I first heard of John Steinbeck, way back when, after I watched the film, ‘Grapes of Wrath’. At the time, I hadn’t realised that it was based on a book; my main reason for watching it – Henry Fonda. And it was years later before I finally picked up the book, and thought, Wow! What a writer. That book was swiftly followed by ‘Cannery Row’, ‘The Pearl’, ‘Sweet Thursday’, ‘The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights’ … and a few years after that, ‘Of Mice and Men’ – again, saw the film first, then read the book. I know I’ve barely made a dent in the Steinbeck library, but of the ones I’ve read, these are the ones I particularly like, and which I own.
John Steinbeck was born on 2h February 1902 in Salinas, California, which at the time was a prosperous farming community, and also the county seat. The geography of the place featured time and again in most of his novels, and was mirrored in his characters’ deep connection with the land.
John Steinbeck's house still stands in Salinas today where it is a restaurant and historic house museum (photo by Naotake Murayama)
From a young age, Steinbeck was already drawn to writing. In high school, apart from writing for the school newsletter, he also wrote “little stories and little pieces”, sending them to magazines. But, scared that they would be rejected, he would always use a false name and not include a return address.
In 1919, he enrolled at Stanford University where he majored in English, but left in 1925 without receiving a degree. In 1923, he enrolled in a biology course at the Hopkins Marine Station, which was part of the university. While there, the ideas of the eminent American biologist, William Emerson Ritter, struck a chord with him, and he began to develop a genuine interest in science. The ideas of group behaviour and the ability to survive surfaced in several of his stories.
After leaving Stanford, Steinbeck started working but continued to write. After an unsuccessful stint trying to earn a living purely through writing in New York, he returned to California where he finished his first novel, ‘Cup of Gold’, published in 1929. It proved to be commercially unsuccessful.
Working in a fish hatchery in Tahoe City, California, Steinbeck met Carol Henning; they got married in January 1930. They moved into a cottage owned by Steinbeck’s father near Monterey. Steinbeck wrote: “Financially we were in a mess, but ‘spiritually’ we ride the clouds … Nothing matters.”
Carol and John
Despite the disappointment of his first novel, Steinbeck continued to write, almost obsessively. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “ We take our efforts to write with great seriousness, hammering away for two years on a novel … We have taken the ordinary number of beatings and I don’t think there is much strength in either of us, and still we go on butting our heads against the English Novel and nursing our bruises as though they were wounds of honorable war.” The novel mentioned in this letter is ‘To A God Unknown’, which was published in 1933.
The publication of, first, ‘Pastures of Heaven’, a collection of short stories, and then ‘To A God Unknown’, marked the start of Steinbeck’s writing career. These and the Red Pony stories showed, without a doubt, his burgeoning ability in portraying his birthplace. 1935 saw the publication of his first critical and commercial success, ‘Tortilla Flat’, about the adventures of a group of friends.
His next set of books – ‘In Dubious Battle’, ‘Of Mice and Men’, and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ – dealt with issues like the growing number of migrant workers in California, and the rights of the labourers. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was based on observations Steinbeck himself made on the lives of migrant agricultural workers and their families. What he’d seen did not sit well with him … “There are about five thousand families starving to death … The states and counties will give them nothing because they are outsiders. But the crops of any part of this state could not be harvested without these outsiders. I’m pretty mad about it … Funny how mean and little books become in the face of such tragedies.”
Even though ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was listed as the best-selling book of 1939 by the New York Times, and won, both, The National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it turned out to be Steinbeck’s most controversial novel yet. Even in his home area, there were those who responded angrily to his sympathy for the migrant worker. The book was banned from the schools and libraries of Kern County in 1939 up till 1941.
It’s not known for sure whether Steinbeck retreated because of this backlash and also his growing fame, but he left on a voyage to the Gulf of California with his friend, Ed Ricketts, to collect marine specimens. Ricketts made a living collecting marine specimens and selling them through his laboratory. He and Steinbeck remained close friends until Ricketts’ death in 1948.
The Steinbecks’ marriage had been floundering for a while, and in 1942, Carol and John divorced. A year later, Steinbeck married Gwyndolyn ‘Gwyn’ Conger; they had two children, Thomas and John Jr.
Gwyn and John on their wedding day
Soon afterwards, Steinbeck was hired by the New York Herald Tribune to report on the war in Europe. He was sent, first to England, then North Africa, and then Italy. His war correspondence was later edited and published as ‘Once There Was a War’.
Steinbeck’s next book, ‘Cannery Row’, was published in 1945, the year after the Steinbecks’ first son was born. In ‘Cannery Row’, Steinbeck returned to Monterey, breathing life into the characters who lived and worked on Ocean View Avenue. The novel rose above its initial unpopularity amongst the residents of Monterey and became famous enough that Ocean View Avenue was renamed Cannery Row in 1958.
Even after moving to New York, Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts remained close friends. When Ricketts was hit by a train while driving his car across the tracks in Monterey, Steinbeck rushed back to California, but was too late. Ricketts clung to life for three days before succumbing to his injuries; he died in May 1948. Steinbeck was devastated; not only had they been close friends, the two men had also shared a close working relationship. “…I grew to depend on his knowledge and on his patience in research … And then I went away to another part of the country but it didn’t make any difference. Once a week or once a month would come a fine long letter so much in the style of his speech that I could hear his voice over the neat page of small elite type … It wasn’t Ed who died but a large and important part of oneself.”
Returning to New York after Ricketts’s funeral, Steinbeck was dealt another blow – Gwyn wanted a divorce. That plus the shock of losing Ricketts plunged Steinbeck into a long depression. Returning to the cabin in Pacific Grove, he buried himself in his work.
In 1949, Steinbeck was introduced to Elaine Scott; they married in December 1950, and moved to New York, where they would live for the next 13 years.
Elaine and John
In 1951, Steinbeck began to work on the novel he had been planning for years, his “big work” – ‘East of Eden’. In the diary he wrote alongside the novel (which was later published as ‘Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters’), he explained: “I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them … I want them to know how it was, I want to tell them directly, and perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people … And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all – the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness … I shall tell them this story against the background of the county I grew up in.”
‘East of Eden’ is set in the Salinas Valley, and is roughly based on Steinbeck’s own family history, specifically his maternal ancestors, the Hamiltons, who had settled in California. It took him nearly a year to complete, and was published in 1952.
After this ‘big work’, Steinbeck was finally able to concentrate on one of his life-long ambitions – writing a translation of Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ for modern readers. To this end, he and Elaine spent ten months in Somerset, in England, gathering material and working. He continued his research well into the next decade; sadly the book remained incomplete.
In 1960, Steinbeck decided to travel across America in his camper van, with his standard poodle, Charley, for company. His aim was to remain anonymous, and meet as many people as he could in truck stops, bars and diners. The resulting book, ‘Travels with Charley’, was published in 1962. In it he wrote that the journey was born of his realisation that he no longer knew his own country – “I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory at best is a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years.”
In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humour and social perception …” ~ Anders Osterling, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.
In 1964, President Lyndon B Johnson, with whom Steinbeck was personally acquainted, awarded the writer the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Despite his failing health, Steinbeck travelled to Vietnam for Newsday in 1967 to report on the Vietnam War. He was uncharacteristically supportive of the conflict; this could have been because both his sons were serving in the war.
Suffering a series of, what appeared to be, mini-strokes, Steinbeck died on 2h December 1968 at his home in New York City, aged only sixty-six.
I admire Steinbeck’s talent for capturing people; in a few words, he can convey the essence of the person. I find his style easy, in that it’s easy to read, not that it’s lazily written – for me, reading a Steinbeck novel is like having it read to me. The characters speak ‘out loud’, they come alive on the page. And that’s what I try and strive for in my writing, well-drawn characters who speak like you would expect real people to speak.