John Steinbeck

(1902 – 1968)

John Steinbeck: Biographical Sketch

John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr. (Salinas, CA, USA, February 27, 1902 – New York, NY, USA, December 20, 1968) was an American writer. He is widely known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), as well as East of Eden (1952) and the novella Of Mice and Men (1937). The author of twenty-seven books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books, and five collections of short stories, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 for his “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception.”

Steinbeck grew up in California’s Salinas Valley, a culturally diverse place with a rich migratory and immigrant history. This upbringing imparted a regionalistic flavor to his writing, giving many of his works a distinct sense of place. Salinas, Monterey and parts of the San Joaquin Valley were the setting for many of his stories. The area is now sometimes referred to as “Steinbeck Country”. Most of his early work dealt with subjects familiar to him from his formative years. In his subsequent novels, Steinbeck found a more authentic voice by drawing upon direct memories of his life in California. Later he used real American historical conditions and events in the first half of the 20th century, which he had experienced first-hand as a reporter. Steinbeck often populated his stories with struggling characters; and his later work also reflected his wide range of interests, including marine biology, politics, religion, history and mythology.

Steinbeck achieved his first critical success with Tortilla Flat (1935), a novel that won the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Medal. It portrays the adventures of a group of classless and usually homeless young men in Monterey after World War I, just before U.S. prohibition. Soon thereafter, he began to write a series of “California novels” and Dust Bowl fiction, examining the lives of the working class and migrant workers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. These included In Dubious Battle (1936), as well as the critically acclaimed 1937 drama about the dreams of a pair of migrant agricultural laborers in California, Of Mice and Men; and most notably, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which was based on newspaper articles about migrant agricultural workers that he had written in San Francisco, and which were collected under the title The Harvest Gypsies. The Grapes of Wrath is commonly considered his greatest work. According to The New York Times, it was the best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940. In that month it won the National Book Award and, later that same year, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was adapted as a film directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad; Fonda was in turn nominated for the best actor Academy Award.

Steinbeck’s first post-WWII novel Cannery Row (1945) became so famous that Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, the location of the book, was eventually renamed Cannery Row in 1958. In 1950, he began to work on the epic novel East of Eden, which was published in 1952, and which he himself considered his best work. Among his final books are the 1960 travelogue Travels with Charley: In Search of America, about his cross-country road trip with his poodle Charley, in which Steinbeck bemoans his lost youth and roots, while dispensing both criticism and praise for America, and his final novel The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), which examines the American society’s moral decline.

Although modest about his own talent as a writer, Steinbeck talked openly of his own admiration of certain writers. At his own first Nobel Prize press conference he was asked his favorite authors and works and replied: “Hemingway’s short stories and nearly everything Faulkner wrote.” In September 1964, Steinbeck was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Many of his works are on required reading lists in American high schools. 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. Similarly, 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 public high schools. – At the same time, according to the American Library Association, Steinbeck was one of the ten most frequently banned authors from 1990 to 2004, with Of Mice and Men ranking sixth out of 100 such books in the United States. The Grapes of Wrath has likewise repeatedly been banned by school boards and public libraries ever since its 1939 publication; inter alia, on the grounds of profanity.

Read more about John Steinbeck on Wikipedia.

 

Major Awards and Honors

Nobel Prize for Literature
  • 1962
Pulitzer Prize (USA)
  • 1940: Novel – “The Grapes of Wrath”
National Book Awards (USA)
  • 1939: Fiction – “The Grapes of Wrath”
National Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 1939: Member
American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • 1948: Member
National Arts Council
  • 1966: Member
United States Medal of Freedom
  • 1964
Commonwealth Club of California
  • 1935: Gold Medal, Best Novel by a Californian – “Tortilla Flat”
  • 1936: Gold Medal, Best Novel by a Californian – “In Dubious Battle”
O. Henry Award for Short Fiction
  • 1934: First Prize – “The Murder” (published in The North American Review)
  • 1938: Third Prize – “The Promise” (published in Harper’s Magazine)
  • 1942: First Prize – “How Edith McGillcuddy Met R. L. Stevenson” (published in Harper’s Magazine)
  • 1956: First Prize – “The Affair at 7, Rue de M—-” (published in Harper’s Bazaar)
Audie Awards (APA – Audio Publishers Association)
  • 2004: Classic – “East of Eden”
    (narrated by Richard Poe)
King Haakon Liberty Cross (Norway)
  • 1946: “The Moon Is Down”

 

Bibliography

Novels and Novellas
  • Cup of Gold (1929)
  • To a God Unknown (1933)
  • Tortilla Flat (1935)
  • In Dubious Battle (1936)
  • Of Mice and Men (1937)
  • The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  • The Moon is Down (1942)
  • Cannery Row (1945)
  • The Pearl (1947)
  • The Wayward Bus (1947)
  • Burning Bright (1950)
    – Play in story form.
  • East of Eden (1952)
  • Sweet Thursday (1954)
  • The Short Reign of Pippin IV (l957)
  • The Winter of Our Discontent (1961)
Tales and Short Story Collections
  • The Pastures of Heaven (1932)
  • The Red Pony (1937)
  • The Long Valley (1938)
  • The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976)
  • Uncollected Stories of John Steinbeck (1986)
Screenplays
  • The Pearl (1948)
  • The Red Pony (1949)
  • Viva Zapata! (1975)
Journalism, Treatises, Travelogues, Memoirs, Correspondence
  • The Harvest Gypsies (1936)
  • Starvation Under the Orange Trees (1938)
  • Sea of Cortez (1941)
    – Collaborative work; Steinbeck’s contribution was republished separately in 1951 under the title The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
  • The Forgotten Village (1941)
    – Film documentary.
  • Bombs Away (1942)
  • A Russian Journal (1948)
  • Once There Was a War (1958)
  • Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1962)
  • America and Americans (1966)
  • Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969)
  • Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (1975)
  • Letters to Elizabeth (1978)
  • Conversations With John Steinbeck (1988)
  • Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath” (1989)
  • Zapata (1993)
Compilations
  • Short Novels (1954)
  • Short Novels of John Steinbeck (1963)
  • The Portable Steinbeck (1971)
  • John Steinbeck Collection (1990)
  • Essential Steinbeck (1994)
  • Library of America Steinbeck Edition
    • Novels and Stories, 1932 – 1937 (1994)
    • The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings, 1936 – 1941 (1996)
    • Novels, 1942 – 1952 (2002)
    • Travels With Charley and Later Novels, 1947-1962 (2007)
  • The Steinbeck Centennial Collection (2002)

 

A Selection of Quotes

The Grapes of Wrath

“A large drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.”

“And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”

East of Eden

“After a while you’ll think no thought the others do not think. You’ll know no word the others can’t say. And you’ll do things because the others do them. You’ll feel the danger in any difference whatever – a danger to the crowd of like-thinking, like-acting men … Once in a while there is a man who won’t do what is demanded of him, and do you know what happens? The whole machine devotes itself coldly to the destruction of his difference. They’ll beat your spirit and your nerves, your body and your mind, with iron rods until the dangerous difference goes out of you. And if you can’t finally give in, they’ll vomit you up and leave you stinking outside – neither part of themselves, nor yet free …They only do it to protect themselves. A thing so triumphantly illogical, so beautifully senseless as an army can’t allow a question to weaken it.”

Cannery Row

“It has always seemed strange to me …The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Travels With Charley: In Search of America

“I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.”

Journal (1938)

“In every bit of honest writing in the world … 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. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”

Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”

A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia

“I guess there are never enough books.”

Find more quotes by John Steinbeck on Wikiquote and Goodreads.

 

Links

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