"The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true." -- John Steinbeck
John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr. (February 27, 1902 — December 20, 1968) was an American writer. He wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and East of Eden (1952) and the novella Of Mice and Men (1937). He wrote a total of twenty-seven books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books and five collections of short stories. In 1962, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
"A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.""A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.""A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ.""Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping.""Give a critic an inch, he'll write a play.""I am impelled, not to squeak like a grateful and apologetic mouse, but to roar like a lion out of pride in my profession.""I hate cameras. They are so much more sure than I am about everything.""I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.""I have never smuggled anything in my life. Why, then, do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a customs barrier?""I have owed you this letter for a very long time-but my fingers have avoided the pencil as though it were an old and poisoned tool.""I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.""I've lived in good climate, and it bores the hell out of me. I like weather rather than climate.""I've seen a look in dogs' eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.""Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.""If you're in trouble, or hurt or need - go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help - the only ones.""In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.""In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.""It has always been my private conviction that any man who puts his intelligence up against a fish and loses had it coming.""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.""It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.""It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.""It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure on the world.""Man is the only kind of varmint sets his own trap, baits it, then steps in it.""Man, unlike anything organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.""Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.""Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass.""No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is to suppose that they are like himself.""No one wants advice - only corroboration.""One can find so many pains when the rain is falling.""Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts... perhaps the fear of a loss of power.""Sectional football games have the glory and the despair of war, and when a Texas team takes the field against a foreign state, it is an army with banners.""So in our pride we ordered for breakfast an omelet, toast and coffee and what has just arrived is a tomato salad with onions, a dish of pickles, a big slice of watermelon and two bottles of cream soda.""Syntax, my lad. It has been restored to the highest place in the republic.""The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty.""The impulse of the American woman to geld her husband and castrate her sons is very strong.""The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.""These words dropped into my childish mind as if you should accidentally drop a ring into a deep well. I did not think of them much at the time, but there came a day in my life when the ring was fished up out of the well, good as new.""Time is the only critic without ambition.""Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.""We spend our time searching for security and hate it when we get it.""Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there's time, the Bastard Time.""Writers are a little below clowns and a little above trained seals."
John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr. was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He was of German and Irish descent. Johann Adolf Großsteinbeck, Steinbeck's paternal grandfather, had shortened the family name to Steinbeck when he immigrated to the United States. The family farm in Heiligenhaus, Germany, is still today named "Großsteinbeck."
His father, John Steinbeck Sr., served as Monterey County Treasurer. John's mother, Olive Hamilton, a former school teacher, shared Steinbeck's passion of reading and writing. Steinbeck lived in a small rural town that was essentially a frontier settlement, set amid some of the world's most fertile land. He spent his summers working on nearby ranches and later with migrant workers on Spreckels ranch. He became aware of the harsher aspects of migrant life and the darker side of human nature, which material expressed in such works as Of Mice and Men. He also explored his surroundings, walking across local forests, fields, and farms.
In 1919, Steinbeck graduated from Salinas High School and attended Stanford University intermittently until 1925, eventually leaving without a degree. He traveled to New York City and held odd jobs while pursuing his dream of becoming a writer. When he failed to get his work published, he returned to California and worked for a time in 1928 as a tour guide and caretaker at the fish hatchery in Tahoe City, where he would meet tourist Carol Henning, his future first wife. Steinbeck and Henning were married in January 1930.
Steinbeck lived most of the years of the Great Depression and his marriage to Carol in a cottage that was owned by his father in Pacific Grove, California, on the Monterey Peninsula a few blocks from the border of the city of Monterey, California . The elder Steinbeck supplied him with the lodging for free, with paper for his manuscripts, and critical loans beginning at the end of 1928 which allowed Steinbeck to give up a punishing warehouse job in San Francisco, and focus on his craft.
After the publication of his Monterey novel Tortilla Flat in 1935, his first clear novelistic success, the Steinbecks emerged from relative poverty and built a summer ranch-home in Los Gatos. In 1940, Steinbeck went on a voyage around the Gulf of California with his influential friend Ed Ricketts, to collect biological specimens. The Log from the Sea of Cortez describes his experiences. Although Carol accompanied Steinbeck on the trip, their marriage was beginning to suffer by this time, and would effectively end in 1941, even as Steinbeck worked on the manuscript for the book.
In 1943, Steinbeck filed for divorce against Carol and married Gwyndolyn "Gwyn" Conger, with whom he had two children - Thomas Myles Steinbeck in 1944 and John Steinbeck IV (1946—1991). Steinbeck and his second wife divorced in 1948. In December 1950, Steinbeck married stage-manager Elaine Scott within a week of the finalizing of her divorce from actor Zachary Scott. This marriage lasted until Steinbeck's death in 1968.
In 1948, Steinbeck toured the Soviet Union with renowned photographer Robert Capa. They visited Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi and Stalingrad. His book about their experiences, A Russian Journal, was illustrated with Capa's photos. That year he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1966, Steinbeck traveled to Tel Aviv to visit the site of Mount Hope, a farm community established in Israel by his grandfather, whose brother, Friedrich Grosssteinbeck, was murdered by Arab marauders on January 11, 1858.
John Steinbeck died in New York City on December 20, 1968 of heart disease and congestive heart failure. He was 66, and had been a life-long smoker. An autopsy showed nearly complete occlusion of the main coronary arteries.
In accordance with his wishes, his body was cremated, and an urn containing his ashes was eventually interred (March 4, 1969) at the Hamilton family gravesite at Garden of Memories Memorial Park in Salinas, with those of his parents and maternal grandparents. His third wife, Elaine, was buried in the plot in 2004. He had earlier written to his doctor that he felt deeply "in his flesh" that he would not survive his physical death, and that the biological end of his life was the final end to it.
Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold, published in 1929, is based on the life and death of privateer Henry Morgan. It centers on Morgan's assault and sacking of the city of Panama, sometimes referred to as the 'Cup of Gold', and on the woman, fairer than the sun, who was said to be found there.
After Cup of Gold, between 1931 and 1933 Steinbeck produced three shorter works. The Pastures of Heaven, published in 1932, comprised twelve interconnected stories about a valley near Monterey, that was discovered by a Spanish corporal while chasing runaway American Indian slaves. In 1933 Steinbeck published The Red Pony, a 100-page, four-chapter story weaving in memories of 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.
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 group of classless and usually homeless young men in Monterey after World War I, just before U.S. prohibition. The characters, who are portrayed in ironic comparison to mythic knights on a quest, reject nearly all the standard mores of American society in enjoyment of a dissolute life centered around wine, lust, camaraderie and petty theft. The book was made into the 1942 film Tortilla Flat, starring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr and John Garfield, a friend of Steinbeck's.
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, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Of Mice and Men, 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 novel was not free of controversy. Steinbeck's New Deal political views, negative portrayal of aspects of capitalism, and sympathy for the plight of workers, led to a backlash against the author, especially close to home. 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 Steinbeck traveled to Mexico for the filming with Wagner who helped with the script; 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.
After his divorce from Gwyndolyn Conger and the death of Ed Ricketts (when his car was hit by a train in 1948), Steinbeck married for the last time in 1950. Soon after, he began work on East of Eden (1952), which he considered his best work.
In 1952, John 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 stiffness, the recordings provide a record of Steinbeck's deep, resonant voice.
Following the success of Viva Zapata!, Steinbeck collaborated with Kazan on East of Eden, James Dean's film debut.
Travels with Charley (subtitle: In Search of America) is a travelogue of his 1960 road trip with his poodle Charley. Steinbeck bemoans his lost youth and roots, while dispensing both criticism and praise for America. According to Steinbeck's son Thom, Steinbeck went on the trip because he knew he was dying and wanted to see the country one last time.
Steinbeck's last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), examines moral decline in America. The protagonist Ethan grows discontented with his own moral decline and that of those around him. The book is very different in tone from Steinbeck's amoral and ecological stance in earlier works like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. It was not a critical success. Many reviewers recognized the importance of the novel but were disappointed that it was not another Grapes of Wrath.
Apparently taken aback not only by the critical reception of this novel, but also the critical outcry when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, Steinbeck published no more fiction in the next six years before his death.
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.” On the day of the announcement (Oct. 25) when he was asked by a reporter at a press conference given by his publisher, if he thought he deserved the Nobel, he said: "Frankly, no." In his acceptance speech later in the year in Stockholm, 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
Although modest about his own talent as a writer, Steinbeck talked openly of his own admiration of certain writers. In 1953, he wrote that he considered cartoonist Al Capp, creator of the satirical Li'l Abner, "possibly the best writer in the world today." 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 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).
After Steinbeck's death, his incomplete novel based on the King Arthur legends of Malory and others, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, was finally published in 1976.
On Feb. 27, 1979, on what would have been his 77th birthday, he was honored by being placed on a U.S. postage stamp.
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."
Many of Steinbeck's 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. 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, The Grapes of Wrath has been banned by school boards: In August 1939, Kern County Board of Supervisors banned the book from the county's public schools and libraries. It was burned in Salinas on two different occasions. In 2003, a school board in Mississippi banned it on the grounds of profanity. 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.
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. 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. His childhood friend, Max Wagner, a brother of Jack Wagner and who later became a film actor, served as inspiration for The Red Pony. 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; his works examined the lives of the working class and migrant workers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.
His later 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.
'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 cross-country trip described in "Travels with Charley."
His father's cottage on Eleventh Street in Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck wrote some of his earliest books, also survives.
In Monterey, Ed Ricketts' laboratory survives (though it 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 site of the sardine cannery next to Doc's lab is now occupied by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. However, the street that Steinbeck described as "Cannery Row" in the novel, once named Ocean View Avenue, was renamed Cannery Row in honor of the novel, in 1958. The town of Monterey has commemorated Steinbeck's work with an avenue of flags depicting characters from Cannery Row, historical plaques, and sculptured busts depicting Steinbeck and Ricketts.
On Feb 27, 1979 (the 77th anniversary of the writer's birthdate), the United States Postal Service issued a stamp featuring Steinbeck, starting the Postal Service’s Literary Arts series honoring American writers.
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.
Steinbeck's contacts with leftist authors, journalists, and labor union figures may have influenced his writing and he joined the League of American Writers, a Communist organization, in 1935. Steinbeck was mentored by radical writers Lincoln Steffens and his wife Ella Winter. Through Francis Whitaker, a member of the United States Communist Party’s John Reed Club for writers, Steinbeck met with strike organizers from the Cannery and Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union.
In 1967, when he was sent to Vietnam to report on the war, his sympathetic portrayal of the United States Army led the New York Post to denounce him for betraying his liberal past. Steinbeck's biographer, Jay Parini, says Steinbeck's friendship with President Lyndon B. Johnson influenced his views on Vietnam. Steinbeck may also have been concerned about the safety of his son serving in Vietnam.
Steinbeck was a close associate of playwright Arthur Miller. In June 1959, Steinbeck took a personal and professional risk by standing up for him when Miller refused 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."
Steinbeck complained publicly about government harassment. According to Thomas Steinbeck, the author's eldest son, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI could find no basis for prosecuting Steinbeck and therefore used his power to encourage the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to audit Steinbeck's taxes every single year of his life, just to annoy him. According to Thomas, a true artist is one who "without a thought for self, stands up against the stones of condemnation, and speaks for those who are given no real voice in the halls of justice, or the halls of government. By doing so these people will naturally become the enemies of the political status quo."
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 denied that Steinbeck was under investigation.
Of Mice and Men is a tragedy that was written in the form of a play in 1937. The story is about two traveling ranch workers, George and Lennie, trying to work up enough money to buy their own farm/ranch. It encompasses themes of racism, loneliness, prejudice against the mentally ill, and the struggle for personal independence. Along with Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Pearl, Of Mice and Men is one of Steinbeck's best known works. It was made into a movie three times, in 1939 starring Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., and Betty Field, in 1982 starring Randy Quaid, Robert Blake and Ted Neeley, and in 1992 starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich.
The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath was written in 1939 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. The book is set in the Great Depression and describes a family of sharecroppers, the Joads, who were driven from their land due to the dust storms of the Dust Bowl. The title is a reference to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The book was unpopular amongst some critics who found it too sympathetic to the worker's plight and too critical of aspects of capitalism; but it found quite a large audience amongst the working class. The book was made into a film in 1940 starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford.
East of Eden
Steinbeck deals with the nature of good and evil in this Salinas Valley saga. The story follows two families: the Hamiltons - based on Steinbeck's own maternal ancestry - and the Trasks, reprising stories about the Biblical Adam and his progeny. The book was published in 1952. It was made into a movie in 1955 directed byElia Kazan starring James Dean.
In Dubious Battle
In 1936 Steinbeck published the first of what came to be known as his Dustbowl trilogy, which included Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. This first novel, considered by many to be among Steinbeck's best, tells the story of a fruit picker's strike in California which is both aided and damaged by the help of "the Party," generally taken to be the Communist Party, although this is never spelled out in the book.
Travels With Charley
In 1960, Steinbeck bought a pickup truck and had it modified with a custom-built camper top — which was rare at the time — and drove across the United States with his faithful 'blue' poodle, Charley. Steinbeck nicknamed his truck Rocinante after Don Quixote's "noble steed". In this sometimes comical, sometimes melancholic book, Steinbeck describes what he sees from Maine to Montana to California, and from there to Texas and Louisiana and back to his home on Long Island. The restored camper truck is on exhibit in the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.