John Ernst Steinbeck (1902-1968), American author and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1962, was a leading exponent of the proletarian novel and a prominent spokesman for the victims of the Great Depression.
John Steinbeck was born on Feb. 27, 1902, in Salinas, Calif., the son of a small-town politician and school-teacher. He worked as a laboratory assistant and farm laborer to support himself through 6 years of study at Stanford University, where he took only those courses that interested him, without seeking a degree. In 1925 he traveled to New York (by way of the Panama Canal) on a freighter, collecting impressions for his first novel. Cup of Gold (1929) was an unsuccessful attempt at psychological romance involving the pirate Henry Morgan.
Undiscouraged, Steinbeck returned to California to begin work as a writer of serious fiction. A collection of short stories, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), vividly detailed rural life among the "unfinished children of nature" in his native California valley. His second novel, To a God Unknown (1933), his strongest statement about man's relationship to the land, reveals a strain of neo-primitive mysticism later to permeate even his most objectively deterministic writings. With Tortilla Flat (1935) Steinbeck received critical and popular acclaim, and there are many critics who consider this humorous and idyllic tale of the Monterey paisanos Steinbeck's most artistically satisfying work.
Steinbeck next dealt with the problems of labor unionism in In Dubious Battle (1936), an effective story of a strike by local grape pickers. Of Mice and Men (1937), first conceived as a play, is a tightly constructed novella about an unusual friendship between two migratory workers. Although the book is powerfully written and often moving, its theme lacks the psychological penetration and moral vision necessary to sustain its tragic intention.
Steinbeck's series of articles for the San Francisco Chronicle on the plight of migratory farm laborers provided material for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), his major novel and the finest proletarian fiction of the decade. The struggle of a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers, forced to turn over their land to the banks and journey across the vast plains to the promised land of California—only to be met with derision when they arrive—is a successful example of social protest in fiction, as well as a convincing tribute to man's will to survive. The Grapes of Wrath combines techniques of naturalistic documentation and symbolic stylization, its episodic structure being admirably held together by the unifying device of U.S. Highway 66 and by lyrical inter-chapters which possess a Whitmanesque expansiveness. The novel's weaknesses lie in occasional lapses into sentimentality and melodramatic oversimplification, Steinbeck's tendency to depict human relationships in biological rather than psychological terms, and the general absence of philosophical vision and intellectual content. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.
During World War II Steinbeck served as a foreign correspondent; from this experience came such nonfiction as Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942); his dispatches of 1943, collected as Once There Was a War (1958); and A Russian Journal (1948) with photographs by Robert Capa. More interesting nonfiction of this period is The Sea of Cortez, coauthored with marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts. This account of the two explorers' research into sea life provides an important key to many of the themes and attitudes prevalent in Steinbeck's novels.
Steinbeck's fiction during the 1940s includes The Moon Is Down (1942), a tale of the Norwegian resistance to Nazi occupation; Cannery Row (1944), a return to the milieu of Tortilla Flat; The Wayward Bus (1947); and The Pearl, a popular allegorical novella written in a mannered pseudobiblical style about a poor Mexican fisherman who discovers a valuable pearl which brings ill fortune to his family.
In the 1950s Steinbeck's artistic decline was evident with a series of novels characterized by their sentimentality, pretentiousness, and lack of substance. The author received modest critical praise in 1961 for his more ambitious novel The Winter of Our Discontent, a study of the moral disintegration of a man of high ideals. In 1962 Travels with Charley, a pleasantly humorous account of his travels through America with his pet poodle, was well received. Following the popular success of the latter work, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Steinbeck's finest novels are a curious blend of scientific determinism, romantic mysticism, and a rudimentary, often allegorical, type of symbolism. His work remains popular in both the United States and Europe, chiefly for its social consciousness and compassion and the narrative qualities exhibited in the early novels. Although he refused to settle into political conservatism in his later years, his all-embracing affirmation of American values and acceptance of all national policies, including the Vietnam War, lost him the respect of many liberal intellectuals who had once admired his social commitments. He died on Dec. 28, 1968, in New York City.
Further Reading on John Ernst Steinbeck
There is no biography of Steinbeck. Critical studies of his work are Harry T. Moore, The Novels of John Steinbeck: A First Critical Study (1939; 2d ed. 1968), and Peter Lisca, The Wide World of John Steinbeck (1958). Peter Covici, ed., The Portable Steinbeck (1943; 3d ed. 1963), contains an extensive introduction to the writer and his works by Louis Gannett. For brief but important criticism see Edmund Wilson, The Boys in the Back Room (1941), and those chapters devoted to Steinbeck in such studies of American literature as Maxwell Geismar, Writers in Crisis (1942); Wilbur M. Frohock, The Novel of Violence in America, 1920-1950 (1950; 2d ed. 1957); and Frederick J. Hoffman, The Modern Novel in America (1951). The most comprehensive collection of Steinbeck criticism is E. W. Tedlock, Jr., and C. V. Wicker, eds., Steinbeck and His Critics: A Record of Twenty-five Years (1957).