John Ernst Steinbeck (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.
Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California. He was of German, English and Irish descent. Johann Adolf Großsteinbeck (Steinbeck’s paternal grandfather) shortened the family name to Steinbeck when he immigrated to the United States.
His father, John Ernst Steinbeck, served as Monterey County treasurer and his mother, Olive Hamilton, was a former school teacher who shared Steinbeck’s passion for reading and writing.
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. 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. 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. 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. Between 1930 and 1936, Steinbeck and Ricketts became close friends. They formed a common bond based on their love of music and art, and John learned biology and Ricketts’ ecological philosophy.
Steinbeck’s first novel, “Cup of Gold”, published in 1929, is loosely based on the life and death of privateer Henry Morgan. 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”, a novel set in post-war Monterey, California, that won the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Medal. 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”).
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.
“The Grapes of Wrath” 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 County Board of Supervisors banned 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».
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.
So, for anyone who admire his writing style and want to learn more about his writing rules, here are 10 of his most famous advice for aspiring authors:
1. «Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised!»
2. «In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration!»
3. «Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material!»
4. «If you are using dialogue, say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech!»
5. «Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person – a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one!»
6. «In every bit of honest writing in the world… 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. There are shorter means, many of them. there is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other!»
7. «If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it – bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there!»
8. «I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in Literature!»
9. «Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing!»
10. «Boileau said that Kings, Gods and Heroes only were fit subjects for literature. The writer can only write about what he admires. Present-day kings aren’t very inspiring, the gods are on a vacation and about the only heroes left are the scientists and the poor… And since our race admires gallantry, the writer will deal with it where he finds it. He finds it in the struggling poor now!»