John Ernst Steinbeck, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner, was born in Salinas, California February 27, 1902. His father, John Steinbeck, served as Monterey County Treasurer for many years. His mother, Olive Hamilton, was a former schoolteacher who developed in him a love of literature. Young Steinbeck came to know the Salinas Valley well, working as a hired hand on nearby ranches in Monterey County. In 1919, he graduated from Salinas High School as president of his class and entered Stanford University majoring in English. Stanford did not claim his undivided attention. During this time he attended only sporadically while working at a variety jobs including on with the Big Sur highway project, and one at Spreckels Sugar Company near Salinas.
Steinbeck left Stanford permanently in 1925 to pursue a career in writing in New York City. He was unsuccessful and returned, disappointed, to California the following year. Though his first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929, it attracted little literary attention. Two subsequent novels, The Pastures of Heaven and To A God Unknown, met the same fate.
After moving to the Monterey Peninsula in 1930, Steinbeck and his new wife, Carol Henning, made their home in Pacific Grove. Here, not far from famed Cannery Row, heart of the California sardine industry, Steinbeck found material he would later use for two more works, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row.
With Tortilla Flat (1935), Steinbeck's career took a decidedly positive turn, receiving the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal. He felt encouraged to continue writing, relying on extensive research and personal observation of the human drama for his stories. In 1937, Of Mice and Men was published. Two years later, the novel was produced on Broadway and made into a movie. In 1940, Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Grapes of Wrath, bringing to public attention the plight of dispossessed farmers.
After Steinbeck and Henning divorced in 1942, he married Gwyndolyn Conger. The couple moved to New York City and had two sons, Thomas and two years later, John. During the war years, Steinbeck served as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Some of his dispatches reappeared in Once There Was A War. In 1945, Steinbeck published Cannery Row and continued to write prolifically, producing plays, short stories and film scripts. In 1950, he married Elaine Anderson Scott and they remained together until his death.
Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 "...for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and keen social perception.." In his acceptance speech, Steinbeck summarized what he sought to achieve through his works:
"...Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species...Further more, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity of greatness of heart and spirit—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 emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature..."
Steinbeck remained a private person, shunning publicity and moving frequently in his search for privacy. He died on December 20, 1968 in New York City, where he and his family made a home. But his final resting place was the valley he had written about with such passion. At his request, his ashes were interred in the Garden of Memories cemetery in Salinas. He is survived by his son, Thomas.
Author biography courtesy of the National Steinbeck Center.
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From the May/June 2002 issue of Book magazine
The masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath appeared in 1939, when
the Depression had dragged on for nearly a decade and seemed to stretch endlessly ahead. Thousands of families had been dislodged from small farms in the Southwest, their plight exacerbated by drought
conditions and a moribund economy. Like the Joads of John Steinbeck's novel, these distraught families piled into old jalopies and headed west, to California, hoping for work and a better life. When they arrived, they discovered that Californians didn't need them or even want them. They were herded into dismal government "sanitary camps," where illness and hunger were pervasive.
Steinbeck was sent by a newspaper to report on the migrant situation. Notebook in hand, he toured the camps in an old bakery truck, driving up and down California's Central Valley, an area that he knew well from his childhood. In one of his first newspaper articles for The San Francisco News, Steinbeck described the predicament of the migrants who would inspire his novel:
They arrive in California usually having used up every resource to get here, even to the selling of the poor blankets and utensils and tools on the way to buy gasoline. They arrive bewildered and beaten and usually in a state of semi-starvation, with only one necessity to face immediately, and that is to find work at any wage in order that the family may eat.
In one camp, not far from Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas, he found about 2,000 people crammed into a pathetic shelter, many suffering from typhoid, flu, tuberculosis, and pneumonia. There was little food to be had, and the drinking water was foul. Once, when a riot broke out, the police squashed it brutally. "You couldn't fight back if you didn't feel good," Steinbeck wrote. "That was the secret the bosses and police had, and they knew they'd win."
After publishing his articles on the migrants, Steinbeck correctly guessed that his material was substantial enough to form the basis of a novel, and the first glimmerings of The Grapes of Wrath came into his head. In his journal, he wrote: "If only I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book." With eight books under his belt already, including 1937's Of Mice and Men, which had been a huge success as both a novel and a play, Steinbeck felt well prepared for the task at hand; indeed, he set to work with a vengeance.
He planned to write the book on an epic scale and decided it should alternate chapters of exposition and narrative. To keep it focused, he would center the story on one family, the Joads, tracking them from their farm in Oklahoma, along Route 66, and into California, where they would be forced into a camp with thousands of other "Okies" like themselves. The book, Steinbeck noted in the journal that he kept alongside the novel, would be composed "in a musical technique." He would try "to use the forms and the mathematics of music rather than those of prose." It would be "symphonic," he said, "in composition, in movement, in tone and in scope."
Steinbeck struggled to keep his concentration and remain disciplined, and one can follow his ups and downs in his journal. The entry for June 13, 1938, is typical. Steinbeck had been drinking with his friend Martin Ray the night before, and he came into his study the next day with a hangover:
Now a new week starts and unpropitiously for me. Last night up to Ray's and drank a great deal of champagne. I pulled my punches pretty well but I am not in the dead sober state I could wish. However, I will try to go to work. Don't have to because I have a day caught up. All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book, but I must not be weak. This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than just the loss of time and wordage. The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language. And sadly enough, if any of the discipline is gone, all of it suffers. And this slight fuzziness of mine may be a break in the discipline. I don't know yet. But right now I intend to find out.
Despite the hangovers and self-doubts, the writing progressed with astonishing speed and fluency. Between May and October 1938, he produced a manuscript of 200,000 words, writing in longhand with Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky playing on the gramophone behind his desk. On September 3rd, he christened the book The Grapes of Wrath, a title suggested by his wife and plucked from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The narrative was completed on October 26th, when Steinbeck wrote in his journal: "Finished this day -- and I hope to God it's good."
Published in April 1939, The Grapes of Wrath became an enormous bestseller, winning critical praise from many of the best reviewers in the country. It also earned the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film by director John Ford. Not surprisingly, the novel helped to focus national attention on the migrant situation. Popular first lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported the book, and her strong views were widely reported in the press. Soon after, large sums of federal money were directed to California to aid the migrants, and Steinbeck's novel became a catalyst for the change in attitude of
Californians themselves, many of whom had not understood the extent of the plight of the migrants.
Steinbeck had, in fact, managed to write his "big book." The Grapes of Wrath became an instant classic, and it has maintained its position over six decades, with a readership in the millions. There are precious few "great" American novels, and this is surely one of them.
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|John Steinbeck Home
|In Our Other Stores|
|John Steinbeck Movies
|Cup of Gold, 1929|
|The Pastures of Heaven, 1932|
|To a God Unknown, 1933|
|Tortilla Flat, 1935|
|In Dubious Battle, 1936|
|Nothing So Monstrous (stories), 1936|
|Of Mice and Men, 1937|
|The Red Pony, 1937|
|Of Mice and Men (play), 1937|
|The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath, 1938|
|The Long Valley (stories), 1938|
|The Grapes of Wrath, 1939|
|The Log From the Sea of Cortez (coauthor, nonfiction), 1941|
|Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team, 1942|
|The Moon Is Down, 1942|
|The Moon Is Down (play), 1942|
|Cannery Row, 1945|
|The Wayward Bus, 1947|
|The Pearl, 1948|
|A Russian Journal, 1948|
|Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form, 1950|
|East of Eden, 1952|
|Sweet Thursday, 1954|
|The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication, 1957|
|Once There Was a War (nonfiction), 1958|
|The Winter of Our Discontent, 1961|
|Travels with Charley: In Search of America, 1962|
|America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, 1966|
|Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, 1969|
|The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, 1976|
|Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1989|