Authors: John Steinbeck

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

February 27, 1902

Salinas, California

December 20, 1968

New York, New York

Biography

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1962, John Ernst Steinbeck secured his place in American literature largely on the basis of his inimitable novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which defined an epoch in American life by brilliantly combining the documentary quality of journalism with the superior insight of highly imaginative fiction. Steinbeck grew up in California, close to itinerant farm laborers and to the economic struggles brought on by the Great Depression. Although Steinbeck attended Stanford University intermittently in the early 1920s and supported himself with odd jobs, his earliest stories reflect his interest in the nature-oriented lives of simple workers and peasants, not intellectual matters. Based on his acute perceptions, this early fiction has a directness and immediacy that is sometimes lacking in his later work, where his prose is unduly burdened by his theories of nature.

By 1936, Steinbeck’s focus shifted to incorporate the political conditions in which his proletarians lived. In Dubious Battle, published that year, centered on a strike of migratory fruit pickers who were identified as an exploited class of people. Of Mice and Men is one of his fullest explorations of biological determinism, the notion that men and women are shaped by nature in ways that practically ensure their fate. Lenny is a mentally handicapped giant of a man who depends on his friend, the smaller and smarter George, to protect him. Yet Lenny does not know his own strength. He crushes puppies when he means only to pet them; he breaks a woman's neck when he means only to stroke her lovely blonde hair.

John Steinbeck and son John visit LBJ at the oval office in the White House

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By White House photographer (LBJ Library and Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Steinbeck

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By JohnSteinbeck.JPG: US Government derivative work: Homonihilis (JohnSteinbeck.JPG) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s masterpiece, follows the fate of the Joad family, who are evicted from their foreclosed farm in Oklahoma and make their way to the "promised land" of California. Slowly they lose their illusions as they are forced to work for starvation wages and are treated as riffraff by the police and the landowners. Tom Joad becomes a labor organizer when he realizes that his family cannot survive by itself. Steinbeck does not take a specifically socialist point of view—although he does provide an admiring glimpse of a government camp where the Joads and their fellow workers are able to establish a harmonious community based on equality of opportunity and responsibility.

What makes The Grapes of Wrath such an impressive work is its panoramic view of society. While the Joads’ story particularizes the events of an epoch, the novel contains beautifully written passages that evoke the spirit of the times and create large-scale pictures of the displacement felt by people who lose their jobs and their farms. Steinbeck’s remarkable accomplishment is that he not only makes readers empathize with a single family but also makes them identify with whole classes of people who are thrust into chaotic conditions as the result of a devastated economy.

None of Steinbeck’s subsequent work quite equals the breadth and the depth of The Grapes of Wrath. East of Eden (1952), his next major novel, was criticized by some as turgid and overly allegorical. Set in Southern California, from the Civil War to World War I, this family saga about two brothers and their stern father is a reenactment of the story of Cain and Abel with an overlay of psychologizing that attempts to explain the genesis of good and evil. Despite it's initial poor critical reception, it proved highly popular, and eventually would be reevaluated by some critics as an important work.

Except for The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), a fine novel tracing the moral collapse of a descendant of an old New England family who cannot cope with the twentieth century, Steinbeck’s best work as a writer in the postwar years is to be found in his lighthearted travel book Travels with Charley (1962), an account of his forty-state tour with his poodle.

Author Works Long Fiction: Cup of Gold, 1929 The Pastures of Heaven, 1932 To a God Unknown, 1933 Tortilla Flat, 1935 In Dubious Battle, 1936 The Red Pony, 1937, 1938, 1945 Of Mice and Men, 1937 The Grapes of Wrath, 1939 The Moon Is Down, 1942 Cannery Row, 1945 The Pearl, 1945 (serial), 1947 (book) The Wayward Bus, 1947 Burning Bright, 1950 East of Eden, 1952 Sweet Thursday, 1954 The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication, 1957 The Winter of Our Discontent, 1961 Short Fiction: Saint Katy the Virgin, 1936 The Long Valley, 1938 Drama: Of Mice and Men, pr., pb. 1937 The Moon Is Down, pr. 1942 Burning Bright, pb. 1951 Screenplays: The Forgotten Village, 1941 Lifeboat, 1944 A Medal for Benny, 1945 The Pearl, 1945 The Red Pony, 1949 Viva Zapata!, 1952 Nonfiction: Their Blood Is Strong, 1938 The Forgotten Village, 1941 Sea of Cortez, 1941 (with Edward F. Ricketts) Bombs Away, 1942 A Russian Journal, 1948 (with Robert Capa) Once There Was a War, 1958 Travels with Charley: In Search of America, 1962 Letters to Alicia, 1965 America and Americans, 1966 Journal of a Novel, 1969 Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, 1975 (Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, editors) America and Americans, and Selected Nonfiction, 2002 (Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson, editors) Translation: The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, 1976 Bibliography Astro, Richard, and Tetsumaro Hayashi, eds. Steinbeck: The Man and His Work. Oregon State University Press, 1971. One of the first full-length works published after Steinbeck’s death, this collection of essays presents a range of opinions regarding Steinbeck and his work. Benson, Jackson D. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. Viking Press, 1984. This biography emphasizes Steinbeck’s rebellion against critical conventions and his attempts to keep his private life separate from his role as public figure. DeMott, Robert J., ed. Steinbeck’s Typewriter: Essays on His Art. Whitston, 1996. A collection of criticism, with bibliographical references and an index. Fontenrose, Joseph. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. This book discusses some of the symbolism inherent in much of Steinbeck’s fiction, including observations on Steinbeck’s concept of the "group-man"—that is, the individual as a unit in the larger sociobiological organism. French, Warren. John Steinbeck’s Fiction Revisited. Twayne, 1994. A general discussion of Steinbeck's work, including major short stories such as "Flight" and "Chrysanthemums." George, Stephen K., ed. John Steinbeck: A Centennial Tribute. Praeger, 2002. A collection of reminiscences from Steinbeck’s family and friends as well as wide-ranging critical assessments of his works. Hayashi, Tetsumaro, ed. Steinbeck’s Short Stories in "The Long Valley": Essays in Criticism. Steinbeck Research Institution, 1991. A collection of critical essays on the stories in The Long Valley (excluding The Red Pony), from a variety of critical perspectives. Hughes, R. S. John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne, 1989. A general introduction to Steinbeck’s short fiction, focusing primarily on critical reception to the stories. Johnson, Claudia Durst, ed. Understanding "Of Mice and Men," "The Red Pony," and "The Pearl": A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Greenwood Press, 1997. This casebook contains historical, social, and political materials as a context for Steinbeck’s three novellas. McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw, eds. John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge University Press, 1996. A selection of reviews of Steinbeck’s work. Noble, Donald R. The Steinbeck Question: New Essays in Criticism. Whitston Publishing, 1993. A collection of essays on most of Steinbeck’s work; including Robert S. Hughes Jr.'s "The Art of Story Writing," Charlotte Hadella’s "Steinbeck’s Cloistered Women," and Michael J. Meyer’s "The Snake." Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. Henry Holt, 1995. This biography suggests psychological interpretations of the effect of Steinbeck’s childhood and sociological interpretations of his fiction. Steinbeck, Elaine, and Robert Wallsten. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Viking Press, 1975. A collection of letters written by Steinbeck between 1929 and his death forty years later. Timmerman, John H. The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck’s Short Stories. University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. A formalist interpretation of Steinbeck’s stories, focusing on style, tone, imagery, and character.

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