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John Steinbeck has been characterized as having been influenced by the likes of Charles Darwin, the naturalist, author of The Origin of Species, and champion of the theory of evolution. Instead of Romanticism and its highly symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment of its subjects, Naturalism is the outgrowth of Realism, a prominent literary movement of the late 19th-century.Naturalistic writers were influenced by Darwin’s theory, in that they believed that one's heredity and surroundings determine one's character. Whereas Realism seeks only to describe subjects as they really are, Naturalism also attempts to scientifically ascertain the underlying forces influencing those subjects' actions.Both genres are diametrically opposed to Romanticism — Naturalistic works often include earthy, sordid, tell-it-as-it-is subject matter. An example might be a frankness about sexuality or a pervasive pessimism throughout a work.Steinbeck: Down and dirty with the common man? You bet. The downtrodden, the hapless, those struggling just to eke by on the meagerness of the day? Steinbeck was there to describe it to his readers, such that the acrid odor of fish entrails left in a mound for clouds of sea gulls seeking their handouts on a lazy afternoon on the wharf, oozed from his pages and into the reader's nostrils.The early yearsSteinbeck was born to John and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, first-generation Americans, in Salinas, California, in 1902.He enrolled in Stanford University in 1919, and attended until 1925. He dropped out of school and moved to New York City, where he developed his skills as a freelance writer. He was compelled to return to California, however, after an unsuccessful search for a publisher.Steinbeck's first novel was the mythological Cup of Gold (1929), a historical-fiction novel, loosely based on the privateer Henry Morgan's life and death. It centered on Morgan's assault on and sacking of the fictional city of Panama, sometimes referred to as the “Cup of Gold.” It received little public notice.Steinbeck married Carol Henning in 1930. She persuaded him to attend some radical political rallies in the liberal hotbed of San Francisco. The couple visited the Soviet Union in 1937, which was fairly common at that time among American intellectuals hoping to glimpse the successes of the world's best example of communist power and ingenuity.The young author achieved his first critical success with the novel Tortilla Flat (1935). It is the story of a group of young men living above the streets of Monterey during the Great Depression, who are engaged in heraldic adventures that can be compared to the exploits of the Knights of the Round Table. The novel was later made into a motion picture of the same name (1942).Steinbeck’s political experiences influenced his work, especially The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a portrayal of the downside of capitalism and his own unique version of the historical events surrounding the Dust Bowl emigrations of 300,000 to 400,000 people, from 1933 to 1941.”Dust Bowl fiction”In writing what were called "California novels" and “Dust Bowl fiction,” Steinbeck found his niche. Of Mice and Men (1937), his piece about the dreams of a pair of migrant laborers, “Lenny” and “George,” working the California soil, has now reached “classic” status.That novella was followed by what most critics believe is Steinbeck’s best work, Grapes, which was based on newspaper articles he had written in San Francisco, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. An uproar over his interpretation of the inhumane living conditions among migrating “Okies” along an unforgiving stretch of highway to the Promised Land, eventually caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who took up the standard, challenging Congress to right the wrongs of labor laws and migrant camp conditions.The novel's title must be credited to his wife du jour, Carol Henning (he was married three times), who gleaned it from the lyrics of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."Both Mice and Grapes were made into film classics, the latter starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford.Other works of noteIn all, Steinbeck saw 17 novels transformed into screenplays, and he wrote filmwork for Alfred Hitchcock, including Lifeboat (1944), and A Medal for Benny (1945).The novel, The Moon is Down (1942), portrayed resolute resistance to Nazi Germany’s occupation of a north European village during World War II. The book was made into a play, then a movie.Steinbeck continued to ride his wave of popularity following the war. The Pearl (1947), a tale about greed and obsession based on the biblical parable of a “pearl of great price” (Genesis 4:16), drew accolades and was made into a movie. There were detractors, including right-wing critics who claimed Steinbeck was a “subversive, unpatriotic man who threatened the national interest through the socialist themes of his novels.”In 1952, Steinbeck wrote a screenplay, Viva Zapata!, based on the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who led a rebellion against the corrupt, oppressive dictatorship of President Porfirio Diaz, in the early 20th century.That same year, an American film icon — James Dean — made his debut in East of Eden.Lifetime achievement awardsThe Steinbeck portfolio earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, for his “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception.”In addition to the aforementioned works, Steinbeck also produced such novels as:• The Long Valley (1938)• The Chrysanthemums (1938)• Forgotten Village (1941)• The Wayward Bus (1947)• Sweet Thursday (1954)• The Short Reign of Pippin IV (1957)• Once There Was A War (1958)• The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) and Travels with Charlie: In Search of America (1962)• America and Americans (1966) and• The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976) (published posthumously).Steinbeck also kept journals of his observation and travels, often publishing notes that did not make it into his novels, but nonetheless are engrossing and entertaining. Include among them are:• Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941)• A Russian Journal (1948) (Photography by Robert Capa)• Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951)• Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969) andWorking Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath 1938-1941 (1989) (posthumous)A stormy endAlthough the FBI never officially investigated him, Steinbeck did come to their attention because of his political beliefs, and he was interviewed by Army Intelligence for an officer's commission. They declined to offer based on his supposed “unsuitability due to psychological issues.”In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle in 1942, Steinbeck asked, “Do you suppose you could ask Edgar's boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I am an enemy alien. It is getting tiresome.”While Steinbeck early on was considered as a political activist/Marxist by right-wing Americans, in later years, he was criticized by the very leftists he supported in the beginning. They accused him of an “insufficient ideological commitment to Socialism.”In 1948, a women's socialist group in Rome condemned Steinbeck for backsliding into “the camp of war and anti-Marxism.” In 1955, an article in the Daily Worker, a newspaper published in New York City by the Communist Party USA, criticized Steinbeck's portrayal of the American Left.In 1967, Steinbeck traveled to Vietnam to report on the war, and his sympathetic portrait of the U.S. Army prompted the New York Post to denounce him for betraying his liberal past.To all of this, Steinbeck said simply, "Socialism is just another form of religion, and thus delusional."This is Steinbeck countryAh, Salinas. The word evokes a golden-days nostalgia where the agreeable scents of artichokes, cauliflower, and mushrooms, blend with the salty zephyr from nearby Monterey Bay to form a pungent elixir that conjures “Steinbeck” for the most casual of observers.An influx of newcomers from around the country, and the world, cannot erase the memories, cannot wipe out the ambience of Steinbeck Country.
John Steinbeck was born in California in February 1902 to flour mill manager John Steinbeck Sr and his wife, former school teacher Olive Hamilton from whom the young boy was to gain his love of books and writing. He was the third of four children, and the only son. His family were modestly well off, financially and the family lived in a substantial house in Salinas on Central Avenue. When John was a young teenager, the family suffered a temporary reversal of fortune when his father lost his job at the flour mill. He later started his own venture with a feed and grain store which also failed.
During this period, young John went out to the neighbouring sugar beet farms possibly to supplement the household income. It was during this time that he got to know the experiences and plight of the migrant farmworker that he would later represent in his most famous novels. He worked on occasion in the laboratory at the farm where he would get the chance to indulge in his passion or writing. At the age of 17, John went off to Stanford, studying English Literature, and the family fortunes once again revived as his father secured work as Monterey County Treasurer.
In 1923, John enrolled for a summer marine biology course at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, where he studied the work of William Ritter, particularly his concept of the super-organism, Astro 44. It was through this study that Steinbeck developed his interest in group behavior. John left Stanford in 1925 without graduating and worked his way towards New York earning money through a series of odd-jobs and writing when he could. Once in New York, John tried to gain interest in his work but failed to secure any publishing deals, so returned to California in 1928, where he took work as a tour guide and caretaker at Lake Tahoe. It was here that he met his first wife, Carol Henning.
The couple married in 1930, in Los Angeles and moved to a cottage on land owned by his parents, who had been and continued to support him with loans and materials since his return from New York. For six months the couple were able to exist on the money lent by the older Steinbecks, supplementing their diet with home-grown vegetables and fish and crabs that he caught from the small boat that he bought. When the money ran out, on occasion the couple resorted on occasion to stealing produce from the local market and applied for welfare.
It was around this time that John met later close friend and mentor, Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist and ecologist, who made a living collecting and selling specimens with his own small laboratory in Monterey. Carol Steinbeck would later work for Ed as his secretary and book-keeper.
Steinbeck’s first published work, ‘Cup of Gold’, in 1929 was the tale of the life of Henry Morgan, British Privateer and Naval Admiral and focuses on the sacking of Panama in which, amongst others, Morgan played an active role. He followed this up with three further stories over the next three years, ‘Pastures of Heaven’ in 1932, ‘The Red Pony’ in 1933, which was a tale based on his childhood pony Jill and later that year ‘To a God Unknown’. These novels achieved moderate success, but Steinbeck felt deeply that one day he would achieve greatness through his writing.
In 1935 Steinbeck received his first major break with ‘Tortilla Flat’ based loosely around his love of the Arthurian legends. He quickly followed up with his ‘dust-bowl series’ for which he would make his mark on the literary world. Dubious Battle tells the tale of strike breakers amongst the fruit pickers, and had alleged union or communist leanings, ‘Of Mice and Men’ tells the story of migrant workers during the Depression, faced with the discrimination which came through belonging to what are now known as minority groups. Steinbeck later said his ideas for the characters came from his time on the sugar beet farms around Salinas, although the only one of them who was a “real person” was Lennie. Steinbeck described in an interview with the New York Times in 1937 an occasion when a large man with what would now be classed as learning difficulties, got angry because his friend had been fired. He picked up a pitchfork and stabbed the team leader repeatedly through the stomach with it. The other men were unable to overpower him until the victim was already dead. Steinbeck claimed that this man was taken away and locked in an asylum where he remained. No records however have been found of a patient with this background.
He followed this work up with Grapes of Wrath in which Steinbeck details the negative side of Capitalism. Of Mice and Men, and Grapes of Wrath have gone down in literary history as two of the most critically acclaimed works of the period, throwing open to the world the plight of migrant workers and the poor during the Depression. The conditions they faced in their endeavors just to secure enough money to live, and the harsh treatment they received.
In 1940, Steinbeck took a break and went travelling off the coast of California, collecting marine samples with Ed Ricketts. Carol accompanied them on the trip but upon their return, it appeared their marriage was in trouble. The couple divorced the following year and Steinbeck moved away from Pacific Grove. His friendship with Ed became somewhat distant after this point. The following year Steinbeck remarried Gwyndolyn Conger (Gwyn) with whom he had two sons, Thomas and John IV.
Over the following six years, Steinbeck wrote for a variety of media, he published further works, including ‘Cannery Row’, wrote as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote propaganda material for the war effort and worked with the predecessor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Although denied a commission to enlist, he saw active service as part of a commando team led by Douglas Fairbanks Jr during his reporting on the war in Europe. The team was tasked with diversionary tactics around the Mediterranean and Italy. Although accused of communist sympathies, Steinbeck proved to be an ardent patriot and received shrapnel wounds during the course of his action, and a certain amount of PTSD which he treated by writing further novels based on his wartime experiences.
In 1948, Steinbeck was horrified to hear his friend Ed Ricketts had been critically injured when his car was hit by a train. Steinbeck rushed to be at his friend’s side sadly, he didn’t make it in time. Ricketts died before Steinbeck arrived. John returned home, devastated, to be met by Gwyn asking for a divorce. There followed a period of depression, which lasted around a year. In 1949 things picked up when he met Elaine Scott, a stage manager, in a restaurant. Elaine was at the time married to actor Zachary Scott. A friendship blossomed which developed into a relationship by the following year as their respective divorces came through. They married in December 1950.
John Steinbeck died in 1968 in New York, from congestive heart failure and heart disease, exacerbated by many years as a smoker. During his lifetime he had achieved several notable accomplishments in the literary world, including the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (fiction) and controversially, the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature. His works continue to be significant bestsellers, many of which have been made into movies, and have been a consistent feature on school and college reading lists, interspersed with episodes on the banned list for their use of contemporary derogatory language and themes, for which arguably the context is overlooked.
John Steinbeck, love him or hate him… an author of great magnitude who opened the world’s eyes to hardship and discrimination.
John Steinbeck, Bard of the American Worker (Review)
John Steinbeck (1902-68) might well be one of those once-popular authors whose names we recognize but whom no one reads beyond junior high. Still, his affecting novels about besieged migrant workers and itinerant day laborers may come back into vogue now that the country, if not the world, faces an economic crisis whose proportions have already been compared to, and may far outdistance, those of the Great Depression.
Certainly William Souder, in &ldquoMad at the World,&rdquo his admiring new biography, believes Steinbeck should get another, sympathetic look. Hailing him as a &ldquomajor figure in American literature,&rdquo Souder further claims Steinbeck has &ldquogiven the world several books that would last forever.&rdquo Of course, forever is a very long time, more than Steinbeck himself thought he merited. When asked if he deserved the Nobel Prize he was awarded in 1962, Steinbeck modestly replied, &ldquoFrankly, no.&rdquo
To Souder, the author of a fine biography of John James Audubon, Steinbeck was &ldquosimply being his angry, contrarian self.&rdquo As he frames it, anger was the novelist&rsquos full-throated response to injustice, and it &ldquohad driven him to greatness.&rdquo
Yet to the reader Steinbeck seems less angry than shy, driven and occasionally cruel &mdash an insecure, talented and largely uninteresting man who blunted those insecurities by writing. &ldquoI work because I know it gives me pleasure to work,&rdquo Steinbeck once said. Not much else seemed to do that, except maybe booze.
Steinbeck kept writing. &ldquoThe clock is running down,&rdquo he said at just 39. Maniacally, he counted the number of words he produced each day. &ldquoLife was leaking out of him,&rdquo Souder rhapsodizes, &ldquoslipping away into the oblivion waiting for him in death.&rdquo
Perhaps but after The San Francisco News assigned Steinbeck to write a series about the pathetic living conditions of the Dust Bowl refugees in California&rsquos San Joaquin Valley, he actively began &ldquoThe Grapes of Wrath,&rdquo his touching 1939 novel about the hegira of these Oklahoma sharecroppers. The Joad family is a single, self-protective biological collective, with Ma Joad at its nurturing center: &ldquoIt&rsquos all one flow,&rdquo she says. &ldquoWoman looks at it like that. We ain&rsquot gonna die out.&rdquo With these stereotypes in place, Steinbeck&rsquos characters remain remote specimens &mdash as the critic Alfred Kazin put it, they stay &ldquoon the verge of becoming human, but never do.&rdquo Yet, immediate and concrete and written more out of sorrow &mdash and hope &mdash than anger, the novel became an anthem of the Depression. &ldquoSteinbeck&rsquos writing had merged with history,&rdquo Souder enthusiastically declares.
“Steinbeck to Springsteen” 1939-2006
Cover art for 1939 hardback edition of “The Grapes of Wrath,” published by Viking Press, New York. Cover illustration by Elmer Hader. Click for 75th anniversary edition.
The Grapes of Wrath is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by John Steinbeck in 1939. Not only was this book a landmark social commentary in its day and a major publishing success, it became an award-winning and profitable Hollywood film, and also inspired at least two rounds of music — one by Woody Guthrie in 1940 and another by Bruce Springsteen in the 1990s. First, the book.
The Grapes of Wrath focuses on a poor family of Oklahoma sharecroppers named the Joads who are driven from their home and land during the 1930s Dust Bowl and Great Depression. The story tracks the family’s near hopeless situation as they set out for California along with thousands of other “Okies” in search of land, jobs, and dignity. Along the way they face suspicion and contempt, and once in California they are harassed and persecuted as transient labor, exploited by wealthy farm owners and their hired police. All of this has a radicalizing effect on the novel’s main character, Tom Joad, who starts thinking in broader social terms, beyond himself — part of the message Steinbeck intends.
John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. His father served as the county treasurer his mother was a teacher. He graduated from the local high school in 1919, working summers as a hired hand on California farms and ranches. Attending Stanford University for six years without obtaining a degree, he decided in 1925 to pursue a writing career in New York. There, while writing, he also worked as a bricklayer, reporter, and manual laborer, but failed to find a publisher. He returned to California in 1927 where a series of novels followed — Cup of Gold, The Pastures of Heaven, and To a God Unknown — all of which were poorly received. Better notices and critical success came with Tortilla Flat in 1935, In Dubious Battle in 1936, and Of Mice and Men in 1937. Steinbeck then traveled to Oklahoma, where he joined a group of farmers embarking for California, living and working with one family for two years. This experience became the basis for The Grapes of Wrath.
Joad is first seen returning home to Oklahoma after a jail sentence for killing a man in a brawl, only to find a devastated landscape with local farms being repossessed by the banks. Tom and an itinerant preacher accompany Tom’s family on their trek to California over highway 66. Through Tom Joad, Steinbeck builds a slow-burn anger and sense of injustice over the migrants’ misery. The book was publicly banned in some places, burned in others, and heatedly debated on the radio. They are plagued not only by bad weather and misfortune, but by exploitive California farmers who deliberately degrade the migrants to keep them powerless. The book proves a powerful tale of social injustice.
At its release, The Grapes of Wrath became controversial and something of a national event. In fact, the book was publicly banned in some places and burned in others (see Rick Wartzman book & interview in Sources). It was heatedly debated on the radio. Reviewers were initially split. Some loved it, others were highly critical. One reviewer for the London Times named it “one of the most arresting [novels] of its time.” Newsweek called the book a “mess of silly propaganda, superficial observation, careless infidelity to the proper use of idiom, tasteless pornographical and scatagorical talk.”A reviewer for the New York Times, although critical of the book’s plot structure, said: “. . . Steinbeck has written a novel from the depth’s of his heart with a sincerity seldom equaled. It may be an exaggeration, but it is the exaggeration of an honest and splendid writer.” The Associated Farmers of California, displeased with the book’s depiction of California farmers, denounced the book as a “pack of lies” also calling it “communist propaganda”.
Oklahoma refugees in California, 1935.
The Grapes of Wrath did help to improve migrant conditions, but it also brought threats on Steinbeck’s life, charges that he was a Communist, and surveillance by the FBI. Steinbeck continued his career as a writer, publishing other notable works, including: The Moon Is Down (1942) Cannery Row (1945) The Pearl (1947) East of Eden (1952), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) Travels With Charley (1962) and others. Seventeen of his works went on to become films, and he also worked as a Hollywood writer. In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature with the Nobel committee citing the Grapes of Wrath as a “great work” and one of the committee’s main reasons for granting Steinbeck the Prize. The copyright for The Grapes of Wrath was renewed in John Steinbeck’s name in 1967. At the 50th anniversary of the book in 1989, it had sold close to 4.5 million copies in the U.S. alone, with worldwide sales then reaching about 14 million. Paperbacks were then selling at a rate of about 100,000 a year.
1940 poster for the Grapes of Wrath film, includes image of book and Steinbeck's name. Click for poster.
Zanuck, however, was nervous about the novel’s hard left political views and sent private investigators to Oklahoma to check out the “Okies” predicament first hand. Finding them true to life, Zanuk became confident he could defend attacks that the film was pro-Communist. But Zanuck also watered down the novel’s tone for the film, departing from the book in places, which some believe made story more saleable to the public.
The film had an excellent cast, including Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, and John Carradine as the itinerant ex-preacher, Jim Casy. Production ran from early October 1939 through mid-November 1939. It premiered in New York City and Los Angeles in late January 1940 and to the wider public in mid- March 1940.
“The Joads step right out of the pages of the novel that has shocked millions!,” said one of the studio’s promotional pieces. At its release the film was very well received, but like the book, still had its detractors for its leftist political tone. Still, the movie helped to keep Steinbeck’s book on the bestseller list.
The movie won Oscars for best director, John Ford, and best actress, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad. It was also nominated in five other categories, including best actor for Henry Fonda’s role, and best picture, losing that year to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Through the 1950s, The Grapes of Wrath was often named the greatest American film, though in subsequent years it was outranked by other films, such as Citizen Kane. But the American Film Institute still ranks it among the top 50 films of all time, and the Library of Congress has designated it for historic film preservation. VHS versions of the film were released in 1988 by a division of CBS/Fox, and again in 1998 by 20th Century Fox for its Studio Classic series. A DVD version with extra commentary and historical information was released in April 2004 by 20th Century Fox Entertainment.
In one 2002 film review, Roger Ebert wrote: “The novel and movie do last, I think, because they are founded in real experience and feeling. . . .The Grapes of Wrath shows half a nation with the economic rug pulled out from under it. The story, which seems to be about the resiliency and courage of ‘the people,’ is built on a foundation of fear: Fear of losing jobs, land, self-respect. To those who had felt that fear, who had gone hungry or been homeless, it would never become dated. . .”
Woody & Bruce
Among those who first saw the film in 1940 was Depression-era balladeer Woody Guthrie. In fact, Guthrie was so moved by what he saw at a New York screening that he wrote a long song about the film immediately after viewing it. Set to the tune of “John Hardy,” Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Tom Joad” summarizes the The Grapes of Wrath story in a 17-verse song. Folk singer Pete Seeger, who saw Guthrie that night, has described how Guthrie set about writing the song:
…He said, “Pete, do you know where I can get a typewriter?” I said, “I’m staying with someone who has one.”
“Well, I got to write a ballad,” he said. “I don’t usually write ballads to order, but Victor [the record company] wants me to do a whole album of Dust Bowl songs, and they say they want one about Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.”
. . . He went along to the place where I was staying — six flights walking up — on East Fourth Street. The friend I was staying with [Jerry Oberwager] said, “Sure, you can use my typewriter.”
Woody had a half-gallon jug of wine with him, sat down and started typing away. He would stand up every few seconds and test out a verse on his guitar and sit down and type some more. About one o’clock my friend and I got so sleepy we couldn’t stay awake. In the morning we found Woody curled up on the floor under the table the half gallon of wine was almost empty and the completed ballad was sitting near the typewriter….
Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in the 1939 film version of The Grapes of Wrath.
Guthrie, in his own plain style, also wrote about seeing the film in one of his columns for the People’s World, praising its directness:
“. . . Shows the damn bankers men that broke us and the dust that choked us, and comes right out in plain old English and says what to do about it.” Guthrie urged his readers to go see the film. “. . .You was the star in that picture,” he wrote, meaning his everyman readers. “Go and see your own self and hear your own words . . .”
Guthrie’s song, meanwhile, “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” was first recorded at RCA Studios, Camden, New Jersey, April 1940 and released on an album titled Dust Bowl Ballads in July 1940.
Later albums, also including the “Tom Joad” song, were released in 1964 and another in 1977 by RCA under the title, Woody Guthrie: A Legendary Performer. A CD version was released in 1988 and is also available in a newer CD version by Buddha Records, released in 2000, with some extras. But Woody Guthrie’s song on The Grapes of Wrath tale wouldn’t be the last such music.
In November 1995, rock star Bruce Springsteen, who had risen to fame in the 1980s with hard-driving rock ‘n roll music that often captured working-class concerns and themes, released an album titled The Ghost of Tom Joad. This album, a more acoustic-styled collection of tunes rather his normal rock ‘n roll fare, is supported by guitar, piano and harmonica. Its title track directly references the Grapes of Wrath’s main character (see lyrics below).
The album also features other songs that focus on the lives of steelworkers, illegal immigrants, and migrant farmers. Springsteen’s single from the album, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was later covered by the alternative metal rock group Rage Against the Machine on a November 1998 CD single and a 2001 album. In 2006, the song was covered again on a EP by Swedish indie/folk singer-songwriter and classical guitarist José González who is affiliated with the group Junip.
“The Ghost of Tom Joad”
Men walkin’ `long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up
over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the
No home no job no peace no rest.
The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about
where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad.
He pulls prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin’ for when the last shall be first and
the first shall be last
In a cardboard box `neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin’ in the city aqueduct.
The highway is alive tonight
But where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad.
Now Tom said, “Mom,wherever there’s
a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight `gainst the blood
and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom, I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for
a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”
“Best Book” Kudos
The Grapes of Wrath today is regarded as one of the great American novels of the 20th century and remains one of the world’s most famous books. It is frequently cited on “best book” lists that appear from time to time. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Grapes of Wrath at No. 10 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
In 1999, French newspaper Le Monde ranked The Grapes of Wrath No. 7 on its list of the 100 best books of the 20th century. In the U.K., the book was listed at No. 29 of the “nation’s best loved novel” on a BBC 2003 survey.
Time magazine in 2005 included the novel in its listing of the “100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005″. The Daily Telegraph of London in 2009 included the novel as well in its list of novels everyone should read”.
As for the film, which is also highly regarded, although it deviates from the book at the end, a special DVD with supplemental historian commentary was released in April 2004 by 20th Century Fox Entertainment. And in July 2013, Steven Spielberg announced plans to do a remake of The Grapes of Wrath film.
At the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath in April 2014, there was renewed attention bestowed on the book and its author, with commemorative events occurring throughout the year at numerous museums, schools, universities, and book festivals. Viking-Penguin, the book’s original publisher, issued a special “75th Anniversary Edition” with the original cover art for the hardback book jacket by artist Elmer Hader.
The School of Arts and Humanities at California State University at Bakersfield began its celebration of Steinbeck’s novel in October 2013 with a continued schedule of events in a number of state-wide venues through 2014.
The Center for Steinbeck Studies at California State University at San Jose and the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California also commemorated the 75th anniversary with special programs. The Steinbeck Center launched a “Grapes of Wrath” oral history collection project to document present-day Joad family difficulties and share those stories online and at public programs – part of the 2014 National Steinbeck Festival.
A number of authors and Steinbeck scholars also commemorated The Grapes of Wrath’s 75th anniversary, some offering special papers, essays, and lectures. In April 2014, for example, a Washington Post essay by historian Susan Shillinglaw, made a case for remembering the migrant women of The Grapes of Wrath – and the “Ma Joad” character in particular.
Scene from 1940 film, “The Grapes of Wrath,” from left: Doris Bowdon as “Rosasharn,” Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, and Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.
In her piece, Shillinglaw also noted the role of Steinbeck’s wife, Carol, in shaping the book and pushing her husband along, also responsible for selecting “The Grapes of Wrath” title, taken from the opening lines of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
For additional stories at this website on “Print & Publishing,” please see that category page – and also the “Film & Hollywood” category page for other book-to-film stories. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
DatePosted: 29 March 2008
Last Update: 11 April 2019
Comments to: [email protected]
Jack Doyle, “Steinbeck to Springsteen, 1939-2006,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 29, 2008.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Author John Steinbeck, circa 1930.
Cover of Rick Wartzman’s 2008 book, depicting p. 4 of “The Grapes of Wrath” in flames, apropos his book’s subject, i.e., the burning and banning of Steinbeck's book. Click for book.
In 1979, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp featuring John Steinbeck, which began the Postal Service’s Literary Arts series honoring American writers. The stamp was issued on what would have been Steinbeck’s 77th birthday, Feb. 27th.
“Speaking of Pictures. . . These By Life Prove Facts in ‘Grapes of Wrath’,” Life, January 19, 1940 (with photos of Horace Bristow).
Edwin Schallert, “ ‘Grapes of Wrath’ [film] Due for Much Controversy,” Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1940, p. 8.
Richard Griffith, “Gotham ‘Goes Overboard’ on Steinbeck Picture,” Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1940, p. A-14.
“Novel Flayed in [State] House Californian Denounces ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ in Migrant Aid Debate,” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1940, p. 2.
The Grapes of Wrath, “ 20th-Century American Bestsellers ,” Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, 2006.
“The American Novel,” American Masters, , The Grapes of Wrath,” PBS, a production of Thirteen/WNET New York, March 2007.
C-Span “Book TV” interview with Rick Wartzman, author of Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s the Grapes of Wrath, PublicAffairs Press, September 2008.
Susan Shillinglaw, A Journey into Steinbeck’s California, Roaring Forties Press, 2006. Shillinglaw is scholar-in-residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, San Jose State University.
Woody Guthrie, article in one of his People’s World columns (1940), reprinted in Woody Sez, New York, NY, 1975, p. 133.
Woody Guthrie, American Folksong, New York, 1961 (reprint of 1947 edition), p. 25.
Pete Seeger, The Incompleat Folksinger, New York, NY, 1972, p. 44.
W.J. Weatherby, “Mighty Words of Wrath,” The Guardian, Monday April 17, 1989.
Library of Congress, “ Forgotten People ” exhibit, Depression Era/migrant worker sketchbook of Dorthea Lange & Paul Taylor.
DVD Talk Review , Grapes of Wrath film review by Glenn Erickson.
For a more recent perspective on Steinbeck’s work re: current economic conditions, see: Rachel Dry, “A Recession Only Steinbeck Could Love,” Washington Post, Outlook, Sunday, March 22, 2009, p. B-1.
Rick Wartzman, Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Public Affairs, September 1, 2008.
“Interview with Rick Wartzman, Author, Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s the Grapes of Wrath (PublicAffairs Press, September 2008), BookTV/C-Span.org, September 28, 2008.
Nicole Cohen, “Last Chance To Read ‘Grapes Of Wrath’ Before It Turns 75,” NPR.org, February 17, 2014.
Robin Young & Jeremy Hobson,“Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’ Marks 75th Anniversary,” Here & Now / WBUR (Boston /NPR), Monday, April 14, 2014.
Susan Shillinglaw, “Ma Joad for President: 75 Years Later, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ Reveals the Leader America Needs,” Washington Post, Sunday, April 16, 2014.
Earning Battle Stripes With Douglas Fairbanks
He would come to earn his battle stripes with the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943. In England and later in North Africa, Steinbeck had been a step removed from the battlefront. Not so with this invasion.
Despite the Italian government’s surrender by September 1943, the Germans tenaciously resisted. In preparing for the invasion of Italy, Steinbeck managed to assign himself to a secretive special operations unit based on British commando units. Its purpose was to deceive the enemy, launch sudden raids, and disrupt communications fast mobile torpedo boats would riddle enemy shipping. British, American, and Dutch ships offered support. The unit’s commander, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., a Hollywood movie star turned commando leader, redefined the meaning of swashbuckler, trading screen props for ordnance.
Steinbeck was drawn to the charming, charismatic Fairbanks. Little wonder Fairbanks not only told a good story, borrowing from his actor friend David Niven’s seemingly endless repertoire of entertaining and off-color anecdotes, but also amused onlookers with impersonations of Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn. Beneath the glib exterior, Fairbanks was all business. His recruits, drawn from military bases and college campuses, won assignment for their expertise in electronics, demolitions, and gunnery, not for their sense of humor.
The Steinbeck House
This Queen Anne style Victorian was the birthplace and boyhood home of author John Steinbeck. Built in Salinas in 1897, the Steinbeck family moved into the house in 1900.
The Valley Guild was formed by eight enthusiastic women who shared a common interest in gourmet cooking and wanted to showcase Salinas Valley produce. The volunteers of Valley Guild purchased and renovated the house. It was opened to the public as a restaurant on February 27, 1974 —the 72nd anniversary of John Steinbeck’s birth. The house is operated by volunteers with a minimum of paid staff, and recently celebrated its 42nd Anniversary.
Oprah Winfrey and members of her book club visited the Steinbeck House in September of 2003. Her show was filmed on the front lawn of the House.
In April of 1995, E. Clampus Vitus designated the house as a literary landmark.
In August of 2000, the house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Many Steinbeck family pictures and memorabilia decorate the walls.
The specific and primary purpose of Valley Guild is to maintain and preserve the John Steinbeck House. The Valley Guild is a non-profit, volunteer organization which has owned and operated The House since 1972. Their purpose is to maintain and preserve The Steinbeck House for future generations of Steinbeck readers. The Steinbeck House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Your gratuities are greatly appreciated. They are used solely to maintain the House.
Today in media history: John Steinbeck as a journalist
On September 12, 1936, The Nation magazine published John Steinbeck’s article “Dubious Battle in California.” This Depression era article about California labor migrants helped the author develop ideas for his fictional novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Here is an excerpt:
“The drought in the Middle West has very recently made available an
enormous amount of cheap labor. Workers have been coming to California
in nondescript cars from Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, and other states,
parts of which have been rendered uninhabitable by drought.
Proverty-stricken after the destruction to their farms, their last
reserves used up in making the trip, they have arrived so beaten and
destitute that they have been willing at first to work under any
conditions and for any wages offered. This migration started on a
considerable scale about two years ago and is increasing all the
Video: “Critics’ Picks: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ — NYTimes.com/Video”
In October 1936 Steinbeck continued his work on this topic with a seven-part series for the San Francisco News called “The Harvest Gypsies.”
“John Steinbeck based much of his fiction on actual events and
experimented with several genres of nonfiction, including personal
essays, travel writing, and political and social commentary. His
interest in journalism, however, is often treated as ancillary to his
writing of fiction, which is regarded as his real work and true
calling. Steinbeck scholars allude to journalism when discussing
Steinbeck’s development as a writer or when chronicling and
categorizing his work, but to date they have not investigated
Steinbeck’s role as a literary journalist with the same analytical
zeal they bring to the study of his fiction. ‘The truth is that
Steinbeck was really a journalist at heart,’ Gore Vidal said in 1993
interview with Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini. ‘All of his best work
was journalism in that it was inspired by daily events, by current
circumstances. He didn’t ‘invent’ things. He found them.'”
— “To Do Some Good and No Harm: The Literary Journalism of John Steinbeck“
By Jan Whitt, Steinbeck Review, 2006
Steinbeck, John ( 27 February 1902–20 December 1968 ), author , was born John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr., in Salinas, California, the son of John Ernst Steinbeck, a businessman, accountant, and manager, and Olive Hamilton, a former teacher. As a child growing up in the fertile and sharply beautiful Salinas Valley—dubbed early in the century the “Salad Bowl of the Nation”—Steinbeck learned to appreciate his environment, not only the verdant hills surrounding Salinas, but also the nearby Pacific coast, where his family spent summer vacations. “I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers,” he wrote in the opening chapter of East of Eden (1952). “I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like.” The observant, shy, but often mischievous only son had, for the most part, a happy childhood growing up with two older sisters, one adored younger sister, an assertive mother, and a quiet, self-contained father. Never wealthy, the family was nonetheless prominent in the small town of 3,000, for both parents engaged in community activities. Mr. Steinbeck was a Mason Mrs. Steinbeck, a member of Eastern Star. Children of immigrants, the elder Steinbecks established their identities by sending deep roots into the community. Their son, on the other hand, was something of a rebel and a loner. Respectable Salinas circumscribed the restless and imaginative young man. Encouraged by his freshman English teacher, he decided at age fifteen that he wished to be a writer and spent hours as a teenager living in a world of his own making, writing stories and poems in his upstairs bedroom.
To please his parents, he enrolled at Stanford University in 1919 to please himself, he signed on only for courses that interested him: classical and British literature, creative writing, a smattering of science. The president of the English Club said that Steinbeck, who regularly attended meetings to read his stories aloud, “had no other interests or talents that I could make out. He was a writer, but he was that and nothing else” (Benson, p. 69). Writing was, indeed, his obsession. For five years the struggling author dropped in and out of the university, eventually taking off fall quarters to work for Spreckels Sugar in the factory near Salinas or on company ranches spread up and down the state. He worked closely with migrants and itinerants, and that association deepened his empathy for workers, the disenfranchised, the lonely, and the dislocated—an empathy that is a defining characteristic of his best work. Without taking a degree, he left Stanford for good in 1925, briefly tried construction work and newspaper reporting in New York City, and then returned to his native state in order to find leisure to hone his craft. During a three-year stint as a caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate, he found the time both to write several drafts of his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), and, at length, to woo a young woman vacationing at Lake Tahoe, Carol Henning, a San Jose native. After their marriage in 1930, he and Carol settled into the Steinbeck family’s summer cottage in Pacific Grove, she to search for jobs to support them, he to continue writing.
Works of the 1930s
During the 1930s Steinbeck wrote most of his best California fiction, from the stories composed in 1933–1934 and collected in The Long Valley (1938), to his recognized masterpieces: Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). But it took him the early years of the decade to test his stride, to polish his style, and to chart his fictional terrain. The prose in his first novel—the tale of Henry Morgan, pirate—is lush the artist who loved words strikes exotic chords and burdens sentences with modifiers. In the other apprentice novels, To a God Unknown (1933) and The Pastures of Heaven (1932), Latinate phrases are trimmed, adjectives are struck, and the setting shifts to California. To a God Unknown, second written and third published, tells of patriarch Joseph Wayne’s quest to tame and, at the same time, worship the land. Mystical and powerful, the novel testifies to Steinbeck’s awareness of an essential bond between man and nature. In a journal entry kept while working on this novel—a practice he continued all his life—the young author wrote, “The trees and the muscled mountains are the world—but not the world apart from man—the world and man—the one inseparable unit man and his environment. Why they should ever have been understood as being separate I do not know.” His conviction that characters must be seen in the context of their environments remained constant throughout his career. His was not a man-dominated universe but an interrelated whole, where species and the environment were seen to interact and where commensal bonds between people, among families, and with nature were acknowledged. The author observes life with a kind of scientific detachment, as The Pastures of Heaven demonstrates. Set in another tight California valley, this collection of loosely connected stories traces the lives of troubled, lonely, vulnerable farm families. By 1933 Steinbeck had found his terrain, had chiseled a prose style that was more naturalistic and far less strained, and had claimed his people—not the respectable, smug Salinas burghers, but those on the edges of polite society. Steinbeck’s California fiction, from To a God Unknown to East of Eden, envisions the dreams and defeats of common people shaped by the environments they inhabit.
Influential Figures in Steinbeck’s Life
Undoubtedly Steinbeck’s holistic vision was determined both by his early years roaming the Salinas hills and by his long and deep friendship with the remarkable Edward Flanders Ricketts, a marine biologist. Founder of Pacific Biological Laboratory, a marine lab eventually housed on Cannery Row in Monterey, Ricketts was a careful observer of intertidal life: “I grew to depend on his knowledge and on his patience in research,” Steinbeck writes in “About Ed Ricketts,” a lyrical tribute composed after his friend’s 1948 death and used as the preface to The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). But Ricketts’s influence on Steinbeck struck far deeper than the common chord of detached observation. Ricketts was a lover of Gregorian chant and Bach, Spengler and Krishnamurti, and Walt Whitman and Li Po. His acceptance of people as they were and of life as he found it was remarkable, articulated by what he called nonteleological or “is” thinking. Steinbeck adapted the term and the stance. His fiction examines “what is.” The working title for Of Mice and Men was “Something That Happened.” Several seminal “Doc” figures in Steinbeck’s California fiction, all wise observers of life, epitomize the idealized stance: Doc Burton in In Dubious Battle, Slim in Of Mice and Men, Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, Lee in East of Eden, and of course Doc himself in Cannery Row (1945) and the sequel, the rollicking Sweet Thursday (1954). Ricketts, patient and thoughtful, a poet and a scientist, helped ground the author’s ideas. He was Steinbeck’s mentor, alter ego, and soul mate. Considering the depth of his eighteen-year friendship with Ricketts, it is hardly surprising that the bond acknowledged most frequently in Steinbeck’s oeuvre is friendship between and among men.
Steinbeck’s social consciousness of the 1930s was ignited by an equally compelling figure in his life, his wife Carol. She helped edit his prose, urged him to cut the Latinate phrases, typed his manuscripts, suggested titles, and offered ways to restructure. To write, Steinbeck needed buffers to keep the world at bay, and the gregarious and witty Carol willingly and eagerly fulfilled that role. In 1935, having finally published his first popular success with tales of Monterey’s paisanos, Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck, goaded by Carol, attended a few meetings of nearby Carmel’s John Reed Club. Although he found the group’s zealotry distasteful, he, like so many intellectuals of the 1930s, found the communists’ stance unassailable: workers suffered. Intending to write a “biography of a strikebreaker,” he interviewed a fugitive organizer, and from the words of that hounded man came not a biography but one of the best strike novels written in the twentieth century, In Dubious Battle. Not a partisan novel, it dissects with a steady hand both the ruthless organizers and the grasping landowners. The author focuses not on who will win the struggle between organizers and farmers but on how profound is the effect on the workers trapped in between, manipulated by both interests.
At the height of his powers, Steinbeck followed this large canvas with two books that round out what might be called his labor trilogy. The tightly focused Of Mice and Men was one of the first in a long line of “experiments,” a word he often used to identify a forthcoming project. This “play-novelette,” a book that he intended to be both a novella and a script for a play, is a tightly drafted study of bindle stiffs whose dreams he intended to represent the universal longings for a home, “the earth longings of a Lennie who was not to represent insanity at all but the inarticulate and powerful yearning of all men,” he wrote his agent. Both the text and the critically acclaimed 1937 Broadway play (which won the Drama Critics Circle Award for best play that year) made Steinbeck a household name, assuring his popularity and, for some, his infamy. (The book’s language shocked many, and it is still listed with frequency on lists of “objectionable reading” or “banned books” for secondary school students.)
Steinbeck’s next novel intensified popular debate about his gritty subjects, his uncompromising sympathy for the disenfranchised, and his “crass” language. The Grapes of Wrath sold out an advance edition of 19,804 by mid-April 1939, was selling 10,000 copies a week by early May, and won the Pulitzer Prize for the year (1940). Published at the apex of the depression, the book about dispossessed farmers forced west captured the decade’s angst as well as the nation’s legacy of fierce individualism, visionary prosperity, and determined westward movement. It was, like the best of Steinbeck’s novels, informed in part by documentary zeal and in part by Steinbeck’s ability to trace mythic and biblical patterns. Lauded by critics nationwide for its scope and intensity, the book attracted an equally vociferous minority opinion. Oklahomans said that the story of the dispossessed Joads was a “dirty, lying, filthy manuscript,” in the words of Congressman Lyle Boren. Californians claimed the novel was a scourge on the state’s munificence, and an indignant Kern County, its migrant population burgeoning, banned the book well into World War II.
The author abandoned the field, exhausted from two years of research trips and personal commitment to the migrants’ woes, from a five-month push to write the final version, from a deteriorating marriage to Carol, and from an unnamed physical malady. He retreated to Ricketts and science, announcing his intention to study seriously marine biology and to plan a collecting trip to the Sea of Cortez. The text Steinbeck and Ricketts published in 1941, Sea of Cortez (reissued in 1951 without Ricketts’s catalog of species as The Log from the Sea of Cortez), tells the story of that expedition. It does more, however. The log portion that Steinbeck wrote (from Ricketts’s notes) in 1941—after having worked on a film in Mexico, The Forgotten Village (1941), and struggling with a manuscript about Cannery Row bums, “God in the Pipes”—contains his and Ricketts’s philosophical musings as well as keen observations on Mexican peasantry, hermit crabs, and “dryball” scientists. Quipped Lewis Gannett, there is “more of the whole man, John Steinbeck, than any of his novels.”
Less Successful Years
With the exception of the knotty and underrated Cannery Row, composed immediately after he returned from a four-month stint overseas as a war correspondent in 1943, Steinbeck’s work of the 1940s was less successful. His determination to shift directions was real enough. After writing The Grapes of Wrath, he declared that the novel was dead. He explored divergent paths: filmmaker, biologist, documentary historian (Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team ), and journalist. As war correspondent, he could make the commonplace intriguing (writing about the popularity of the song “Lilli Marlene” or his driver in London, Big Train Mulligan) and the uncommon riveting (as in his participation in a diversionary mission off the Italian coast). These columns were later collected in Once There Was a War (1958), and his postwar trip to Russia with Robert Capa in 1947 resulted in A Russian Journal (1948). During the 1940s Steinbeck published what many viewed as slight volumes, each a disappointment to critics who expected another tome to weigh in next to The Grapes of Wrath. By far the most fulsomely reviewed and controversial book of the decade was his first novel after Grapes, The Moon Is Down (1942). Set in an unnamed Northern European village, this play/novelette (his second experiment with this form he had invented) tells of a town’s resistance to what is obviously a Nazi invasion. The book, distributed by underground presses in occupied countries, inspired European readers and appalled many Americans. Two influential critics, James Thurber and Clifton Fadiman , declared in the nation’s most prestigious circulars that Steinbeck was “soft” on Germans—his were too understandably human—and that his text in fact threatened the war effort because the author suggested that resistance meant a dogged belief in democratic ideals. Critics’ barbs rankled the sensitive writer, as they had for years and would continue to throughout his career. Reviewers seemed either to misunderstand his biological naturalism or to expect him to compose another strident social critique like The Grapes of Wrath. Commonplace phrases such as “complete departure” or “unexpected” recurred in reviews of this and other “experimental” books of the 1950s and 1960s. A humorous text like Cannery Row struck many as fluff. In 1945 no reviewers recognized that the book’s central metaphor, the tidepool, suggested a way to read this nonteleological novel that examined the “specimen” who lived on Monterey’s Cannery Row, the street Steinbeck knew so well. Set in La Paz, Mexico, The Pearl (1947), a “folk tale … a black-white story like a parable,” he wrote his agent, tells of a young man who finds an exquisite pearl, loses his freedom in protecting his wealth, and finally throws back into the sea the cause of his woes. Reviews noted this as another slim volume by a major author. The Wayward Bus (1947), a “cosmic Bus,” sputtered as well.
Steinbeck faltered both professionally and personally in the 1940s. He divorced the loyal but volatile Carol in 1943. That same year he moved east with his second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger, a lovely and talented woman nearly twenty years his junior who ultimately resented his growing stature and felt that her own creativity as a singer had been stifled. With Gwyn, Steinbeck had two sons, but the marriage started falling apart shortly after the second son’s birth and ended in divorce in 1948. That same year Steinbeck was numbed by Ed Ricketts’s death. Only with concentrated work on a filmscript on the life of Emiliano Zapata for Elia Kazan’s film Viva Zapata! (1952) would Steinbeck gradually chart a new course. In 1949 he met and in 1950 married his third wife, Elaine Scott, and with her he moved again to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life. Much of the pain and reconciliation of the late 1940s was worked out in two subsequent novels: his third play/novelette Burning Bright (1950), a boldly experimental parable about a man’s acceptance of his wife’s child fathered by another man, and the largely autobiographical work he had contemplated since the early 1930s, East of Eden.
“It is what I have been practicing to write all of my life,” he wrote to painter Bo Beskow early in 1948, when he first began research for a novel about his valley and his people (Steinbeck and Wallsten, p. 310). With Viva Zapata!, East of Eden, Burning Bright, and later The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Steinbeck’s fiction became less concerned with the behavior of groups—what he called in the 1930s “group man”—and more focused on an individual’s moral responsibility to self and community. The detached perspective of the scientist gave way to a certain warmth the ubiquitous “self-character” that he claimed appeared in all his novels to comment and observe was modeled less on Ed Ricketts and more on John Steinbeck himself. Certainly with his divorce from Gwyn, Steinbeck had endured dark nights of the soul, and East of Eden contains those turbulent emotions surrounding the subjects of wife, children, family, and fatherhood. “In a sense it will be two books,” he wrote in his journal (posthumously published in 1969 as Journal of a Novel: The “East of Eden” Letters) as he began the final draft in 1951, “the story of my country and the story of me. And I shall keep these two separate.” Many dismissed as incoherent the two-stranded story of the Hamiltons, his mother’s family, and the Trasks, “symbol people” representing the story of Cain and Abel more recently critics have come to recognize that the epic novel explores the role of the artist as creator, a concern, in fact, in many of Steinbeck’s works.
Nobel Prize (1962)
Like The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden was a defining point in Steinbeck’s career. During the 1950s and 1960s the perpetually “restless” Steinbeck traveled extensively throughout the world with his beloved Elaine. With her, he became more social. Perhaps his writing suffered as a result some claim that even East of Eden, his most ambitious post-Grapes novel, cannot stand shoulder to shoulder with his searing social novels of the 1930s. In the fiction of his last two decades, however, Steinbeck never ceased to take risks, to stretch his conception of the novel’s structure, and to experiment with the sound and form of language. Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row, was written as a musical comedy that would resolve Ricketts’s loneliness by sending him off into the sunset with a true love, Suzy, a whore with a gilded heart. The musical version by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein , Pipe Dream, was one of the team’s few failures. In 1957 Steinbeck published the satiric The Short Reign of Pippin IV, a tale about the French monarchy gaining ascendancy. In 1961 he published his last work of fiction, the ambitious The Winter of Our Discontent, a novel about contemporary America set in a fictionalized Sag Harbor (where he and Elaine had a summer home). Increasingly disillusioned with American greed, waste, and spongy morality—his own sons seemed textbook cases—he wrote his jeremiad, a lament for an ailing populace. The following year, 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature the day after the announcement, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Does a Writer with a Moral Vision of the 1930s Deserve the Nobel Prize?” by the influential Arthur Mizener . Wounded by the blindside attack, unwell, frustrated, and disillusioned, John Steinbeck wrote no more fiction.
But the writer John Steinbeck was not silenced. As always, he wrote reams of letters to his many friends and associates. In the 1950s and 1960s he published scores of journalistic pieces: “Making of a New Yorker,” “I Go Back to Ireland,” columns about the 1956 national conventions, and “letters to Alicia,” a controversial series about a 1966 White House–approved trip to Vietnam, where his sons were stationed. In the late 1950s—and intermittently for the rest of his life—he worked diligently on a modern English translation of a book he had loved since childhood, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur the unfinished project was published posthumously as The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights (1976).
Travels with Charley in Search of America
Immediately after completing Winter, the ailing novelist proposed “not a little trip of reporting,” he wrote to his agent Elizabeth Otis, “but a frantic last attempt to save my life and the integrity of my creativity pulse” (Benson, p. 882). In a camper truck designed to his specification, he toured America in 1960. After his return, he published the highly praised “pungent potpourri of places and people” (Benson, p. 913), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), another book that both celebrates American individuals and decries American hypocrisy the climax of his journey is his visit to the New Orleans “cheerleaders” who daily taunt black children newly registered in white schools. His disenchantment with American waste, greed, and immorality ran deep. His last published book, America and Americans (1966), reconsiders the American character, the land, the racial crisis, and the crumbling will. In these late years, in fact after his final move to New York in 1950, many accused him of increasing conservatism. It was true that with greater wealth came the chance to spend money more freely, and with status came political opportunities that seemed out of step for a “radical” of the 1930s. He initially defended Lyndon Johnson ’s views on the war with Vietnam (although Steinbeck died before he could, as he wished, qualify his initial responses), and he expressed intolerance for 1960s protesters whose zeal, in his eyes, was unfocused.
But the author who wrote The Grapes of Wrath never really retreated into conservatism. He lived in modest houses all his life, caring little for lavish displays of power or wealth. He preferred talking to ordinary citizens wherever he traveled, sympathizing always with the disenfranchised. He was a Stevenson Democrat in the 1950s he was never a communist in the 1930s, and after three trips to Russia (1937, 1947, and 1963) he hated Soviet repression. In fact, neither during his life nor after has the paradoxical Steinbeck been an easy author to pigeonhole personally, politically, or artistically. As a man, he was an introvert and at the same time had a romantic streak, was impulsive, garrulous, a lover of jests and word play and practical jokes. As an artist, he was a ceaseless experimenter with words and form, and often critics did not “see” quite what he was up to. He claimed his books had “layers,” yet many claimed his symbolic touch was cumbersome. He loved humor and warmth, but some said he slopped over into sentimentalism. He was, and is now recognized as, an environmental writer. He was an intellectual, interested in inventions, jazz, politics, philosophies, history, and myth, quite a range for an author sometimes labeled simplistic by academe and the eastern critical establishment. Steinbeck died in New York City.
All said, Steinbeck remains one of America’s most significant twentieth-century writers. His popularity spans the world, his range is impressive, and his output was prodigious: sixteen novels a collection of short stories four screenplays (The Forgotten Village, The Red Pony, The Pearl, and Viva Zapata!) a sheaf of journalistic essays, including four collections (The Harvest Gypsies, Bombs Away, Once There Was a War, and America and Americans) three travel narratives (Sea of Cortez, A Russian Journal, and Travels with Charley) a translation and two journals. Three play/novelettes ran on Broadway—Of Mice and Men, The Moon Is Down, and Burning Bright—as well as one musical, Pipe Dream. Whatever his experiment in prose, he wrote with empathy, clarity, and perspicuity: “In every bit of honest writing in the world,” he noted in a 1938 journal entry, “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.”
Steinbeck’s papers are distributed in several major collections: Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin the Center for Steinbeck Studies, San Jose State University John Steinbeck Library, Salinas the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley the Pierpont Morgan Library and Special Collections, Columbia University. The most exhaustive biography is Jackson Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (1984). See also Jay Parini, John Steinbeck, a Biography (1995). Essential biographical sources are also Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, ed. with notes by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (1975), and Steinbeck’s letters to his agent, Letters to Elizabeth: A Selection of Letters from John Steinbeck to Elizabeth Otis, ed. Florian J. Shasky and Susan F. Riggs (1978). The most complete bibliography of primary works is Adrian H. Goldstone and John R. Payne, A Bibliographical Catalogue of the Adrian H. Goldstone Collection (1974) bibliographies of secondary works are Robert DeMott, John Steinbeck: A Checklist of Books by and About (1987), and Warren French, “John Steinbeck,” in Sixteen Modern American Authors (1989), pp. 582–622. Critical reviews of Steinbeck’s work have been collected in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jesse S. Crisler, and Susan Shillinglaw (1996). Good secondary studies of the writer are the pioneering works by Peter Lisca, The Wide World of John Steinbeck (1958), followed by John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth (1978). A solid and brief overview is Paul McCarthy, John Steinbeck (1980) a more extended analysis is Louis Owens, John Steinbeck’s Re-vision of America (1985). Essential for an understanding of the Steinbeck/Ricketts relationship is Richard Astro, John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist (1973), and essays in Steinbeck and the Environment, ed. Susan Beegel, Shillinglaw, and Wes Tiffney (1996). See Joseph R. Millichap, Steinbeck and Film (1983), for a solid introduction to the subject. An excellent collection of essays is Jackson J. Benson, ed., The Short Novels of John Steinbeck: Critical Essays with a Checklist to Steinbeck Criticism (1990).
J ohn Steinbeck (1902-1968), born in Salinas, California, came from a family of moderate means. He worked his way through college at Stanford University but never graduated. In 1925 he went to New York, where he tried for a few years to establish himself as a free-lance writer, but he failed and returned to California. After publishing some novels and short stories, Steinbeck first became widely known with Tortilla Flat (1935), a series of humorous stories about Monterey paisanos.
Steinbeck’s novels can all be classified as social novels dealing with the economic problems of rural labour, but there is also a streak of worship of the soil in his books, which does not always agree with his matter-of-fact sociological approach. After the rough and earthy humour of Tortilla Flat, he moved on to more serious fiction, often aggressive in its social criticism, to In Dubious Battle (1936), which deals with the strikes of the migratory fruit pickers on California plantations. This was followed by Of Mice and Men (1937), the story of the imbecile giant Lennie, and a series of admirable short stories collected in the volume The Long Valley (1938). In 1939 he published what is considered his best work, The Grapes of Wrath, the story of Oklahoma tenant farmers who, unable to earn a living from the land, moved to California where they became migratory workers.
Among his later works should be mentioned East of Eden (1952), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), and Travels with Charley (1962), a travelogue in which Steinbeck wrote about his impressions during a three-month tour in a truck that led him through forty American states. He died in New York City in 1968.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
John Steinbeck died on December 20, 1968.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1962
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Apparently John Steinbeck once wrote a horror story about a boy being chewed by his own gum.
For all writers feeling bound by genre, here’s something hopefully liberating: Snopes has brought it to our attention that John Steinbeck, known for his portrayals of injustice in central California, wrote and published a horror story about a boy who begins to chew gum . . . only to discover that the gum is chewing him.
“The Affair at 7 Rue de M-,” originally published in 1955 in Harper’s Bazaar, and then reprinted ten years later in the pulpy Magazine of Horror, begins when an old family friend gifts the son of the Poe-like narrator some bubble gum. But—horror of horrors—the gum is animate, it’s living in some sub-communicative and evil way, and it chews the kid’s mouth against his will, so the narrator is forced to pin it to boards with ice picks and place it in bell jars, and, ultimately, bury it in the garden and plant geraniums atop it. Here’s the moment where the gum is revealed to be more-than:
I heard the unmistakable soft p l o p p i n g sound of a bursting balloon of bubble gum. I looked sternly at my offspring and saw him chewing away. His cheeks were colored with embarrassment and the muscles of his jaws stood rigidly out.
“You know the rule,” I said coldly.
To my amazement tears came into his eyes and while his jaws continued to masticate hugely, his blubbery voice forced its way past the huge lump of bubble gum in his mouth. “I didn’t do it!”
“What do you mean, you didn’t do it?” I demanded in a rage. “I distinctly heard and now I distinctly see.”
“Oh sir!” he moaned, “I really didn’t. I’m not chewing it, sir. It’s chewing me.”
I’m not chewing it, sir. It’s chewing me! This is the classic Russian Reversal format: “In Soviet Russia, television watches you.” It’s everywhere: What if a HORSE rode a GUY? What if PIGS, usually EATEN by PEOPLE, DID the EATING? What if you were KISSING a PHONE and TEXTING ON your WIFE? These reversals are shocking, but can feel annoyingly attention-grabby: of course it would be strange if a normal feature of our world was suddenly formed into the opposite.
Yet, as Magazine of Horror’s introduction to Steinbeck’s story pointed out, “Even while we laughed, we felt a sort of twinge—it could be rather ghastly, if it actually happened.” It’s frightening to have your positionality ripped out from under you, to discover the world you thought you knew and your place in it is actually something with unknown rules and limits. Aristotle knew this. And so did Steinbeck: What if your attempts to get close to other creatures was exactly what prevented you from ever getting close to anyone? In Soviet Russia, the men are like mice.