John steinbeck: introduction

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John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck had a habit of signing letters and books with a tiny drawing of a winged pig, accompanied by the Latin phrase ad astra per alia porci—to the stars on the wings of a pig. The character, which he named "Pigasus," was meant as a reminder that man should always strive for higher ground, no matter how lowly his skills may seem. 

The philosophy of Pigasus can also be applied to the novels, stories, travelogues and plays that John Steinbeck produced over the course of his forty-year career. Steinbeck's fiction argued that by facing the raw and sometimes ugly truth about human nature, man could move toward a better version of himself. Whether working as a ranch hand, interviewing migrant workers, or sailing in the Gulf of Mexico, Steinbeck was a traveler with a purpose, observing and describing the often-painful realities of the people he encountered. He chronicled the victims of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression with such detail that it's nearly impossible to imagine their lives without thinking of Steinbeck. By recording their struggles, flaws and quiet dignities in books like The Grapes of Wrath (which critics consider his masterpiece) and East of Eden (which he preferred), Steinbeck gave voice to a voiceless people and meaning to lives that were too often dismissed as meaningless. 

Many people condemned Steinbeck's works in his lifetime (and long after his death) as too raw, too vulgar, or too sympathetic toward unsympathetic characters. Steinbeck shied away from publicity, and the criticism annoyed him. However, the public's resistance to his work did not detract from the strength of his commitment to it. For as the man himself said while accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, "a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."


John Ernst Steinbeck III was born on 27 February 1902 in Salinas, California. He was the second of four children (and the only boy) born to John Steinbeck, Sr., the treasurer of Monterey County, and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, a former teacher. Located near the central California coast on some of the world's most fertile land (Salinas's official nickname today is "the Salad Bowl of America"), Salinas was—and still is—a farming town, surrounded by landscapes of broad yellow valleys and rich green fields.

The Salinas Valley The Salinas River Valley

The Steinbecks lived comfortable middle-class lives. Olive, the former schoolteacher, particularly instilled in young John III a love of reading and writing. On summer breaks from Salinas High School, Steinbeck worked as a farm hand on the nearby Spreckels sugar beet farm. During his summer work he noticed the difficult living conditions of his fellow workers, many of whom were migrant laborers.

Steinbeck’s Boyhood Home

Years later those observations and the stories he heard the men tell would form the basis of his first great book, Tortilla Flat. 

After graduating from high school in 1919, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University. Though he enjoyed his English classes, Steinbeck found college culture pretentious and phony. For six years he studied intermittently at Stanford, leaving campus frequently to take odd jobs in farms, factories or ranches. In 1925, he left for good. He never received a college degree, though he always spoke fondly of Stanford. 

Steinbeck traveled via freighter to New York City to make his living as a writer. He worked in construction and briefly as a writer for the New York American newspaper. But Steinbeck was always a Californian at heart. He would live in New York again later, when he was older and had established himself and his career. To find his voice as a writer, he had to get back to the Golden State.


By 1926 Steinbeck was back in California, living near scenic Lake Tahoe and working as a handyman at a resort. In 1929 he published his first novel, Cup of Gold. The book was a quasi-historical account of the adventures of real-life pirate Henry Morgan in Panama, a country that Steinbeck had never visited. Unsurprisingly, the book was not very good. Steinbeck's best work always drew in some way from personal experience—from places he had visited or people he had interviewed. (In his later years, after considerably more critical and commercial success, Steinbeck indulged his interest in historical fiction with a few more themed novels.) A year after publishing his first book, Steinbeck married Carol Henning and the couple moved into a tiny cottage in coastal Pacific Grove, California. Over the next decade, Steinbeck did some of his best writing in the humble little building. It is where he began to find his style, and to identify the things that mattered to him enough to write about them. 

Steinbeck published two more novels in the next few years, both set in the Salinas Valley. The books drew closer to the themes that he would later master—workers in Monterey County in The Pastures of Heaven, man's relationship with nature in To A God Unknown—but neither attracted much critical attention. Then in 1935, Steinbeck published Tortilla Flat, the story that first took root in his mind in his days as a high school farmhand. Set in Monterey, California, the novel focused on a group of paisanos (men of Mexican, Indian, Spanish and Caucasian background, according to Steinbeck) and their friendship and exploits in the years after World War I. The book was a great commercial and critical success. It won Steinbeck his first Gold Medal from the California Commonwealth Club, a prize awarded for the best novel by a Californian (he won another the following year for In Dubious Battle). John Steinbeck had found his voice, and just in time—as the flamboyant excesses of the Roaring Twenties came to a close, writers and readers were ready to get down to more serious matters.


As John Steinbeck was developing as a writer, events taking place in the United States provided him with plenty of material to write about. In October 1929 the U.S. stock market crashed, sparking the Great Depression. Banks collapsed. Businesses closed. By 1933, a quarter of the population was unemployed. Then environmental catastrophe struck as well. From 1930 to 1936, severe drought plagued the Great Plains of the American Midwest, which at the time were mostly farmland. The drought killed crops, and with no plants to hold down the soil, the dry dirt swirled up into suffocating dust storms when the winds kicked in. The entire region became known as the Dust Bowl. The Oklahoma panhandle was the hardest hit. Farmers' crops were destroyed, and with nothing to sell many lost their homes and farms. They were forced to migrate in search of work. Men who had once been their own bosses were now forced to work for wages on other people's farms, often in exploitative conditions. 

In 1934 Steinbeck met two labor organizers who were hiding in Seaside, California after participating in a cotton strike in the San Joaquin Valley the previous year. Steinbeck shaped his interviews with the men into the pro-worker novel In Dubious Battle, published in 1936. Steinbeck also spent part of that year traveling with a group of migrant workers displaced by the Dust Bowl for a San Francisco News series. Steinbeck was horrified by their plight and empathized with the men's sense of dignity. "They are men who have worked hard on their own farms and have felt the pride of possessing and living in close touch with the land," he wrote. "They are resourceful and intelligent Americans who have gone through the hell of the drought, have seen their lands wither and die and the top soil blow away; and this, to a man who has owned his land, is a curious and terrible pain." The migrants' stories of humiliation and hardship stayed with Steinbeck long after the newspaper series ran. 

He then published Of Mice and Men, a novella that he also conceived as a play (and, originally, as a children's book—an unsettling thought, given the plot of the final manuscript. Let's hope Steinbeck had a different ending in mind for kids). The plot centers on two migrant ranch hands, George and the mentally challenged Lennie, and their simple yet ultimately thwarted dream of owning their own land. Of Mice and Men appeared in print in February 1937 and on the stage later that year. Though the book is required reading in many schools— maybe it's even the reason you're reading this biography right now—it is also among the most frequently challenged and banned books in American libraries and schools. The novel has been criticized for everything from its coarse language to its depiction of the mentally disabled to its seeming anti-business slant. Steinbeck was not a man who wrote for shock value. His goal with Of Mice and Men—and with the rest of his fiction—was to heal the wounds between people by helping them to understand one another's lives. "In every bit of honest writing in the world . . . there is a base theme. Try to understand men, [for] if you understand each other you will be kind to each other," he wrote in a 1938 journal entry. "Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love." 

The reaction to Of Mice and Men was only a hint of what was to come next. In 1939, Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. The book traces the odyssey of the Joad family, a clan of Dust Bowl sharecroppers who migrate to California after they are kicked off their Oklahoma farm. Headed by convicted murderer and recent parolee Tom Joad, the family sees California as a promised land of employment and prosperity. As they travel west, their dream collapses amidst the squalid migrant camps, exploitative farm owners and discriminatory policies. 

The book was wildly successful. It won Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. More than 500,000 copies flew off the shelves in its first year. It soon became clear, however, that not all of those who picked up a copy liked what they read. Critics called it socialist propaganda. School boards and libraries banned the book for its alleged "obscenities" and coarse language. The Associated Farmers of America protested the book's treatment of corporate farmers. The Kern County (California) Board of Supervisors passed a resolution attempting to block production of the 1940 film version starring Henry Fonda. At one point Steinbeck grew concerned about the level of hysteria surrounding the book, especially in his agricultural hometown of Salinas. But Steinbeck wrote to provoke social change, and The Grapes of Wrath accomplished that. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to the book's defense, and congressional hearings were later held on the conditions in migrant camps. The book also secured John Steinbeck's place in the American literary canon. He went on to write several more books—including at least one that he liked better than The Grapes of Wrath—but none eclipsed the novel that is widely considered the masterpiece of his career.


Steinbeck never allowed his personal life—that is to say, his romantic and family business—to seep into his fiction. In 1941 he divorced his first wife and moved to New York City with his new romantic interest Gwyndolyn Conger. The couple married in 1943 and had two sons, Steinbeck's only children, in 1944 and 1946. Within two years of their youngest son's birth they too were divorced, and in 1950 Steinbeck married Elaine Anderson Scott, his third and final wife. Steinbeck was an intensely private man, even after he became famous, and despised public scrutiny of his personal affairs. 

Steinbeck wrote about personal experience in a different way. His interests stretched from marine biology to history, and he used the years after his Grapes of Wrath fame to explore other topics that intrigued him. In 1940 he spent six weeks in the Gulf of Mexico with his close friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. The two men co-wrote a book about the expedition entitled Sea of Cortez. In the early years of World War II Steinbeck traveled to Europe and North Africa as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. He also wrote for film, earning a screen credit for Elia Kazan's Emiliano Zapata biopic "Viva Zapata!" and an Academy Award nomination for his work on the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock picture "Lifeboat." He also continued to publish novels set in Steinbeck Country, such as Cannery Row in 1945 and The Wayward Bus in 1947. 

Steinbeck made his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1947 as a journalist, accompanied by the photographer Robert Capa. Even before the trip, the pro-worker sentiments of his novels had attracted government suspicion. He was under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation starting in the early 1940s, though apparently the bureau was not all that discreet. "Do you suppose you could ask Edgar's boys to stop stepping on my heels?" Steinbeck wrote to Attorney General Francis Biddle in 1942, referring to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. "They think I am an enemy alien. It is getting tiresome." His trip to Russia confirmed many people's suspicions that Steinbeck was a socialist. But while Steinbeck's work and travels brought him into frequent contact with labor organizers, strikers, and communists, he was not a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, Socialist Party, or any other particular camp. Books such as In Dubious Battle showed workers being manipulated by labor organizers as well as by corporate farmers. Steinbeck was no revolutionary; in his later years, his friendship with President Lyndon B. Johnson and his largely pro-war reporting on Vietnam drew criticism from liberals and leftists.


Steinbeck and his Nobel Prize

Steinbeck devoted the final years of his life to traveling and writing. While he never achieved the same level of critical success that he did with The Grapes of Wrath, he continued to challenge himself in his work. In 1952 he published East of Eden, an epic novel that spans American history from the Civil War to World War I. Steinbeck considered it to be his masterpiece. Steinbeck wrote about the Trask family's battles with good and evil after an extremely difficult period in his life in which he divorced his second wife and his close friend Ed Ricketts died. He called it "the story of my country and the story of me," adding that in previous novels he had always "held something back for later. Nothing is held back here." His writing became more philosophical in his later years. He wrestled overtly with questions of morality in books like Travels With Charley, the memoir of a cross-country road trip with his pet poodle, and The Winter of Our Discontent, his final novel. 

Steinbeck was showered with literary honors in his later years, though most of the prizes referred to work he had completed almost two decades earlier. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon Johnson in 1964, with a note declaring he had "helped America to understand herself by finding universal themes in the experience of men and women everywhere. Two years earlier, he was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Upon presenting the award, the head of the Swedish Academy called Steinbeck "a teacher of good will and charity, a defender of human values." Steinbeck described his philosophy on writing in his acceptance speech, saying that "the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat—for courage, compassion and love." 

On 20 December 20 1968, John Steinbeck died of a heart attack in New York City. His ashes were buried in Salinas, California. Forty years after his death, it's clear that mankind is far from achieving the ideals of perfection and understanding that Steinbeck advocated in his work. But maybe, thanks to his words, we're all just the tiniest bit closer.

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