"Steinbeck" redirects here. For other people with this surname, see Steinbeck (surname).
John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr. (; February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception". He has been called "a giant of American letters", and many of his works are considered classics of Western literature.
During his writing career, he authored 27 books, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books, and two collections of short stories. He is widely known for the comic novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Cannery Row (1945), the multi-generation epic East of Eden (1952), and the novellas Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Red Pony (1937). The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered Steinbeck's masterpiece and part of the American literary canon. In the first 75 years after it was published, it sold 14 million copies.
Most of Steinbeck's work is set in central California, particularly in the Salinas Valley and the California Coast Ranges region. His works frequently explored the themes of fate and injustice, especially as applied to downtrodden or everymanprotagonists.
Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He was of German, English, and Irish descent. Johann Adolf Großsteinbeck (1828–1913), Steinbeck's paternal grandfather, shortened the family name to Steinbeck when he immigrated to the United States. The family farm in Heiligenhaus, Mettmann, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, is still named "Großsteinbeck."
His father, John Ernst Steinbeck (1862–1935), served as Monterey County treasurer. John's mother, Olive Hamilton (1867–1934), a former school teacher, shared Steinbeck's passion for reading and writing. The Steinbecks were members of the Episcopal Church, although Steinbeck later became agnostic. Steinbeck lived in a small rural town, no more than a frontier settlement, set in some of the world's most fertile land. He spent his summers working on nearby ranches and later with migrant workers on Spreckels sugar beet farms. There he learned of the harsher aspects of the migrant life and the darker side of human nature, which supplied him with material expressed in such works as Of Mice and Men. He explored his surroundings, walking across local forests, fields, and farms. While working at Spreckels Sugar Company, he sometimes worked in their laboratory, which gave him time to write. He had considerable mechanical aptitude and fondness for repairing things he owned.
Steinbeck graduated from Salinas High School in 1919 and went on to study English Literature at Stanford University near Palo Alto, leaving without a degree in 1925. He traveled to New York City where he took odd jobs while trying to write. When he failed to publish his work, he returned to California and worked in 1928 as a tour guide and caretaker at Lake Tahoe, where he met Carol Henning, his first wife. They married in January 1930 in Los Angeles, where, with friends, he attempted to make money by manufacturing plaster mannequins.
When their money ran out six months later due to a slow market, Steinbeck and Carol moved back to Pacific Grove, California, to a cottage owned by his father, on the Monterey Peninsula a few blocks outside the Monterey city limits. The elder Steinbecks gave John free housing, paper for his manuscripts, and from 1928, loans that allowed him to write without looking for work. During the Great Depression, Steinbeck bought a small boat, and later claimed that he was able to live on the fish and crab that he gathered from the sea, and fresh vegetables from his garden and local farms. When those sources failed, Steinbeck and his wife accepted welfare, and on rare occasions, stole bacon from the local produce market. Whatever food they had, they shared with their friends. Carol became the model for Mary Talbot in Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row.
In 1930, Steinbeck met the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who became a close friend and mentor to Steinbeck during the following decade, teaching him a great deal about philosophy and biology. Ricketts, usually very quiet, yet likable, with an inner self-sufficiency and an encyclopedic knowledge of diverse subjects, became a focus of Steinbeck's attention. Ricketts had taken a college class from Warder Clyde Allee, a biologist and ecological theorist, who would go on to write a classic early textbook on ecology. Ricketts became a proponent of ecological thinking, in which man was only one part of a great chain of being, caught in a web of life too large for him to control or understand. Meanwhile, Ricketts operated a biological lab on the coast of Monterey, selling biological samples of small animals, fish, rays, starfish, turtles, and other marine forms to schools and colleges.
Between 1930 and 1936, Steinbeck and Ricketts became close friends. Steinbeck's wife began working at the lab as secretary-bookkeeper. Steinbeck helped on an informal basis. They formed a common bond based on their love of music and art, and John learned biology and Ricketts' ecological philosophy. When Steinbeck became emotionally upset, Ricketts sometimes played music for him.
Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold, published in 1929, is loosely based on the life and death of privateerHenry 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 women, fairer than the sun, who were said to be found there.
Between 1930 and 1933, Steinbeck produced three shorter works. The Pastures of Heaven, published in 1932, consists of twelve interconnected stories about a valley near Monterey, which was discovered by a Spanish corporal while chasing runaway 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, named after a Vedic hymn, 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. Although he had not achieved the status of a well-known writer, he never doubted that he would achieve greatness.
Steinbeck achieved his first critical success with Tortilla Flat (1935), a novel set in post-war Monterey, California, that won the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal. It portrays the adventures of a group of classless and usually homeless young men in Monterey after World War I, just before U.S. prohibition. They are portrayed in ironic comparison to mythic knights on a quest and reject nearly all the standard mores of American society in enjoyment of a dissolute life devoted to wine, lust, camaraderie and petty theft. In presenting the 1962 Nobel Prize to Steinbeck, the Swedish Academy cited "spicy and comic tales about a gang of paisanos, asocial individuals who, in their wild revels, are almost caricatures of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. It has been said that in the United States this book came as a welcome antidote to the gloom of the then prevailing depression."Tortilla Flat was adapted as a 1942 film of the same name, starring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr and John Garfield, a friend of Steinbeck. With some of the proceeds, he built a summer ranch-home in Los Gatos.
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. He also wrote an article series called The Harvest Gypsies for the San Francisco News about the plight of the migrant worker.
Of Mice and Men was a drama about the dreams of two migrant agricultural laborers in California. It was critically acclaimed and Steinbeck's 1962 Nobel Prize citation called it a "little masterpiece". Its stage production was a hit, starring Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as George's companion, the mentally childlike, but physically powerful itinerant farmhand Lennie. Steinbeck refused to travel from his home in California to attend any performance of the play during its New York run, telling director George S. 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 wrote two more stage plays (The Moon Is Down and Burning Bright).
Of Mice and Men was also adapted as a 1939 Hollywood film, with Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lennie (he had filled the role in the Los Angeles stage production) and Burgess Meredith as George. Meredith and Steinbeck became close friends for the next two decades. Another film based on the novella was made in 1992 starring Gary Sinise as George and John Malkovich as Lennie.
Steinbeck followed this wave of success with The Grapes of Wrath (1939), based on newspaper articles about migrant agricultural workers that he had written in San Francisco. It is commonly considered his greatest work. According to The New York Times, it was the best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940. In that month, it won the National Book Award, favorite fiction book of 1939, voted by members of the American Booksellers Association. Later that year, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was adapted as a film directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad; Fonda was nominated for the best actor Academy Award.
Grapes was controversial. 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 CountyBoard of Supervisorsbanned the book from the county's publicly funded 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 of this damned thing. It is completely out of hand; I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy."
The film versions of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men (by two different movie studios) were in production simultaneously, allowing Steinbeck to spend a full day on the set of The Grapes of Wrath and the next day on the set of Of Mice and Men.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Ed Ricketts strongly influenced Steinbeck's writing. Steinbeck frequently took small trips with Ricketts along the California coast to give himself time off from his writing and to collect biological specimens, which Ricketts sold for a living. Their joint book about a collecting expedition to the Gulf of California in 1940, which was part travelogue and part natural history, published just as the U.S. entered World War II, never found an audience and did not sell well. However, in 1951, Steinbeck republished the narrative portion of the book as The Log from the Sea of Cortez, under his name only (though Ricketts had written some of it). This work remains in print today.
Although Carol accompanied Steinbeck on the trip, their marriage was beginning to suffer, and ended a year later, in 1941, even as Steinbeck worked on the manuscript for the book. In 1942, after his divorce from Carol he married Gwyndolyn "Gwyn" Conger. With his second wife Steinbeck had two sons, Thomas ("Thom") Myles Steinbeck (1944–2016) and John Steinbeck IV (1946–1991).
Ricketts was Steinbeck's model for the character of "Doc" in Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954), "Friend Ed" in Burning Bright, and characters in In Dubious Battle (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Ecological themes recur in Steinbeck's novels of the period.
Steinbeck's close relations with Ricketts ended in 1941 when Steinbeck moved away from Pacific Grove and divorced his wife Carol. Ricketts' biographer Eric Enno Tamm notes that, except for East of Eden (1952), Steinbeck's writing declined after Ricketts' untimely death in 1948.
Steinbeck's novel The Moon Is Down (1942), about the Socrates-inspired spirit of resistance in an occupied village in Northern Europe, was made into a film almost immediately. It was presumed that the unnamed country of the novel was Norway and the occupiers the Nazis. In 1945, Steinbeck received the Haakon VII Cross of freedom for his literary contributions to the Norwegian resistance movement.
In 1943, Steinbeck served as a World War II war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and worked with the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA). It was at that time he became friends with Will Lang, Jr. of Time/Life magazine. During the war, Steinbeck accompanied the commando raids of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s Beach Jumpers program, which launched small-unit diversion operations against German-held islands in the Mediterranean. At one point, he accompanied Fairbanks on an invasion of an island off the coast of Italy and helped capture Italian and German prisoners, using a Tommy Gun. Some of his writings from this period were incorporated in the documentary Once There Was a War (1958).
Steinbeck returned from the war with a number of wounds from shrapnel and some psychological trauma. He treated himself, as ever, by writing. He wrote Alfred Hitchcock's movie, Lifeboat (1944), and the film, A Medal for Benny (1945), with screenwriter Jack Wagner about paisanos from Tortilla Flat going to war. He later requested that his name be removed from the credits of Lifeboat, because he believed the final version of the film had racist undertones. In 1944, suffering from homesickness for his Pacific Grove/Monterey life of the 1930s, he wrote Cannery Row (1945), which became so famous that Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, the location of the book, was renamed Cannery Row in 1958.
After the war, he wrote The Pearl (1947), knowing it would be filmed eventually. The story first appeared in the December 1945 issue of Woman's Home Companion magazine as "The Pearl of the World." It was illustrated by John Alan Maxwell. The novel is an imaginative telling of a story which Steinbeck had heard in La Paz in 1940, as related in The Log From the Sea of Cortez, which he described in Chapter 11 as being "so much like a parable that it almost can't be". 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.
In 1947, Steinbeck made the first of many trips to the Soviet Union, this one with photographer Robert Capa. They visited Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi and Stalingrad, some of the first Americans to visit many parts of the USSR since the communist revolution. Steinbeck's 1948 book about their experiences, A Russian Journal, was illustrated with Capa's photos. In 1948, the year the book was published, Steinbeck was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1952 Steinbeck's longest novel, East of Eden, was published. According to his third wife, Elaine, he considered it his magnum opus, his greatest novel.
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; 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: 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 has a very different 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. In the Nobel Prize presentation speech next year, however, the Swedish Academy cited it most favorably: "Here he attained the same standard which he set in The Grapes of Wrath. Again he holds his position as an independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad."
Apparently taken aback by the critical reception of this novel, and 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." The selection was heavily criticized, and described as "one of the Academy's biggest mistakes" in one Swedish newspaper. The reaction of American literary critics was also harsh. The New York Times asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose "limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophising", noting that "[T]he international character of the award and the weight attached to it raise questions about the mechanics of selection and how close the Nobel committee is to the main currents of American writing.... [W]e think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer ... whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age". Steinbeck, when asked on the day of the announcement if he deserved the Nobel, replied: "Frankly, no." Biographer Jackson Benson notes, "[T]his honor was one of the few in the world that one could not buy nor gain by political maneuver. It was precisely because the committee made its judgment ... on its own criteria, rather than plugging into 'the main currents of American writing' as defined by the critical establishment, that the award had value." 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
In 2012, (50 years later), the Nobel Prize opened its archives and it was revealed that Steinbeck was a "compromise choice" among a shortlist consisting of Steinbeck, British authors Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell, French dramatist Jean Anouilh and Danish author Karen Blixen. The declassified documents showed that he was chosen as the best of a bad lot. "There aren't any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation," wrote committee member Henry Olsson. Although the committee believed Steinbeck's best work was behind him by 1962, committee member Anders Österling believed the release of his novel The Winter of Our Discontent showed that "after some signs of slowing down in recent years, [Steinbeck has] regained his position as a social truth-teller [and is an] authentic realist fully equal to his predecessors Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway."
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, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Steinbeck Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 1967, at the behest of Newsday magazine, Steinbeck went to Vietnam to report on the war. He thought of the Vietnam War as a heroic venture and was considered a hawk for his position on the war. His sons served in Vietnam before his death, and Steinbeck visited one son in the battlefield. At one point he was allowed to man a machine-gun watch position at night at a firebase while his son and other members of his platoon slept.
In May 1948, Steinbeck returned to California on an emergency trip to be with his friend Ed Ricketts, who had been seriously injured when a train struck his car. Ricketts died hours before Steinbeck arrived. Upon returning home, Steinbeck was confronted by Gwyn, who asked for a divorce, which became final in August. Steinbeck spent the year after Ricketts' death in deep depression.
In June 1949, Steinbeck met stage-manager Elaine Scott at a restaurant in Carmel, California. Steinbeck and Scott eventually began a relationship and in December 1950 Steinbeck and Scott married, within a week of the finalizing of Scott's own divorce from actor Zachary Scott. This third marriage for Steinbeck lasted until his death in 1968.
In 1962, Steinbeck began acting as friend and mentor to the young writer and naturalist Jack Rudloe, who was trying to establish his own biological supply company, now Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Florida. Their correspondence continued until his death.
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 in 1858 in what became known as the Outrages at Jaffa.
Death and legacy
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.
In accordance with his wishes, his body was cremated, and interred on March 4, 1969 at the Hamilton family gravesite in Salinas, with those of his parents and maternal grandparents. His third wife, Elaine, was buried in the plot in 2004. He had 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.
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."
Steinbeck's incomplete novel based on the King Arthur legends of Malory and others, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, was published in 1976.
Many of Steinbeck's works are required reading 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 LiteratureGCSE. 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. Contra-wise, Steinbeck's works have been frequently banned in the United States. The Grapes of Wrath was banned by school boards: in August 1939, Kern CountyBoard of Supervisors banned the book from the county's publicly funded 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.
Opinions on Nobel Prize
The award of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature to Steinbeck was controversial in the United States. The award citation lauded Steinbeck "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception". Many critics complained that the author's best works were behind him. The New York Times ran an article by Arthur Mizener titled "Does a Writer with a Moral Vision of the 1930s Deserve the Nobel Prize?" that claimed Steinbeck was undeserving of the prestigious prize as he was a "limited talent" whose works were "watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing". Many American critics now consider these attacks to be politically motivated.
The British newspaper The Guardian, in a 2013 article that revealed that Steinbeck had been a compromise choice for the Nobel Prize, called him a "Giant of American Letters". Despite ongoing attacks on his literary reputation, Steinbeck's works continue to sell well and he is widely taught in American and British schools as a bridge to more complex literature. Works such as Of Mice and Men are short and easy to read, and compassionately illustrate universal themes that are still relevant in the 21st century.
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 actual American 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.
Steinbeck'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 1 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 Hovden Sardine Cannery next to Doc's laboratory is now occupied by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. 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 February 27, 1979 (the 77th anniversary of the writer's birth), 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.
To commemorate the 112th anniversary of Mr. Steinbeck's birthday on February 27, 2014, Google displayed an interactive doodle utilizing animation which included illustrations portraying scenes and quotes from several novels by the author.
Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts appear as a fictionalized characters in the 2016 novel, Monterey Bay about the founding of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, by Lindsay Hatton (Penguin Press).
Steinbeck was affiliated to the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and he stayed attached throughout his life to Episcopalianism. Especially in his works of fiction, Steinbeck was highly conscious of religion and incorporated it into his style and themes. The shaping of his characters often drew on the Bible and the theology of the Church of England, combining elements of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
Steinbeck distanced himself from religious views when he left Salinas for Stanford. However, the work he produced still reflected the language of his childhood at Salinas, and his beliefs remained a powerful influence within his fiction and non-fiction work. His Episcopalian views are prominently displayed in The Grapes of Wrath, in which themes of conversion and self-sacrifice play a major part in the characters Casy and Tom who achieve spiritual transcendence through conversion.
Steinbeck's contacts with leftist authors, journalists, and labor union figures may have influenced his writing. 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 Communist Party USA’s John Reed Club for writers, Steinbeck met with strike organizers from the Cannery and Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union. In 1939, he signed a letter with some other writers in support of the Soviet invasion of Finland and the Soviet-established puppet government.
Documents, released by the Central Intelligence Agency in 2012, indicate that Steinbeck offered his services to the Agency in 1952, while planning a European tour, and the Director of Central Intelligence, Walter Bedell Smith, was eager to take him up on the offer. What work, if any, Steinbeck may have performed for the CIA during the Cold War is unknown.
Steinbeck was a close associate of playwrightArthur Miller. In June 1957, Steinbeck took a personal and professional risk by supporting 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."
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 complained publicly about government harassment. Thomas Steinbeck, the author's eldest son, said that J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI at the time, 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, John Steinbeck 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.
In Dubious Battle
Main article: 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 tells the story of a fruit pickers' 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.
Of Mice and Men
Main article: Of Mice and Men
Of Mice and Men is a tragedy that was written as a play in 1937. The story is about two traveling ranch workers, George and Lennie, trying to earn enough money to buy their own farm/ranch. As it is set in 1930s America, it provides an insight into The Great Depression, encompassing themes of racism, loneliness, prejudice against the mentally ill, and the struggle for personal independence. Along with The 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
Main article: The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath 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. Some critics found it too sympathetic to the workers' plight and too critical of capitalism but found a large audience of its own. It won both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction (novels) and was adapted as a film starring Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell and directed by John Ford.
East of Eden
Main article: East of Eden (novel)
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 1955 movie directed by Elia Kazan and starring James Dean.
Travels with Charley
Main article: Travels with Charley: In Search of America
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' standard 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.
As one of the most innovative poets of his time, Edward Estlin (E.E.) Cummings experimented with poetic form and language to create a distinct personal style. A typical Cummings poem is spare and precise, employing a few key words eccentrically placed on the page. Some of these words were invented by Cummings, often by combining two common words into a new synthesis. He also revised grammatical and linguistic rules to suit his own purposes, using such words as “if,” “am,” and “because” as nouns, for example, or assigning his own private meanings to words. Despite their nontraditional form, Cummings’ poems came to be popular with many readers. “No one else,” Randall Jarrell claimed in his The Third Book of Criticism, “has ever made avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to the general and the special reader.” By the time of his death in 1962 Cummings held a prominent position in 20th-century poetry. John Logan in Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism called him “one of the greatest lyric poets in our language.” Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote in Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time: “Cummings has written at least a dozen poems that seem to me matchless. Three are among the great love poems of our time or any time.” Malcolm Cowley admitted in the Yale Review that Cummings “suffers from comparison with those [poets] who built on a larger scale—Eliot, Aiken, Crane, Auden among others—but still he is unsurpassed in his special field, one of the masters.”
Cummings decided to become a poet when he was still a child. Between the ages of eight and twenty-two, he wrote a poem a day, exploring many traditional poetic forms. By the time he was in Harvard in 1916, modern poetry had caught his interest. He began to write avant-garde poems in which conventional punctuation and syntax were ignored in favor of a dynamic use of language. Cummings also experimented with poems as visual objects on the page. These early efforts were included in Eight Harvard Poets, a collection of poems by members of the Harvard Poetry Society.
After graduating from Harvard, Cummings spent a month working for a mail order book dealer. He left the job because of the tedium. In April of 1917, with the First World War raging in Europe and the United States just becoming involved, he volunteered for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service in France. Ambulance work was a popular choice with those who, like Cummings, considered themselves to be pacifists. He was soon stationed on the French-German border with fellow American William Slater Brown, and the two young men became fast friends. To relieve the boredom of their assignment, they inserted veiled and provocative comments into their letters back home, trying to outwit and baffle the French censors. They also befriended soldiers in nearby units. Such activities led in September of 1917 to their being held on suspicion of treason and sent to an internment camp in Normandy for questioning. Cummings and Brown were housed in a large, one-room holding area along with other suspicious foreigners. Only outraged protests from his father finally secured Cummings’ release in December of 1917; Brown was not released until April of the following year. In July 1918, Cummings was drafted into the U.S. Army and spent some six months at a training camp in Massachusetts.
Upon leaving the army in January of 1919, Cummings resumed his affair with Elaine Thayer, the wife of his friend Schofield Thayer. Thayer knew and approved of the relationship. In December of 1919 Elaine gave birth to Cummings’ daughter, Nancy, and Thayer gave the child his name. Cummings was not to marry Elaine until 1924, after she and Thayer divorced. He adopted Nancy at this time; she was not to know that Cummings was her real father until 1948. This first marriage did not last long. Two months after their wedding, Elaine left for Europe to settle her late sister’s estate. She met another man during the Atlantic crossing and fell in love with him. She divorced Cummings in 1925.
The early 1920s were an extremely productive time for Cummings. In 1922 he published his first book, The Enormous Room, a fictionalized account of his French captivity. Critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive, although Cummings’ account of his imprisonment was oddly cheerful in tone and freewheeling in style. He depicted his internment camp stay as a period of inner growth. As David E. Smith wrote in Twentieth Century Literature, The Enormous Room’s emphasis “is upon what the initiate has learned from his journey. In this instance, the maimed hero can never again regard the outer world (i.e., ‘civilization’) without irony. But the spiritual lesson he learned from his sojourn with a community of brothers will be repeated in his subsequent writings both as an ironical dismissal of the values of his contemporary world, and as a sensitive, almost mystical celebration of the quality of Christian love.” John Dos Passos, in a review of the book for Dial, claimed that “in a style infinitely swift and crisply flexible, an individual not ashamed of his loves and hates, great or trivial, has expressed a bit of the underside of History with indelible vividness.” Writing of the book in 1938, John Peale Bishop claimed in the Southern Review: “The Enormous Room has the effect of making all but a very few comparable books that came out of the War look shoddy and worn.”
Cummings’ first collection of poems, Tulips and Chimneys, appeared in 1923. His eccentric use of grammar and punctuation are evident in the volume, though many of the poems are written in conventional language. “The language of Tulips and Chimneys, ... like the imagery, the verse forms, the subject matter, and the thought, is sometimes good, sometimes bad,” wrote Robert E. Maurer in the Bucknell Review. “But the book is so obviously the work of a talented young man who is striking off in new directions, groping for original and yet precise expression, experimenting in public, that it seems uncharitable to dwell too long on its shortcomings.”
The original manuscript for Tulips and Chimneys was cut down by the publisher. These deleted poems were published in 1925 as &, so titled because Cummings wanted the original book to be titled Tulips & Chimneys but was overruled. Another collection quickly followed: XLI Poems, also in 1925. In a review of XLI Poems for Nation, Mark Van Doren defined Cummings as a poet with “a richly sensuous mind; his verse is distinguished by fluidity and weight; he is equipped to range lustily and long among the major passions.” At the end of 1925 Dial magazine chose Cummings for their annual award of $2,000, a sum equalling a full year’s income for the writer. The following year a new collection, Is 5, was published, for which Cummings wrote an introduction meant to explain his approach to poetry. In the introduction he argued forcefully for poetry as a “process” rather than a “product.”
It was with these collections of the 1920s that Cummings established his reputation as an avant-garde poet conducting daring experiments with language. Speaking of these language experiments, M. L. Rosenthal wrote in The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction: “The chief effect of Cummings’ jugglery with syntax, grammar, and diction was to blow open otherwise trite and bathetic motifs through a dynamic rediscovery of the energies sealed up in conventional usage.... He succeeded masterfully in splitting the atom of the cute commonplace.” “Cummings,” Richard P. Blackmur wrote in The Double Agent: Essays in Craft and Elucidation, “has a fine talent for using familiar, even almost dead words, in such a context as to make them suddenly impervious to every ordinary sense; they become unable to speak, but with a great air of being bursting with something very important and precise to say.” Bethany K. Dumas wrote in her E. E. Cummings: A Remembrance of Miracles that “more important than the specific devices used by Cummings is the use to which he puts the devices. That is a complex matter; irregular spacing ... allows both amplification and retardation. Further, spacing of key words allows puns which would otherwise be impossible. Some devices, such as the use of lowercase letters at the beginnings of lines ... allow a kind of distortion that often re-enforces that of the syntax.... All these devices have the effect of jarring the reader, of forcing him to examine experience with fresh eyes.” S. I. Hayakawa also remarked on this quality in Cummings’ poetry. “No modern poet to my knowledge,” Hayakawa wrote in Poetry, “has such a clear, childlike perception as E. E. Cummings—a way of coming smack against things with unaffected delight and wonder. This candor ... results in breath-takingly clean vision.” Norman Friedman explained in his E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer that Cummings’ innovations “are best understood as various ways of stripping the film of familiarity from language in order to strip the film of familiarity from the world. Transform the word, he seems to have felt, and you are on the way to transforming the world.”
Other critics focused on the subjects of Cummings’ poetry. Though his poetic language was uniquely his own, Cummings’ poems were unusual because they unabashedly focused on such traditional and somewhat passé poetic themes as love, childhood, and flowers. What Cummings did with such subjects, according to Stephen E. Whicher in Twelve American Poets, was, “by verbal ingenuity, without the irony with which another modern poet would treat such a topic, create a sophisticated modern facsimile of the ‘naive’ lyricism of Campion or Blake.” This resulted in what Whicher termed “the renewal of the cliché.” Penberthy detected in Cummings a “nineteenth-century romantic reverence for natural order over man-made order, for intuition and imagination over routine-grounded perception. His exalted vision of life and love is served well by his linguistic agility. He was an unabashed lyricist, a modern cavalier love poet. But alongside his lyrical celebrations of nature, love, and the imagination are his satirical denouncements of tawdry, defiling, flat-footed, urban and political life—open terrain for invective and verbal inventiveness.”
This satirical aspect to Cummings’ work drew both praise and criticism. His attacks on the mass mind, conventional patterns of thought, and society’s restrictions on free expression, were born of his strong commitment to the individual. In the “nonlectures” he delivered at Harvard University Cummings explained his position: “So far as I am concerned, poetry and every other art was, is, and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality.” As Penberthy noted, Cummings’ consistent attitude in all of his work was “condemning mankind while idealizing the individual.” “Cummings’ lifelong belief,” Bernard Dekle stated in Profiles of Modern American Authors, “was a simple faith in the miracle of man’s individuality. Much of his literary effort was directed against what he considered the principal enemies of this individuality—mass thought, group conformity, and commercialism.” For this reason, Cummings satirized what he called “mostpeople,” that is, the herd mentality found in modern society. “At heart,” Logan explained, “the quarrels of Cummings are a resistance to the small minds of every kind, political, scientific, philosophical, and literary, who insist on limiting the real and the true to what they think they know or can respond to. As a preventive to this kind of limitation, Cummings is directly opposed to letting us rest in what we believe we know; and this is the key to the rhetorical function of his famous language.”
Cummings was also ranked among the best love poets of his time. “Love always was ... Cummings’ chief subject of interest,” Friedman wrote in his E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry. “The traditional lyric situation, representing the lover speaking of love to his lady, has been given in our time a special flavor and emphasis by Cummings. Not only the lover and his lady, but love itself—its quality, its value, its feel, its meaning—is a subject of continuing concern to our speaker.” Love was, in Cummings’ poems, equated to such other concepts as joy and growth, a relationship which “had its source,” wrote Robert E. Wegner in The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings, “in Cummings’ experience as a child; he grew up in an aura of love.... Love is the propelling force behind a great body of his poetry.” Friedman noted that Cummings was “in the habit of associating love, as a subject, with the landscape, the seasons, the times of day, and with time and death—as poets have always done in the past.”
Cummings’ early love poems were frankly erotic and were meant to shock the Puritanical sensibilities of the 1920s. Penberthy noted that the poet’s first wife, Elaine, inspired “scores of Cummings’s best erotic poems.” But, as Wegner wrote, “In time he came to see love and the dignity of the human being as inseparable.” Maurer also commented on this change in Cummings’ outlook; there was, Maurer wrote, a “fundamental change of attitude which manifested itself in his growing reverence and dedication to lasting love.” Hyatt H. Waggoner, writing in American Poets from the Puritans to the Present, noted that “the love poems are generally, after the 1920s, religious in tone and implication, and the religious poems very often take off from the clue provided by a pair of lovers, so that often the two subjects are hardly, if at all, separable.” Rushworth M. Kidder also noted this development in the love poems, and he traced the evolution of Cummings’ thoughts on the subject. Writing in his E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry, Kidder reported that in the early poems, love is depicted as “an echo of popularly romantic notions, and it grows in early volumes to a sometimes amorphous phenomenon seasoned by a not entirely unselfish lust. By [his] last poems, however, it has come to be a purified and radiant idea, unentangled with flesh and worlds, the agent of the highest transcendence. It is not far, as poem after poem has hinted, from the Christian conception of love as God.” Waggoner concluded that Cummings “wrote some of the finest celebrations of sexual love and of the religious experience of awe and natural piety produced in our century, precisely at a time when it was most unfashionable to write such poems.”
In addition to his poetry, Cummings was also known for his play, Him, and for the travel diary, Eimi.Him consisted of a sequence of skits drawing from burlesque, the circus, and the avant-garde, and jumping quickly from tragedy to grotesque comedy. The male character is named Him; the female character is Me. “The play begins,” Harold Clurman wrote in Nation, “as a series of feverish images of a girl undergoing anaesthesia during an abortion. She is ‘me,’ who thinks of her lover as ‘him.’” In the program to the play, staged at the Provincetown Playhouse, Cummings provided a warning to the audience: “Relax and give the play a chance to strut its stuff—relax, stop wondering what it’s all ‘about’—like many strange and familiar things, Life included, this Play isn’t ‘about,’ it simply is. Don’t try to enjoy it, let it try to enjoy you. DON’T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, LET IT TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOU.” Clurman believed that “the play’s purest element is contained in duos of love. They are the most sensitive and touching in American playwriting. Their intimacy and passion, conveyed in an odd exquisiteness of writing, are implied rather than declared. We realize that no matter how much ‘him’ wishes to express his closeness to ‘me,’ he is frustrated not only by the fullness of his feeling but by his inability to credit his emotion in a world as obscenely chaotic as the one in which he is lost.”
In 1931 Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union. Like many other writers and artists of the time, he was hopeful that the communist revolution had created a better society. After a short time in the country, however, it became clear to Cummings that the Soviet Union was a dictatorship in which the individual was severely regimented by the state. His diary of the visit, in which he bitterly attacked the Soviet regime for its dehumanizing policies, was published in 1933 as Eimi, the Greek word for “I am.” In it, he described the Soviet Union as an “uncircus of noncreatures.” Lenin’s tomb, in which the late dictator’s preserved body is on display, especially revolted Cummings and inspired him to create the most impassioned writing in the book. “The style which Cummings began in poetry,” Bishop wrote, “reaches its most complete development in the prose of Eimi. Indeed, one might almost say that, without knowing it, Cummings had been acquiring a certain skill over the years, in order that, when occasion arose, he might set down in words the full horror of Lenin’s tomb.” In tracing the course of his 35-day trip through the Soviet Union, Cummings made frequent allusion to Dante’s Inferno and its story of a descent into Hell, equating the two journeys. It is only after crossing back into Europe at book’s end that “it is once more possible for [Cummings] to assume the full responsibility of being a man...,” Bishop wrote. “Now he knows there is but one freedom..., the freedom of the will, responsive and responsible, and that from it all other freedoms take their course.” Kidder called Eimi “a report of the grim inhumanities of the Soviet system, of repression, apathy, priggishness, kitsch, and enervating suspicion.” For some time after publication of Eimi, Kidder reported, Cummings had a difficult time getting his poetry published. The overwhelmingly left-wing publishers of the time refused to accept his work. Cummings had to resort to self-publishing several volumes of his work during the later 1930s.
In 1952, Cummings was invited to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures in poetry at Harvard University. His lectures, later published as i: six nonlectures, were highly personal accounts of his life and work, “autobiographical rambles,” as Penberthy described them. The first two lectures reminisce about his childhood and parents; the third lecture tells of his schooldays at Harvard, his years in New York, and his stay in Paris during the 1920s. The last three lectures present his own ideas about writing. In his conclusion to the lecture series Cummings summed up his thoughts with these words, quoting his own poetry where appropriate: “I am someone who proudly and humbly affirms that love is the mystery-of-mysteries, and that nothing measurable matters ‘a very good God damn’; that ‘an artist, a man, a failure’ is no mere whenfully accreting mechanism, but a givingly eternal complexity—neither some soulless and heartless ultrapredatory infra-animal nor any understandingly knowing and believing and thinking automaton, but a naturally and miraculously whole human being—a feelingly illimitable individual; whose only happiness is to transcend himself, whose every agony is to grow.”
Critics of Cummings’ work were divided into two camps as to the importance of his career. His detractors called his failure to develop as a writer a major weakness; Cummings’ work changed little from the 1920s to the 1950s. Others saw him as merely clever but with little lasting value beyond a few technical innovations. Still others questioned the ideas in his poetry, or seeming lack of them. George Stade in the New York Times Book Review claimed that “intellectually speaking, Cummings was a case of arrested development. He was a brilliant 20-year-old, but he remained merely precocious to the end of his life. That may be one source of his appeal.” James G. Southworth, writing in Some Modern American Poets, argued that Cummings “is too much out of the stream of life for his work to have significance.” Southworth went on to say that “the reader must not mistake Mr. Cummings for an intellectual poet.”
But Cummings’ supporters acclaimed his achievement. In a 1959 essay reprinted in his collection Babel to Byzantium,James Dickey proclaimed: “I think that Cummings is a daringly original poet, with more vitality and more sheer, uncompromising talent than any other living American writer.” Although admitting that Cummings’ work was not faultless, Dickey stated that he felt “ashamed and even a little guilty in picking out flaws” in the poems, a process he likened to calling attention to “the aesthetic defects in a rose. It is better to say what must finally be said about Cummings: that he has helped to give life to the language.” In similar terms, Rosenthal explained that “Cummings’s great forte is the manipulation of traditional forms and attitudes in an original way. In his best work he has the swift sureness of ear and idiom of a Catullus, and the same way of bringing together a racy colloquialism and the richer tones of high poetic style.” Maurer believed that Cummings’ best work exhibited “a new and delightful sense of linguistic invention, precise and vigorous.” Penberthy concluded that “Cummings’s achievement deserves acclaim. He established the poem as a visual object ... ; he revealed, by his x-ray probings, the faceted possibilities of the single word; and like such prose writers as Vladimir Nabokov and Tom Stoppard, he promoted sheer playfulness with language. Despite a growing abundance of second-rate imitations, his poems continue to amuse, delight, and provoke.”