviews of this and other “experimental” books of the 1950s and 1960s. A humorous text like Cannery Row struck many as fluff. In 1945 no reviewers recognized that the book’s central metaphor, the tidepool, suggested a way to read this nonteleological novel that examined the “specimen” who lived on Monterey’s Cannery Row, the street Steinbeck knew so well. Set in La Paz, Mexico, The Pearl (1947), a “folk tale … a black-white story like a parable,” he wrote his agent, tells of a young man who finds an exquisite pearl, loses his freedom in protecting his wealth, and finally throws back into the sea the cause of his woes. Reviews noted this as another slim volume by a major author. The Wayward Bus (1947), a “cosmic Bus,” sputtered as well.

Steinbeck faltered both professionally and personally in the 1940s. He divorced the loyal but volatile Carol in 1943. That same year he moved east with his second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger, a lovely and talented woman nearly twenty years his junior who ultimately resented his growing stature and felt that her own creativity as a singer had been stifled. With Gwyn, Steinbeck had two sons, but the marriage started falling apart shortly after the second son’s birth and ended in divorce in 1948. That same year Steinbeck was numbed by Ed Ricketts’s death. Only with concentrated work on a filmscript on the life of Emiliano Zapata for Elia Kazan’s film Viva Zapata! (1952) would Steinbeck gradually chart a new course. In 1949 he met and in 1950 married his third wife, Elaine Scott, and with her he moved again to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life. Much of the pain and reconciliation of the late 1940s was worked out in two subsequent novels: his third play/novelette Burning Bright (1950), a boldly experimental parable about a man’s acceptance of his wife’s child fathered by another man, and the largely autobiographical work he had contemplated since the early 1930s, East of Eden.

“It is what I have been practicing to write all of my life,” he wrote to painter Bo Beskow early in 1948, when he first began research for a novel about his valley and his people (Steinbeck and Wallsten, p. 310). With Viva Zapata!, East of Eden, Burning Bright, and later The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Steinbeck’s fiction became less concerned with the behavior of groups—what he called in the 1930s “group man”—and more focused on an individual’s moral responsibility to self and community. The detached perspective of the scientist gave way to a certain warmth; the ubiquitous “self-character” that he claimed appeared in all his novels to comment and observe was modeled less on Ed Ricketts and more on John Steinbeck himself. Certainly with his divorce from Gwyn, Steinbeck had endured dark nights of the soul, and East of Eden contains those turbulent emotions surrounding the subjects of wife, children, family, and fatherhood. “In a sense it will be two books,” he wrote in his journal (posthumously published in 1969 as Journal of a Novel: The “East of Eden” Letters) as he began the final draft in 1951, “the story of my country and the story of me. And I shall keep these two separate.” Many dismissed as incoherent the two-stranded story of the Hamiltons, his mother’s family, and the Trasks, “symbol people” representing the story of Cain and Abel; more recently critics have come to recognize that the epic novel explores the role of the artist as creator, a concern, in fact, in many of Steinbeck’s works.

Nobel Prize (1962)

Like The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden was a defining point in Steinbeck’s career. During the 1950s and 1960s the perpetually “restless” Steinbeck traveled extensively throughout the world with his beloved Elaine. With her, he became more social. Perhaps his writing suffered as a result; some claim that even East of Eden, his most ambitious post-Grapes novel, cannot stand shoulder to shoulder with his searing social novels of the 1930s. In the fiction of his last two decades, however, Steinbeck never ceased to take risks, to stretch his conception of the novel’s structure, and to experiment with the sound and form of language. Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row, was written as a musical comedy that would resolve Ricketts’s loneliness by sending him off into the sunset with a true love, Suzy, a whore with a gilded heart. The musical version by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Pipe Dream, was one of the team’s few failures. In 1957 Steinbeck published the satiric The Short Reign of Pippin IV, a tale about the French monarchy gaining ascendancy. In 1961 he published his last work of fiction, the ambitious The Winter of Our Discontent, a novel about contemporary America set in a fictionalized Sag Harbor (where he and Elaine had a summer home). Increasingly disillusioned with American greed, waste, and spongy morality—his own sons seemed textbook cases—he wrote his jeremiad, a lament for an ailing populace. The following year, 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature; the day after the announcement, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Does a Writer with a Moral Vision of the 1930s Deserve the Nobel Prize?” by the influential Arthur Mizener. Wounded by the blindside attack, unwell, frustrated, and disillusioned, John Steinbeck wrote no more fiction.

But the writer John Steinbeck was not silenced. As always, he wrote reams of letters to his many friends and associates. In the 1950s and 1960s he published scores of journalistic pieces: “Making of a New Yorker,” “I Go Back to Ireland,” columns about the 1956 national conventions, and “letters to Alicia,” a controversial series about a 1966 White House–approved trip to Vietnam, where his sons were stationed. In the late 1950s—and intermittently for the rest of his life—he worked diligently on a modern English translation of a book he had loved since childhood, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur; the unfinished project was published posthumously as The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights (1976).

Travels with Charley in Search of America

Immediately after completing Winter, the ailing novelist proposed “not a little trip of reporting,” he wrote to his agent Elizabeth Otis, “but a frantic last attempt to save my life and the integrity of my creativity pulse” (Benson, p. 882). In a camper truck designed to his specification, he toured America in 1960. After his return, he published the highly praised “pungent potpourri of places and people” (Benson, p. 913), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), another book that both celebrates American individuals and decries American hypocrisy; the climax of his journey is his visit to the New Orleans “cheerleaders” who daily taunt black children newly registered in white schools. His disenchantment with American waste, greed, and immorality ran deep. His last published book, America and Americans (1966), reconsiders the American character, the land, the racial crisis, and the crumbling will. In these late years, in fact after his final move to New York in 1950, many accused him of increasing conservatism. It was true that with greater wealth came the chance to spend money more freely, and with status came political opportunities that seemed out of step for a “radical” of the 1930s. He initially defended Lyndon Johnson’s views on the war with Vietnam (although Steinbeck died before he could, as he wished, qualify his initial responses), and he expressed intolerance for 1960s protesters whose zeal, in his eyes, was unfocused.

But the author who wrote The Grapes of Wrath never really retreated into conservatism. He lived in modest houses all his life, caring little for lavish displays of power or wealth. He preferred talking to ordinary citizens wherever he traveled, sympathizing always with the disenfranchised. He was a Stevenson Democrat in the 1950s; he was never a communist in the 1930s, and after three trips to Russia (1937, 1947, and 1963) he hated Soviet repression. In fact, neither during his life nor after has the paradoxical Steinbeck been an easy author to pigeonhole personally, politically, or artistically. As a man, he was an introvert and at the same time had a romantic streak, was impulsive, garrulous, a lover of jests and word play and practical jokes. As an artist, he was a ceaseless experimenter with words and form, and often critics did not “see” quite what he was up to. He claimed his books had “layers,” yet many claimed his symbolic touch was cumbersome. He loved humor and warmth, but some said he slopped over into sentimentalism. He was, and is now recognized as, an environmental writer. He was an intellectual, interested in inventions, jazz, politics, philosophies, history, and myth, quite a range for an author sometimes labeled simplistic by academe and the eastern critical establishment. Steinbeck died in New York City.

All said, Steinbeck remains one of America’s most significant twentieth-century writers. His popularity spans the world, his range is impressive, and his output was prodigious: sixteen novels; a collection of short stories; four screenplays (The Forgotten Village, The Red Pony, The Pearl, and Viva Zapata!); a sheaf of journalistic essays, including four collections (The Harvest Gypsies, Bombs Away, Once There Was a War, and America and Americans); three travel narratives (Sea of Cortez, A Russian Journal, and Travels with Charley); a translation; and two journals. Three play/novelettes ran on Broadway—Of Mice and Men, The Moon Is Down, and Burning Bright—as well as one musical, Pipe Dream. Whatever his experiment in prose, he wrote with empathy, clarity, and perspicuity: “In every bit of honest writing in the world,” he noted in a 1938 journal entry, “there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.”

Bibliography

Steinbeck’s papers are distributed in several major collections: Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries; the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin; the Center for Steinbeck Studies, San Jose State University; John Steinbeck Library, Salinas; the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; the Pierpont Morgan Library; and Special Collections, Columbia University. The most exhaustive biography is Jackson Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (1984). See also Jay Parini, John Steinbeck, a Biography (1995). Essential biographical sources are also Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, ed. with notes by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (1975), and Steinbeck’s letters to his agent, Letters to Elizabeth: A Selection of Letters from John Steinbeck to Elizabeth Otis, ed. Florian J. Shasky and Susan F. Riggs (1978). The most complete bibliography of primary works is Adrian H. Goldstone and John R. Payne, A Bibliographical Catalogue of the Adrian H. Goldstone Collection (1974); bibliographies of secondary works are Robert DeMott, John Steinbeck: A Checklist of Books by and About (1987), and Warren French, “John Steinbeck,” in Sixteen Modern American Authors (1989), pp. 582–622. Critical reviews of Steinbeck’s work have been collected in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw (1996). Good secondary studies of the writer are the pioneering works by Peter Lisca, The Wide World of John Steinbeck (1958), followed by John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth (1978). A solid and brief overview is Paul McCarthy, John Steinbeck (1980); a more extended analysis is Louis Owens, John Steinbeck’s Re-vision of America (1985). Essential for an understanding of the Steinbeck/Ricketts relationship is Richard Astro, John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist (1973), and essays in Steinbeck and the Environment, ed. Susan Beegel, Shillinglaw, and Wes Tiffney (1996). See Joseph R. Millichap, Steinbeck and Film (1983), for a solid introduction to the subject. An excellent collection of essays is Jackson J. Benson, ed., The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism (1990).