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||John Steinbeck (1902-1968)|
American novelist, story writer, playwright, and essayist. John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He is best remembered for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a novel widely considered to be a 20th-century classic. The impact of the book has been compared to that of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Steinbeck's epic about the migration of the Joad family, driven from its bit of land in Oklahoma to California, provoked a wide debate about the hard lot of migrant laborers, and helped to put an agricultural reform into effect.
"Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up in the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments." (from The Grapes of Wrath)
John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California. His native region of Monterey Bay was later the setting for most of his fiction. "We were poor people with a hell of a lot of land which made us think we were rich people," the author once recalled. Steinbeck's father was a county treasurer. From his mother, a teacher, Steinbeck learned to love books. Among his early favorites were Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Le Morte d'Arthur.
Steinbeck attended the local high school and worked on farms
and ranches during his vacations. To finance his education, he held
many jobs and sometimes dropped out of college for whole quarters. In
1923 he took a general zoology course at the Hopkins Marine station,
Pacific Grove, but did not continue his studies further - he always planned to be a writer. His early
poems and short stories appeared in diverse magazines. After spending a
short time as a laborer on the construction of Madison Square Garden in
New York City and reporter for the American, Steinbeck returned
to California. While writing, Steinbeck took odd jobs. He was
apprenticehood-carrier, apprentice painter, caretaker of an estate,
surveyor, and fruit-picker. During a period, when he was as a watchman
of a house in the High Sierra, Steinbeck wrote his first book, Cup of Gold (1929).
It failed to
earn back the $250 the publisher had given him in an advance. For a
long period, Steinbeck wrote in longhand on yellow legal pages; later
in life he dictated his words for a secretary to transcribe. (Hemingway
used a typewriter. His favorite was the Royal Quiet Deluxe.)
In Pacific Grove in the early 1930s, Steinbeck met Edward Ricketts. He was a marine biologist, whose views on the interdependence of all life deeply influenced Steinbeck's thinking. Sea of Cortez (1941) resulted from an expedition in the Gulf of California he made with Ricketts.
Pastures of Heaven (1932) and The Long Valley (1938) were short story collections, in which the Salinas valley played similar mythical role as the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County in Faulkner's works, based largely on his hometown of Oxford, in Lafayette County, Mississippi. In the novel To a God Unknown (1933) Steinbeck mingled Ricketts' ideas with Jungian concepts and themes, which had been made familiar by the mythologist Joseph Campbell. The novel depicts a farmer, Joseph Wayne, who receives a blessing from his pioneer father, John Wayne, and goes to build himself a new farm in a distant valley. Joseph develops his own beliefs of death and life, and to bring an end to a drought, he sacrifices himself on a stone, becoming "earth and rain". Steinbeck did not want to explain his story too much and he knew beforehand that the book would not find readers.
Steinbeck's first three novels went unnoticed, but his humorous tale of pleasure-loving Mexican-Americans, Tortilla Flat (1935), brought him wider recognition. The theme of the book - the story of King Arthur and the forming of the Round Table - emained well hidden from the readers and critics as well. However, Steinbeck's financial situation improved significantly-he had earned $35 a week for a long time, but now he was paid thousands of dollars for the film rights to Tortilla Flat.
In Dubious Battle (1936) was a strike novel set in the California apple country. The strike of nine hundred migratory workers is led by Jim Nolan, devoted to his cause. Before his death Jim confesses: "I never had time to look at things, Mac, never. I never looked how leaves come out. I never looked at the way things happen." One of the characters, Doc Burton, a detached observer, Steinbeck partly derived from his friend Ed Ricketts. Later Steinbeck developed his observer's personality with changes in such works as Cannery Row (1945), which returned to the world of Tortilla Flat. The novel was an account of the adventures and misadventures of workers in a California cannery and their friends. Its sequel, Sweet Thurday came out in 1954.
The events of The Red Pony (1937) take place on the Tiflin ranch in the Salinas Valley, California. The first two sections of the story sequence, "The Gift" and "The Great Mountains", were published in the North American Review in 1933, and the third section, "The Promise," did not appear in Harpers until 1937. With "The Leader of the People," the four sections are connected by common characters, settings, and themes. Through each story, the reader follows Jody's initiation into adult life, in which the pony of the title functions as a symbol of his innocence and maturation. A movie version, for which Steinbeck wrote the screenplay, was made in 1949. Steinbeck's other script assignments include The Pearl, the prose treatment for Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), and the script for Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! (1952), starring Marlon Brando.
Of Mice and Men (1937), a story of shattered dreams, became Steinbeck's first big success. Steinbeck adapted it also into a three-act play, which was produced in 1937. George Milton and Lennia Small, two itinerant ranchhands, dream of one day owning a small farm. George acts as a father figure to Lennie, who is large and simpleminded. Lennie loves all that is soft, but his immense physical strength is a source of troubles and George is needed to calm him. The two friends find work from a farm and start saving money for their future. Annoyed by the bullying foreman of the ranch, Lenny breaks the foreman's arm, but also wakes the interest of the ranch owner's flirtatious daughter-in-law. Lenny accidentally kills her and escapes into the hiding place, that he and George have agreed to use, if they get into difficulties. George hurries after Lenny and shoots him before he is captured by a vengeful mob but at the same time he loses his own hopes and dreams of better future. Before he dies, Lennie says: "Let's do it now. Le's get that place now."
For The Grapes of Wrath - the title originated from Julia Ward Howe's The
Battle Hymn of the Republic (1861) - Steinbeck
traveled around California migrant camps in 1936. When the book
appeared, it was attacked by US Congressman Lyle Boren, who
characterized it as "a lie, a black, infernal creation of twisted,
distorted mind". (American World Literature: An Introduction by Paul Giles, 2019, p. 163)
Later, when Steinbeck received his Nobel Prize, the
Swedish Academy called it simply "an epic chronicle." The Exodus story
of Okies on their way to an uncertain future in California, ends with a
scene in which Rose of Sharon, who has just delivered a stillborn
child, suckles a starving man with her breast. "Rose of Sharon loosened
one side of the blanket and bared her breast. 'You got to,' she said.
She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. 'There!' she said.
'There.' Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers
moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her
lips came together and smiled mysteriously." Not impressed by the last
scene, Hemingway said, "aside from anything else, that's hardly the
solution to our economic problem." ('The Writer Who Said What Hemingway Couldn't' by Jackson J. Benson, Los Angles Times, April 9, 1989)
John Ford's film version from 1940, produced by Darryl F.
Zanuck, dismissed this ending - the final
images optimistically celebrate President Roosevelt's New Deal. "We're
the people that live. They can't wipe us out. They can't lick us. We'll
go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people," says Ma Joad. Steinbeck
himself was skeptical of Hollywood's faithfulness to his material.
However, after seeing the film he said: "Zanuck has more than kept his
word. He has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged
so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and
certainly has a hard, truthful ring." ('The Artful Propaganda of Ford's The Grapes of Wrath' by Leslie Gossage, in New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, edited by David Wyatt, 1990, p. 101) Orson Welles did not like Ford's
interpretation because he "made that into a story about mother love." (Searching for John Ford by Joseph McBride, 2011, p. 315)
Fleeing publicity followed by the success of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck went to Mexico in 1940 to film the documentary Forgotten Village. During WW II, Steinbeck served as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune in Great Britain and the Mediterranean area. He wrote such government propaganda as the novel The Moon Is Down (1942), about resistance movement in a small town, presumaly in Norway, occupied by the Nazis. Its film version, starring Henry Travers, Cedric Hardwicke, and Lee J. Cobb, was shot on the set of How Green Was My Valley (1941), which depicted a Welsh mining village. "Free men cannot start a war," Steinbeck wrote, "but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars." Steinbeck had visited Europe in 1937 after gaining success with Of Mice and Men, and met on a Swedish ship two Norwegians, with whom he had celebrated Norway's independence day. In 1943 Steinbeck moved to New York City, his home for the rest of his life. His summers the author spent at Sag Harbor. He also travelled much in Europe.
Steinbeck's twelve-year marriage to Carol Henning had ended in 1942. Next year he married the singer Gwyndolyn Conger; they had two sons, Thom and John. However, the marriage was unhappy and they were divorced in 1949. Steinbeck's postwar works include The Pearl (1947), a symbolic tale of a Mexican Indian pearl diver Kino. He finds a valuable pearl which changes his life, but not in the way he did expect. Kino sees the pearl as his opportunity to better life. When the townsfolk of La Paz learn of Kino's treasury, he is soon surrounded by a greedy priest, doctor, and businessmen. Kino's family suffers series of disasters and finally he throws the pearl back into ocean. Thereafter his tragedy is legendary in the town. Thematically Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea from 1952 has much similarities with this work.
A Russian Journal
(1948) was an account of the author's journey to the Soviet Union with
the photographer Robert Capa. Steinbeck's idea was to describe the
country without prejudices, but he could not move freely, he could not
speak Russian, and the Soviet hosts, perhaps by the order of Stalin
himself, took care that there were more than enough vodka, champagne,
caviar, chickens, honey, tomatoes, kebabs, and watermelons on their
guest's table. Steinbeck was appalled by the devastation he saw in
Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Kiev. The journey continued to
Georgia, "the paradise Russians like to think they will go to when they
die," as Steinbeck wrote.
The director Elia Kazan met Steinbeck when the author had separated from Gwyn and was drinking heavily. "I don't think John Steinbeck should have been living in New York, I don't think he should have been writing plays," Kazan wrote in his autobiography. "He was a prose writer, at home in the west, with land, with horses, or on a boat; in this big city, he was a dupe." (A Life by Elia Kazan, 1989, p. 843) Their most famous film project, East of Eden, covered the last part of the book. James Dean made his debut in the film. Kazan originally wanted Marlon Brando to play the role of Cal. He sent Dean to see Steinbeck, who considered him a snotty kid, but said he was Cal "sure as hell". Dean received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, but Lee Rogow was not satisfied: "Kazan has apparently attempted to graft a Brando-type personality and set of mannerisms upon Dean, and the result is less than successful... this artful construction of a performance is not, to get Stanislavskian about it, building a character." (Saturday Review, March 19, 1955)
In 1950 Steinbeck married Elaine (Anderson) Scott, the independent daughter of Texas oilman and the ex-wife Zachery Scott, an actor. They purchased a house in New York, where he settled down to write East of Eden (1952). Elaine took care of the house and his sons when they visited.
East of Eden, the title referring to the fallen world,
is long family novel, is set in rural California in the years around
the turn of the century. In the center of the saga, based partly on the
story of Cain and Abel, is two families of settlers, the Trasks and the
Hamiltons, whose history reflect the formation of the United States,
when "the Church and the whorehouse arrived in the Far West
simultaneously..." The second half of the
story focus on the lives of the twins, Aron and Caleb, and their
conflict. Between them is Cathy, tiny, pretty, but an adulteress and
murderess. "It doesn't matter that Cathy was what I have called a
monster. Perhaps we can't understand Cathy, but on the other hand we
are capable of many things in all directions, of great virtues and
great sins. And who in his mind has not probed the black water?" (East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Vikig Press, 1980, p. 132)
Steinbeck wrote thousands of letters, sometimes several a day.
To Pascal Covici, his friend, he confessed that he wanted to write the
work to his sons, the story of good and evil, love and hate, to
demonstrate to them how they are inseparable. His writing process
Steinbeck clarified step by step in Journal
of a Novel
(1969): "This week has been a hard one. I have put the forces of evil
against a potential good. Yesterday I wrote the outward thing of what
happened. Today I have to show what came of it. This is quite different
from the modern hard-boiled school." (Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck, 1977, p. 158)
In 1959 Steinbeck spent nearly a year at Discove Cottage in
England, working with Morte d'Arthur, the first book he had
read as a child. After returning to the United States, he travelled
with a French poodle, Charley, around the country in 1960 GMC pickup with camper. The account of his experiences, Travels with Charley in Search of America, came out in 1962.
Hemingway loved cats but Steinbeck was definitively a dog
person. "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," he once said. ('John Steinbeck: The Famous Charley,' in Writers and Their Pets by Kathleen Krull; illustrated by Violet Lemay, 2019, p. 117) Steinbeck's son John said in The Other Side of Eden: Life With John Steinbeck (2001)
that his father was too shy to talk to
any of the people in the book, and called it "a great novel" instead of
a travel book. Charley was actually Elaine's dog. The title of the book
was her idea.
The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), set in contemporary America, was Steinbeck's last major novel. The book was not well received, and critics considered him an exhausted. Not even the Nobel Prize changed opinions. The short list for the 1962 prize consisted of Steinbeck, Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell, Jean Anouilh and Karen Blixen; Steinbeck was a compromise choice. The New York Times asked in an editorial, whether the prize committee might not have made a better choice. Steinbeck took this public humiliation hard. In later years he did much special reporting abroad, dividing his time between New York and California.
When Steinbeck toured the USSR again in 1963 with his wife, he was greeted as a "progressive" American writer. However, his Russian Journal from
1948 was not published in Russia until 42 years after it had appeared
in America. For the disappointment of Soviet authorities, Steinbeck did
not condemn the growing American involvement in Vietnam. On his flight
from Yerevan to Moscow, Steinbeck and his American travel companions
were given seats in the only row in the airplane, that did not have
windows. ('A Note on Steinbeck's 1963 Visit the Soviet Union' by Peter Bridges, in Steinbeck Review, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 2007)
For a while, Steinbeck served as an advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose Vietnam policies he agreed with. At the White House President asked Steinbeck to report on the war. Steinbeck wrote for the newspaper Newsday a series of articles, which divided his readers. The New York Post attacked him for betraying his liberal past.
John Steinbeck died of heart attack in New York on December 20, 1968. In the posthumously published The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), Steinbeck turned his back on contemporary subjects and brought to life the Arthurian world with its ancient codes of honour. Steinbeck had started the work with enthusiasm but never finished it. Steinbeck's son John had problems in later years with drugs and alcohol; he died in 1991.
For further reading: The Wide World of John Steinbeck by P. Lisca (1958); John Steinbeck by W. French (1961); John Steinbeck by F.W. Watt (1962); Steinbeck: The Man and His Work, ed. by R. Astro and T. Hayashi (1971); John Steinbeck by J. Gray (1971); Steinbeck: A Life in Letters by John Steinbeck, Elaine Steinbeck, Robert Wallsten (1975); Steinbeck and Covici: The Story of a Friendship by T. Fensch (1979); John Steinbeck by P. McCarthy (1980); John Steinbeck's Fiction by John H. Timmerman (1986); Conversations With John Steinbeck, ed. by Thomas Fensch (1988); The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography by Jackson J. Benson (1990); John Steinbeck by Jay Parini (1994); John Steinbeck: A Centennial Tribute ed. by Stephen K. George (2002); Carol & John Steinbeck Portrait of a Marriage by Susan Shillinglaw (2013); A Political Companion to John Steinbeck, edited by Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh and Simon Stow (2013); Steinbeck: Citizen Spy: The Untold Story of John Steinbeck and the CIA by Brian Kannard (2013); On Reading the Grapes of Wrath by Susan Shillinglaw (2014); Citizen Steinbeck: Giving Voice to the People by Robert McParland (2016); 'John Steinbeck: The Famous Charley,' in Writers and Their Pets by Kathleen Krull; illustrated by Violet Lemay (2019); Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Souder (2020)