John Steinbeck

Summary

John Ernst Steinbeck (born February 27, 1902 in Salinas, died December 20, 1968 in New York City) is an American writer and journalist who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The only son of accountant John Ernst Steinbeck senior and teacher Olivia Hamilton.

He attended Stanford University from 1919 to 1925, but did not graduate. He took a number of odd jobs, including painter, carpenter”s helper, and manual laborer on a ranch. Being among the workers and his attachment to his native California shaped the distinctive themes, moods, and tone of his works.

It was not until his fourth book, Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, that he achieved recognition and fame. This was followed by In the Uncertain Fight (1936), a work about a strike of California apple pickers, Of Mice and Men (1937), and the short story collection The Long Valley (1938). His greatest success of this period, however, was his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a bleak, moving story about the wandering of Oklahoma farmers looking for work during the Great Depression.

Steinbeck”s later works no longer received such widespread acclaim. Following a decline in popularity, the writer broadened his thematic horizon, writing the war novel The Moon Has Gone Down (1942), the naval novel The Sea of Cortez (1941), as well as diaries. Later still appeared the comic tale The Short Reign of Pepin IV (1957) and the New England story The Winter of Our Bitterness (1961). The return to old California themes in Streets of the Coast, was noted by critics as a lowering of the level of the author”s work.

In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, this event stimulated the voices of critics. Steinbeck”s works were popular with the general public in America and England, while they did not score highly among the elite (scientists, university lecturers and intellectuals). Critics emphasized the sentimentality and the writer”s very simple way of looking at social problems, as well as his lack of sophisticated language. These charges are particularly applicable to later works, drawing attention away from the acclaimed works of the earlier period. At a time when many Americans were turning away from their country as a source of inspiration, Steinbeck remained loyal to California, also sympathizing with the plight of the rural poor there. The writer also avoided the then-fashionable experimentation and cultivated a traditional narrative style. As a result, Steinbeck”s work features accurate and timely realism, timeless themes of human dignity and suffering. Considered one of the greatest American writers of social protest novels.

Pedigree

The writer”s grandfather, Johann Adolf, whose original name was Großsteinbeck, came to America with his wife (one of two Dixon sisters) from Elberfeld, a town 32 kilometers east of Düsseldorf. They initially settled in New Jersey, from where they moved to Florida, where John”s father was born. The family moved again to Leominster, Massachusetts, and from there to Hollister, California, where they established a mill.

In 1890, John Ernst senior married seventeen-year-old Olivia Hamilton, one of nine children of Irishman Samuel Hamilton. The family resided in King City and Paso Robles before moving permanently to Salinas. The father of the family (like his father) ran a mill, but later became chief accountant of Monterey County.

Childhood

John Ernst Jr. was born on February 27, 1902. Having three sisters, he grew up surrounded by women. His childhood was spent in Salinas, from where he occasionally escaped to San Francisco, Pacific Grove, Carmel and a ranch near King City. So he knew Monterey County and the Salinas Valley well. The young Steinbeck was sensitive to every feature of the landscape around him, to the east the sunny and tender Gabilan Mountains, and to the west the rugged, dark and dangerous Santa Lucia Mountains.

He attended the local school and graduated in 1919. He was always a good student, eager to learn. He was interested in music, books, with a special love for Sir Thomas Malory, Andersen, Stevenson and Lewis Carroll. He was also interested in science and sports, and went to church regularly.

In 1919 he entered Stanford University, which he attended periodically until 1925, but did not receive a degree. He took classes in classical literature, of which he was most impressed by Plato, and in zoology, a subject to which Steinbeck devoted most of his time. By 1925 he was deeply familiar with American and European literature. He read Milton, Browning, Thackeray, G. Eliot, Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Jeffers, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and authors who later lost out in his eyes, including Sherwood Anderson, Norman Douglas, and James Branch Cabell.

When Steinbeck was not engaged in his studies, he undertook a variety of jobs on ranches or in a sugar factory, and became acquainted with people from the lower classes, whose respect and friendship he easily earned.

The beginning of a career

He also took a writing class at Stanford, at which point he began to produce his own writings. He sent them to various magazines, which unfortunately rejected them. His first story, Fingers in the Clouds, foreshadowing a talented artist, was published in the Stanford Observer.

In the fall of 1925, Steinbeck went to New York City with three dollars in his pocket in hopes of earning his living there as a writer. His brother-in-law, E.G. Ainsworth got him a job building Madison Square Garden. Later, thanks to his uncle Joe Hamilton, he moved to the New York American magazine, where he worked as a reporter. However, he wasn”t very good at it, so, before long, he was fired. Discouraged, he returned to California.

He spent the next 3 years doing odd jobs and constantly moving from San Francisco, to Monterey and Lake Tahoe. He also wrote a lot of lyrics during that time, which unfortunately no one wanted to buy from him. Until in 1929, McBride accepted and published The Golden Spell, a fictional biography of pirate Henry Morgan that Steinbeck wrote while living in Lake Tahoe. This was followed by Pastures of Heaven, published in 1932, and The Unknown God in 1933. None of these works, however, opened Steinbeck”s career path.

In 1934 he sold 5 short stories to the North American Review, including the first two parts of Chestnut. These works did not achieve great fame; nevertheless, the short story Murder won the O. Henry Award.

In 1935, Steinbeck published Tortilla Flat, a humorous tale of six roughnecks living in one house. The distinctly stylized rogue novel brought Steinbeck fame and money. Since then, his standing among prominent American writers has grown with each new publication.

Edward Ricketts

In 1930, at a friend”s cabin in Carmel, Steinbeck met Edward Ricketts (1887-1948), owner of a small biology lab in Monterey. Steinbeck himself tells this story in the “Ed Ricketts” chapter of Diary of the Sea of Cortez as if they were to meet in a dentist”s waiting room. A lifelong friendship grew out of this acquaintance, thanks in part to their shared interest in music. They spent a lot of time talking and drinking (both were fans of beer, wine, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages), Ricketts even infected Steinbeck with the love of biology; biological aspects of human life often permeated the writer”s works. Edward became the protagonist of several Steinbeck novels, including In the Uncertain Struggle, Waterfront Street, and Miracle Thursday.

The visit to Poland and Kennedy”s death

While in Poland in the autumn of 1963, on November 22nd, he received news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As a “great representative of American culture”, he received condolences from the staff of the Warsaw weekly “Kultura”, whose editor at the time was Janusz Wilhelmi.

The Vietnam War

In December 1966, John Steinbeck traveled to Vietnam as a war correspondent for Newsday. The daily Huffington Post published a letter Steinbeck sent to his friend Alice, describing the impressions the Vietnam War had made on him.

Steinbeck”s decision to go to Vietnam as a war correspondent contributed to the lowering of his authority in the liberal American intelligentsia. The dozens of reports from Vietnam published in the American press were interpreted as enthusiastic support for the Vietnam War, and the war itself.

Death

He died in New York City on December 20, 1968 from heart failure. An autopsy revealed almost complete atrophy of the major coronary arteries due to prolonged cigarette smoking.

In accordance with Steinbeck”s wishes, his body was cremated and an urn containing his ashes was placed in the family”s Garden of Memories Memorial Park grave in Salinas.

Pigasus

A personal mark used by Steinbeck as a symbol of himself, “grounded but ambitious.” It depicts a pig with wings and contains the Latin motto Ad astra per alas porci, which translates as: To the stars on the wings of a pig.

Probably not coincidentally, Steinbeck used just such a mark to designate his work. Pigasus appeared in the Land of Oz books by Ruth Plumly Thompson. Her pygasus was also a winged pig. However, Pegasus as a winged magical horse whose riders gained the gift of writing poetry certainly did not escape Steinbeck”s eye. Pegasus first appeared in “Pirates of Oz.”

John Steinbeck drew his mark on some of his books during author nights. These copies are definitely more valuable than those that contain only the author”s autograph.

In 1928 Steinbeck worked as a janitor at a fish hatchery in Tahoe City, where he met his first wife, Carol Henning, whom he married in January 1930. The couple lived in a cottage in Pacific Grove that Carol”s father bought for them. They also received a $25 monthly living allowance from him, which was sometimes the couple”s only income. After the success of Tortilla Flat, the Steinbecks moved to a house near Los Gatos in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In 1936, they took a trip to Mexico, the first of Steinbeck”s many excursions. He was also in France, Italy, Greece, Russia, England, and Northern Ireland, among other places. Steinbeck”s frequent absences from home led to his divorce from Carol in 1942.

In 1943 Steinbeck married Gwendolyn Conger (Verdon), the mother of his only children, Tom and John. Shortly after their marriage, he went to the war front of World War II as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. Upon his return later that same year, he and his wife moved to New York City. And this time Steinbeck”s constant travels became the cause of his divorce from Gwendolyn in 1948.

His third and final wife became Elaine Scott in December 1950. In Travels with Charley written 10 years later, Steinbeck describes his marriage as successful and happy.

On May 6, 1940, John Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for his novel The Grapes of Wrath, and in 1962 the Nobel Prize for Literature for his “realistic and poetic gift, combined with subtle humor and sharp insight into social issues” (the final five judges in 1962 included Jean Anouilh, Karen Blixen, Lawrence Durrell and Robert Graves). According to one of the jury members, Anders Osterling, Steinbeck has always sympathized with the underdog, the oppressed and the suffering. He is a writer who contrasts the simple joys of life with the cruel and cynical lust for money. In his speech, he pointed out the debt that every writer owes to society, he must not only show people their mistakes but also reflect the greatness of their spirit. On the official website of the Award you can find the full text of Steinbeck”s speech given at the ceremony.

In the United States, however, it was considered that Steinbeck was awarded too early. This opinion undermined his authority and the author”s influence began to wane.In September 1964, Steinbeck was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

In addition to the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize, he received many other honors and awards. In 1936 he was awarded a gold medal from the Commonwealth Club of California for Tortilla Flat, and a year later another for In the Uncertain Struggle. In 1938 the New York Drama Critics” Circle awarded him a prize for Of Mice and Men, and in 1948 he became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

East of Eden

Considered one of Steinbeck”s finest works, the novel tells the tragic story of the Trask family, who settled in the Salinas Valley at the turn of the 20th century. Adam Trask, a farmer, raises his two sons, Aaron and Kaleb, alone. The boys are as different from each other as fire and water, and the only thing they have in common is constant competition for the love of their strict father. Aaron is calm and obedient, while Kaleb is a born rebel who resents his brother and wants to find his mother at all costs. The tense situation between the brothers is made worse by their love for the same woman, Abra. Eventually, Kaleb finds his mother, the demonic Kathy, in a brothel and discovers that she is the complete opposite of what his beloved father embodies. The internal rift, the need to make a choice, and the excess of tension lead to tragedy….

East of Eden is one of the most popular novels of the 20th century. While in terms of plot it is a realistic saga of a family of California ranchers, its other, deeper bottom can be read as a reinterpretation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel and a parable about the struggle between good and evil in man.

Mice and humans

A beautiful novel about unconditional friendship, human longings and dreams. George Milton and Lennie Small are an unusual tandem of friends. George is a strong man and Lennie, who follows him, is a mentally handicapped giant. Clumsy and unaware of his own physical strength, he is unable to conform to society”s norms and brings more or less misfortune upon himself and George. Unable to find a place for themselves, the friends wander the U.S. in the depths of the Great Depression in search of income and acceptance. Their dream and goal is to have their own farm where they can raise rabbits.

Of Mice and Men is one of Steinbeck”s finest literary works. It is a novel so complex that it eludes all clear-cut interpretations. Above all, it is a beautiful story of wonderful friendship and sacrifice, a tale of complicated relationships, human longings and dreams. It is also a parable of human fate, a kind of contemporary fairy tale for adults.

Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck”s most outstanding novel, published in 1939 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. It is a lavishly painted saga of the poor Joad family from Oklahoma, who travel during the Great Depression to California – as they believe – a land flowing with milk and honey. A series of misfortunes befalls them during the grueling journey: the death of their grandparents, son Tom, avenging the death of a friend murdered by a gunman, kills a man and runs away, son-in-law Connie leaves the clan, Rosasharn gives birth to a stillborn baby. At their destination, additional disappointment awaits them: unemployment, poorly paid jobs, strikes and repression, this is not the California they imagined so much.

In the novel, Steinbeck”s longing for simplicity, love of the land, and protest against urbanization are most evident. With his novel, the author wanted to expose the degeneration of capitalism, he took the side of the humiliated and exploited community.

The following is a listing of all of the author”s works, along with the date of the U.S. edition and details of the Polish edition. Where possible, the price and number of pages of the first edition (US) are given.

John Steinbeck, as a prominent American writer of the 20th century, has been recognized by Polish writers and several translators have translated his works. The most recognized is Bronisław Zieliński.

Steinbeck”s works show his continuing interest in both the biological and mythological heritage of man. Biology and myths are influential factors in his work, providing the basis for his works of the 1930s. In them one can see how the concepts of the ecological society, the group organism, that Steinbeck took from his biology classes at Stanford University take on increasing importance, from The Golden Spell, where they are barely noticeable, to The Grapes of Wrath, where they reach their peak.Myth, on the other hand, is a more continuous factor, completely influencing the form and content of all his works from 1929 onwards. In most of them, one can see myth as a palimpsest upon which Steinbeck has written a realistic story about modern man.

As Teresa Kieniewicz notes in her monograph on the reception of American literature in Poland in the interwar period, Steinbeck – like other writers of his generation, such as William Faulkner – remained unknown in Poland at that time. This situation changed only after World War II. The first mention of Steinbeck”s work appears to have been in Aleksander Rogalski”s article Contemporary American Novel, published in 1946. A year later, excerpts from Steinbeck”s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, considered the most outstanding – then as now – appeared in the press.

In the same year, the first monographic sketch on the prose of the author of Pastures of Heaven was published in the Marxist journal Odrodzenie, a periodical issued by the “communist regime”. Stanisław Helsztyński, the author of that sketch, made a general characterization of Steinbeck”s writing in it, stating that The Grapes of Wrath would become: “certainly an enduring position in American literature, like Dreiser”s American Tragedy, Sinclaire Lewis”s Main Street, or, from earlier ones, Melville”s Moby Dick.” Helsztyński thus included the novel in the canon of works of American literature, containing works that convey a critical view of relations in the United States during the period of early capitalism.

Leading Marxist literary critic Stefan Zolkiewski also commented on American prose, arguing that the works of writers such as Caldwell, Steinbeck, and Faulkner testify “to the richness and diversity, to the artistic discovery and uncompromisingness of these writers, to the alertness and accuracy of their social analysis.”

Kazimierz Brandys, a member of the Kuźnica weekly editorial board and the author of The Wooden Horse, classified Steinbeck”s prose as “Literature of Violence” (the Polish equivalent of this English term is “cruel novel”). Later, in 1948, there was a change in the understanding of American literature. In Kuźnica, he wrote in response to Caldwell”s story “Kneel before the Rising Sun” that American literature could not be trusted to condemn people to annihilation in advance. Zbigniew Bieńkowski spoke next to Brandys, indicating three main features of American literature: anti-intellectualism, antipsychologism, and simplicity.

Czesław Miłosz, who was in Washington at the time, commented twice in the magazine Odrodzenie in 1947, formulating, among other things, the thesis that the American “novel of violence” is strongly related to the French naturalistic novel: “The resemblance of the novel of violence to the French novel known as the naturalist novel, that is, to Zola or Maupassant – is very strong in general; with Steinbeck it is no longer a resemblance but almost an identity.”

In 1948 and 1949, the press brought numerous translations of Steinbeck”s works, and the first translation of the novel Of Mice and Men appeared. Wiktor Woroszylski, a leading representative of the “pimple generation”, wrote about the duality of Steinbeck”s work: on the one hand, a progressive writer, the author of The Grapes of Wrath, and on the other, a second-rate author practicing pathological naturalism. He also added that he stands on the position of disbelief in the possibility of social revolution. As we can see, it is not true – as Steinbeck claimed – that the Communists were hostile to his works, and certainly not in the years 1945-1948, when he was mentioned in socio-cultural publications as a leading American writer with progressive views.

The years 1950-55 brought significant changes to Steinbeck”s works. Writers with overtly pro-Communist views, including Albert Maltz and Howard Fast, were translated, while Steinbeck was completely silenced.

After three years of silence (1951-53), Steinbeck”s name reappears in the Polish socio-cultural press in 1954 during the then ongoing discussions on translation policy in the Stalinist years. Lech Budrecki, like Jerzy Lisowski and Mirosław Żuławski, in demanding the publication of works by such writers as Faulkner, Steinbeck, Caldwell or Scott Fitzgerald, pointed to the “violent indictment of bourgeois society” they contained.

In 1956, the first edition of The Grapes of Wrath was published. The novel was received almost enthusiastically. A commentary by Jan Detka may serve as an example (It is astonishing to read this novel, the artistic and ideological richness of Steinbeck”s work are drawn out in full (…) Steinbeck remained faithful to fatalism, in The Grapes of Wrath it takes the shape of the ruthless force of social laws, crushing people”s will and their actions.”

The American writer visited the USSR three times. The first time was in 1937; this first visit did not result in any literary testimony, although Steinbeck supposedly had the intention of writing something about the Soviet Union. Steinbeck”s second visit to the USSR took place in 1948; his literary testimony was A Russian Journal, published in the United States that year (this was a trip to the USSR organized as part of a cultural exchange program designed to defuse the Cold War. In reference to Bogdan Czeszka”s review, Steinbeck may not have been a “staunch friend of the Soviet Union,” but he was not an enemy of Soviet Russia either.

Numerous statements on Steinbeck”s work can be found in the Polish press after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962. American critics were rather reserved when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize. In Poland, on the other hand, reactions were much warmer, although in some sketches we find references to the artistic shortcomings of the prose by the author of The Grapes of Wrath. Zbigniew Bienkowski”s opinion can be considered typical: “Steinbeck is neither a rebel nor a sorcerer, he is simply a great writer.”

Steinbeck”s death at the end of 1968 went largely unnoticed. The only major text devoted to this event was written by one of the most disturbing figures in post-war literary life, Janusz Wilhelmi, editor-in-chief of the weekly Kultura. He wrote the following about Steinbeck: “He has always so far raised his voice on behalf of the poor against the rich, on behalf of the weak against the strong. He did not only give moral justice to the poor, the helpless and the weak. He also encouraged them to fight, predicted victory, which would not only be the redress of grievances, but also an equalization of accounts with the wrong-doers (…)”.

John Steinbeck”s works have been frequently filmed. Here is a list of films based on the writer”s texts:

National Steinbeck Center

The John Steinbeck Museum in Salinas presents the author”s works, memorabilia from his childhood and throughout his life in a way that is accessible to all ages. Here, letters leap off paper pages into the viewer”s imagination, and interactive exhibits allow visitors to experience the smell of a freight car straight from East of Eden. The Rabobank Agriculture Museum presents stories under the title “from field to fork”. (from field to fork) that celebrate the history, people and technology of an agricultural society.

The Steinbeck Center was established to honor the author as a great writer dedicated to his hometown, and wishes to showcase its beauty to all who visit. Below is a link to a video introducing the center in a few words.

Steinbeck House

John Steinbeck”s Victorian-style family home was built in 1897, and the author”s family moved in in 1900.

The Valley Guild Association was formed by 8 enthusiastic women sharing the same interest in cooking. They wanted to showcase the products the Salinas Valley had to offer. The association bought and renovated the house and opened it as a restaurant on February 27, 1974 (Steinbeck”s 72nd birthday). The volunteer mission is to maintain and preserve the house and raise funds for Valley charities.

The restaurant offers a wonderful experience of eating fresh produce sourced exclusively from the Salinas Valley itself.

Sources

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