John Steinbeck

´╗┐In many countries of the world John Steinbeck is viewed as the American artiste engage, the writer who confronted and explored the social, political, cultural, and environmental problems looming on the American horizon. During the second half of the twentieth century, in particular, America and Americans have visited and revisited the very questions Steinbeck raised in the 1930's and 40's: homelessness, migration, poverty, moral responsibility, the straight jacket of respectability, the underside of the American dream, and the human's necessary connection and definition in a particular environment. Steinbeck was a major social critic, artist, and environmentalist of the 20th century.

Beginning in the 1930's, John Steinbeck forged a significant and in many ways unique place in American letters and the broader world of American culture as a writer deeply engaged with place and the political and social human drama that occurred there. With the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck provided the world with its most searing and enduring images of American rural poverty, disillusionment within the promise of The American Dream, and regional and class tensions in America.

The Grapes of Wrath was only one of a trio of Steinbeck's works (the other two were In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men) that he created out of the American thirties' economic depression and natural disasters; taken together, this labor trilogy made Steinbeck a household name. He became the bard of the American worker.

Born in the farming community of Salinas, California on February 27th, 1902, John Steinbeck was raised in a middle-class family that taught him early on to appreciate the beauty of the land and the power of the written word. Having decided to become a writer at age fourteen, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University in 1919 only to take the literature courses that would help him achieve that end; he left in 1925 without taking a degree. In the mid 1920's, he supported himself briefly as a laborer and journalist in New York City, and then returned to California to work as a caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate, there revising his first novel, Cup of Gold, which was published in 1929.

Moving to Monterey in 1930 with a new wife, Steinbeck began to write about California, focusing increasingly on those on the margins of society-disappointed farmers, laborers, families on the edge. His first financially successful novel, Tortilla Flat, describes the exploits of a group of down-and-out paisanos in Monterey, calling attention to the ethnic diversity of California's population. By mid-decade, however, Steinbeck's social conscience was awakened by the terrible poverty and relentless labor unrest among the migrant laborers pouring into California. The result was a trilogy of books that have become Steinbeck's signature works: In Dubious Battle about striking workers in a California apple orchard; Of Mice and Men, the story of a remarkable friendship between two itinerant workers; and perhaps his greatest novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the searing and empathetic saga of the Joads' migration from Oklahoma to California. The Grapes of Wrath examines the personal, social and political cost of economic and natural cataclysms, followed by the Joads' attempt to forge a new order-both individually and collectively-in which individuals and communities can retain a semblance of humanity. Each novel re-thought and aspect of the American idea of the common man, in a different form; each raised its characters, so often marginalized in the real world, to heroism within the social structure of the book; and each recognized that humans must be seen in the context of their social and geographic environments. Steinbeck was a rugged populist, an insistent environmentalist, and a determined humanist; "In every bit of honest writing in the world," he noted in a 1938 journal entry, "...there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love...always that base theme. Try to understand each other."

Steinbeck is one of the most empathetic writers of the twentieth century, who consistently expresses that "base theme" of understanding, whether writing about revolutionary fervor, the dangers of class conflict and greed, democratic ideals, or the responsibilities of each person to weigh good and evil.

Adapted from The John Steinbeck Centennial Celebration Reading Steinbeck Today

John Steinbeck: A Brief Chronology

1902 - John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California on February 27th
1915-19 - Attended Salinas High School
1919-25 - Attended classes at Stanford University
1925 - Worked as a construction laborer
1926-28 - Lived in Lake Tahoe, California and worked as a caretaker for a summer home
1929 - Cup of Gold published
1930 - Marries Carol Henning; meets Edward F. Ricketts, marine biologist, philosopher
1932 - The Pastures of Heaven published
1933 - A God Unknown published
1935 - Tortilla Flat published; first popular success
1936 - In Dubious Battle published
1937 - Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony published
1938 - Their Blood is Strong published; receives the New York Drama Critics Award for the Of Mice and Men
1939 - The Grapes of Wrath, his greatest critical success, is published provoking both great popular acclaim and violent political condemnation for its depiction of Oklahoma migrants and California growers, as well as for its alleged "vulgar" language and socialist bias.
1940 - Films for Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath are released, receives the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath
1941 - Sea of Cortez published
1942 - Sued for divorce by Carol; The Moon is Down and Bombs Away published
1945 - Cannery Row published
1947 - The Pearl and The Wayward Bus published
1948 - A Russian Journal published; divorced from 2nd wife
1950 - Burning Bright published
1952 - Viva Zapata! Film released; East of Eden published
1954 - Sweet Thursday published
1957 - The Short Reign of Pippin IV published
1958 - Once There Was a War published
1961 - The Winter of Our Discontent published
1962 - Travels With Charley published; awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature
1964 - Presented with the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson
1966 - America and Americans published
1968 - December 20th, dies of arteriosclerosis in New York