John Steinbeck (b.1902 in Salinas, California - d.1968 in NYC) was an American author known for describing human suffering, particularly among migrant workers. He was masculine in his style, and a supporter of the Vietnam War who admired some of the military weaponry. Steinbeck's writings generally reflect, with one notable exception, a higher respect for prostitutes (of whom there were many in his novels) than socially accepted women. He wrote 16 novels, 6 non-fiction books, and 5 compilations of short stories.
Steinbeck's writing was inspired by the scenic beauty of his working-class home town of Salinas, located in the Salinas Valley and dubbed the "Salad Bowl of the Nation." Steinbeck's novels contained characters inspired by real persons, such as Cathy (the evil woman in East of Eden), who was supposedly based on his reportedly unfaithful second wife Gwyndolyn Conger, and four characters in Steinbeck's books were based entirely on his friend Ed Ricketts, whose death from being hit by a train in nearly Monterey in 1948 was devastating both to Steinbeck and his subsequent written work.
Steinbeck attended Stanford University without graduating. He wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a migrant family entitled The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which was the best-selling book of that year with sales of 430,000 by February 1940. In 1962 Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature. On the personal side, he forced his first wife to have an abortion against her desire to keep the baby; the abortion was botched to her severe harm. They divorced in 1943, and soon afterwards Steinbeck married Gwedolyn “Gwyn” Conger, a 20-year-old jazz singer 17 years younger than Steinbeck, and they had two children. In 1948 they divorced, and in 1950 Steinbeck married his third wife, Elaine Scott.
Steinbeck grew up in and spent most of his writing career in California. Some of his works have been made into movies, including Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), Of Mice and Men (1939) (about two migrant workers who were friends) and East of Eden (1952) (which was turned into a successful movie). Steinbeck was also successful as a Hollywood writer, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Story in 1944 for Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, although Steinbeck disliked the movie's distortion of his work and asked that his name be taken off its promotion.
The titles of all three of Steinbeck's most prominent works were taken from the Bible (The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden) or a poem (Of Mice and Men). The movie versions of each of these are considered by many to be better than the books themselves. Steinbeck's first wife helped pick The Grapes of Wrath title after Steinbeck struggled in finding a catchy phrase for it.
Steinbeck's books were highly controversial and have been the subject of many attempts at censorship, both by the left and the right. Of Mice and Men is number six on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently censored books, 1990-2000. The Grapes of Wrath is also a frequent target of censors. But Steinbeck's later novels, including East of Eden, are not considered as high in literary quality as his earlier works, culminating in The Grapes of Wrath.
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 lifelong smoker. An autopsy showed nearly complete occlusion of the main coronary arteries.
|“||There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say.||”|
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath 23 (2002).
As quoted by the D.C. Circuit, in Ass'n of Am. R.R. v. United States DOT, 422 U.S. App. D.C. 202, 222, 821 F.3d 19, 39 (2016):
|“||Train schedules are a matter of pride and of apprehension to nearly everyone. When, far up the track, the block signal snapped from red to green and the long, stabbing probe of the headlight sheered the bend and blared on the station, men looked at their watches and said, 'On time.' There was pride in it, and relief too. The split second has been growing more and more important to us. And as human activities become more and more intermeshed and integrated, the split tenth of a second will emerge, and then a new name must be made for the split hundredth, until one day, although I don't believe it, we'll say, 'Oh, the hell with it. What's wrong with an hour?' ... One thing late or early can disrupt everything around it, and the disturbance runs outward in bands like the waves from a dropped stone in a quiet pool.||”|
John Steinbeck, East of Eden 533 (Penguin Books 2002).
View of Women
Steinbeck did not espouse a politically correct view of women. Steinbeck's prostitutes in Cannery Row, in particular Dora, were highly compassionate women as inspired by nearby Monterey, a town Steinbeck liked better than the Salinas town that was his home.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein based the Broadway musical Pipe Dream on Steinbeck's Cannery Row characters from Sweet Thursday, but transformed Steinbeck’s compassionate prostitute Suzy into a caricature of a mere visiting nurse. Steinbeck was appalled at this distortion of his work.
But in general Steinbeck's women were undeveloped in character compared with the men in his novels.
The National Steinbeck Center to continue Steinbeck's legacy is located in the center of Salinas, California, where Steinbeck was born. It is situated 17 miles east by car of Monterey and 60 miles south by car of San Jose.
Steinbeck grew up in Salinas, California, and included in his novels gossip from his town:
|“||[H]is characters were often lonely, misunderstood farmers and ranchers; and in his books, dreams of ordinary workers are dashed—his books tell of failed dreams of land ownership in California. The Grapes of Wrath, his signature novel, published in 1939, traces the journey of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California, where they find not the fabled land of their dreams but a place with few jobs, low wages, and inadequate worker housing. Steinbeck’s novel excoriated the greed of the Associated Farmers, business interests in California.||”|
|“||A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.||”|
|“||I know now why confusion in government is not only tolerated but encouraged. I have learned. A confused people can make no clear demands.||”|
|“||Don't worry about losing. If it is right, it happens - The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.||”|
A son of John Steinbeck, Thomas Steinbeck, said about his father John:
|“||The biggest impact my father had on my life was teaching the importance of literacy.||”|
- Cup of Gold (1929)
- The Pastures of Heaven (1932)
- The Red Pony (1933)
- To a God Unknown (1933)
- Tortilla Flat (1935)
- The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath (1936)
- In Dubious Battle (1936)
- Of Mice and Men (1937)
- The Long Valley (1938)
- The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
- Forgotten Village (1941)
- Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941)
- The Moon Is Down (1942)
- Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942)
- Cannery Row (1945)
- The Wayward Bus (1947)
- The Pearl (1947)
- A Russian Journal (1948)
- Burning Bright (1950)
- The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951)
- East of Eden (1952)
- Sweet Thursday (1954)
- The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957)
- Once There Was A War (1958)
- The Winter of Our Discontent (1961)
- Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962)
- America and Americans (1966)
Posthumous publishings include:
- Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969)
- Viva Zapata! (1975)
- The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976)
- Workings Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (1989)
- http://www.steinbeck.org/MainFrame.html - John Steinbeck Center
- http://www.steinbeck.org/Bio.html - Biography
- http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1962/steinbeck-bio.html - Nobel Prize Laureates
- Quoted in Kaffaga v. Estate of Steinbeck, 938 F.3d 1006, 1010 (9th Cir. 2019).