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John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
by Janice Albert

John Steinbeck: Wax Museum poster at Cannery Row

At this writing, seven Nobel prizes in Literature have been awarded to authors working in the United States: Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Toni Morrison, Eugene O'Neill, and John Steinbeck. Of these, one was born and raised in California, and the subject matter of his principal work is California, and that author is John Steinbeck

Steinbeck, born in 1902, grew up in Salinas, a farm community about 20 miles east of Monterey Bay. In high school, he wrote for the school newspaper, and was elected senior class president. There were four children in the family, and John was sent to college at Stanford University, in part because at the time, in 1919, Stanford was tuition free. His year there was a disaster. He dropped out, returned after a couple of years, resumed and left for good in 1925. He had met two teachers he admired, Edith Mirrielees (Creative Writing) and Margery Bailey (Shakespeare), and successfully published some early stories, but in general, Steinbeck came away with the feeling that he had failed there. Susan Riggs, writing in the Stanford Magazine, calls the relationship "mutually unappreciative, even debilitating."

Still searching, Steinbeck took up a role model, according to biographer Jay Parini. "Jack London was an immensely popular author at the time, and Steinbeck entertained visions of sailing to the Far East aboard a freighter in the manner of his fellow Californian…." He went to San Francisco, applied for sailoring jobs, but wound up working in a department store during the Christmas rush. He returned to the Salinas Valley and became a farm hand.

In 1923, he attended a summer course at the Hopkins Marine Station near Monterey, read the work of Elof Boodin and William Emerson Ritter, and learned to observe marine life in its natural habitat. Recognizing his love of scientific observation prepared him for his later friendship with Ed Ricketts and helped him form his ideas of human beings as part of a larger natural system. It is interesting to note that Steinbeck at age 21 was studying only a few miles away from Carmel, where Robinson Jeffers, age 38, was building his Tor House and writing about humanity with similar detachment. (We know that Jeffers was his mother's favorite poet.)

Steinbeck's first publication as a professional writer was Cup of Gold: A Life of Henry Morgan, Buccaneer… (1932), followed by The Pastures of Heaven (1932), To a God Unknown (1933), Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Red Pony (1937), Their Blood is Strong (1938), The Long Valley (1938), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Clearly, by the 1930s Steinbeck had found his feet. The requirements of writers seem to be these: desire, ability, training, subject matter, solitude and leisure. In addition to desire, which had led him to the discipline of writing every morning, he had found his subject in the people and landscape of the farmland of the Salinas and Jolon Valleys. His native ability had been encouraged by his writing teachers in high school and at Stanford. He was to some extent self-taught, a dedicated reader, sensitive to the styles of others and guarded against being overly influenced by writers such as his contemporary Hemingway. He found solitude as a caretaker of a cottage at Lake Tahoe, and created leisure by reducing his needs in order to live within his income. As a resident of Lake Tahoe for two years, he developed a friendship with Lloyd Shebley, a naturalist and scientist working for the Department of Fish and Game. He wrote to friends, acquired two dogs, and drank, aware that his parents believed him to be throwing his life away. In April of 1929 he sent his manuscript of Cup of Gold to Ted Miller, who had agreed to act as his agent. In June, he met Carol Henning who was to become his first wife.

Carol Henning was a bright, independent woman who was willing to type Steinbeck's work and to critique it at the same time. She was more outgoing than her husband, who remained shy to the end of his life. More important, she had a social conscience; she read the papers and knew how the nation's economic collapse was affecting ordinary people. Biographer Parini says, "The sense of outrage that gives works like Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath their quiet dignity and moral force is partly a testament to Carol's impact. (89)" But the seeds of Carol's influence had been laid by Steinbeck's mother, Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, who also possessed a sense of "uncompromising morality."

Readers differ on which of the early works is their favorite, although everything Steinbeck ever wrote has been treated with hostility by someone. Regionalists such as Lawrence Clark Powell choose To a God Unknown for its flawless descriptions of the Jolon Valley. Tortilla Flat is widely read, although at the time Steinbeck was castigated for failing to vilify prostitution. Of Mice and Men is required reading throughout the country and has been filmed twice. Nonetheless, F. Scott Fitzgerald attacked the work for containing a scene which he contended was "cribbed" from Frank Norris' McTeague. (We know that Steinbeck read Norris' novel in the early thirties.) The scene in question is between Maria Macapa and the junk dealer Zerkow in which Maria is encouraged to recite her dream of the good life, as George encourages Lennie in the Steinbeck work.

His masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, which received a Pulitzer Prize in 1940, did not meet with universal approval. After selling 430,000 copies in the first year, according to Parini, the novel has never been out of print or sold fewer than 50,000 copies a year. Nonetheless, the book was banned by school boards in states such as New York, Illinois, and California, and labeled "the creation of a twisted, distorted mind" by Congressman Lyle Boren of Oklahoma.

The Grapes of Wrath began as a series of newspaper stories commissioned by the San Francisco News. To fulfill the assignment, Steinbeck visited the "Hoovervilles" and "Little Oklahomas" of rural California in the company of Tom Collins, manager of a federal migrant labor camp, called Weedpatch Camp, at Arvin in Kern County. In an old bakery truck, the two traveled to nearby farms while Steinbeck studied the condition of farm workers as well as the personality of his guide, who became the fictional Jim Rawley in Grapes. Steinbeck's articles for the San Francisco News which appeared October 5-12, 1936, have been re-issued by Heyday Press under the title The Harvest Gypsies.

Fame took Steinbeck to Hollywood. His marriage ended. He went on to marry other women and to write other works, among them Cannery Row, which has helped the town of Monterey to create a namesake shopping magnet. Toward the end of his career, he drove across country with his poodle, an odyssey recorded in Travels with Charley.

The vehicle that Steinbeck lived and wrote in, Rocinante, is housed at the new Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, which opened June 27, 1998. Located at 1 Main Street, the Center will house a library of first editions, notebooks, photographs and audiotapes as well as an archive of rare manuscripts. (Other Steinbeck papers are held by the San Jose State University and Stanford libraries.)

Steinbeck Center, Salinas

Salinas also hosts a Steinbeck Festival each year, inviting participants to visit sites important to the books. The Salinas Public Library contains an interesting collection of Steinbeck material, as well as a bronze statue of the author in its yard. Most visitors are charmed by the Steinbeck House where John lived as a boy and in which his mother lived until her death in 1934. The house at 132 Central was purchased by the Valley Guild in 1973 and opened as a restaurant serving lunch. Call (408) 424-2735 for reservations. Hours are 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. His ashes are buried in Garden of Memories Cemetery south of town. A conspicuous sign marks the Hamilton family plot.

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