09 November, 2008
John Ernst Steinbeck III was an American writer. 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 Großsteinbeck (i.e. Grosssteinbeck), Steinbeck's grandfather, changed the family name from Großsteinbeck to Steinbeck when he migrated to the United States. The family's farm in Heiligenhaus / Germany is still today named "Großsteinbeck". 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, he lived in 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. John Steinbeck sometimes lived with the people he would be writing about. For example, he went to the Gulf of Mexico and heard about the story which "The Pearl" is based on. Also, he lived and worked with workers at Oklahoma before writing "The Grapes of Wrath".
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, John Sr., 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 whom was a very good friend of John.
Steinbeck began to write a series of "California novels" and Dust Bowl fiction, set among common people during the Great Depression. These included In Dubious Battle in 1936, Of Mice and Men in 1937, and The Grapes of Wrath in 1939.
Of Mice and Men (1937), his novella about the dreams of a pair of migrant laborers working the California soil, was critically acclaimed.
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 write two more stage plays (The Moon Is Down and Burning Bright).
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.
In 1943, after thirteen years of marriage, Steinbeck divorced his first wife, Carol Henning. He married Gwyn Conger that same year, a union which produced Steinbeck's only children, Thomas ("Thom") Myles Steinbeck in 1944 and John Steinbeck IV (Catbird), in 1946. They divorced in 1948. Two years later, Steinbeck married Elaine (Anderson) Scott, the ex-wife of actor Zachary Scott. They would remain married until his death in 1968.
In 1940, Steinbeck's interest in marine biology and his friendship with Ed Ricketts led him to a voyage around the Gulf of California, also known as the "Sea of Cortez," where they collected biological specimens. Steinbeck's narrative portion of the total expedition report (with some philosophical additions by Ricketts) was later published as The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and describes the daily experiences of the trip. The narrative-log plus the full catalog of the marine invertebrates taken, had earlier been published as a naturalist's narrative and biological catalog of the invertebrate life of the Gulf of California. While it remains a classic of an earlier tradition in biological reporting, in 1942 it did not sell well, in part due to failure to find a popular audience.
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 based 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 World War II, Steinbeck served as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. It was at that time he became friends with Will Lang Jr. of Time/Life magazine. During the war, Steinbeck saw action in accompanying some of the commando raids of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s Beach Jumpers program, which (among other things) launched small-unit diversion operations against German-held islands in the Mediterranean. As a war correspondent, Steinbeck would certainly have been executed if he had been captured with the automatic weapon which he routinely carried on such missions, but all were successful. These missions would help to earn Fairbanks a number of decorations, but as a civilian, Steinbeck's role in these doings went officially unrecognized. Some of Steinbeck's writings from his correspondence days were collected and made into the novelistic documentary Once There Was A War (1958).
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.
After the war, he wrote The Pearl (1947), already knowing it would be filmed. The story first appeared in the December 1945 issue of Woman's Home Companion magazine as "The Pearl of the World." It was illustrated by John Alan Maxwell. The novel is an imaginative telling of a story which Steinbeck had heard in La Paz, as related in The Log From the Sea of Cortez, which he described in Chapter 11 as being "so much like a parable that it almost can't be". Steinbeck traveled to Mexico for the filming; on this trip he would be inspired by the story of Emiliano Zapata, and subsequently wrote a film script (Viva Zapata!) directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn.
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.
Following his divorce from Gwyndolyn Conger and the sudden, tragic death of his close friend Ed Ricketts (who perished as a result of his car being hit by a train), Steinbeck wrote one of his most popular novels, East of Eden (1952). This book, which he wrote to give his sons some idea of their heritage, was the book he repeatedly wrote of as his best, and his life's work.
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.
Following the success of Viva Zapata!, Steinbeck collaborated with Kazan on the theatrical production of East of Eden, James Dean's film debut.
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 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” Privately, he felt he did not deserve the honor. In his acceptance speech, he said:
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. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
—Steinbeck Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
In September 1964, Steinbeck was awarded the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
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).
The gravesite of Steinbeck's ashes in Salinas CemeteryOn December 20, 1968 John Steinbeck died in New York City. His death is listed as heart disease or heart attack. An autopsy showed nearly complete occlusion of Steinbeck's main coronary arteries.