John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was one of the best-known and most widely read American writers of the 20th century. Over his writing career, Steinbeck wrote nearly 30 books, including several novels, non-fiction books and short story collections. But he wasn't always a working writer. Steinbeck studied English Literature at Stanford University, but left without graduating in 1925. He worked as a caretaker and a tour guide, and eventually ended up in the business of manufacturing plaster mannequins. When the mannequin production flopped, Steinbeck and his first wife Carol moved into a cottage owned by Steinbeck’s father. Financially supported by his parents, Steinbeck was finally free to write.
His first critical and commercial success came in 1935 with the publication of Tortilla Flat, a comedic adventure story about a motley crew of countrymen set in Monterey, California after WWI. Steinbeck went on to write a series of novels set in California’s Dust Bowl, including Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. A portrait of the Great Depression and migrant agricultural workers, The Grapes of Wrath resonated with the American working class and sold over 400,000 copies in its first year. It won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939. East of Eden came over 10 years later, and while it didn’t win any awards, Steinbeck is said to have called it his life’s magnum opus.
Many of Steinbeck's books went on to become major Hollywood films starring the likes of Dick Tracy (Tortilla Flat) and Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath). Steinbeck even received an Academy Award nomination for Best Story in 1944 for Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat.
In 1962 Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He would publish one more book, America and Americans, before his death in 1968. He left a great impression on 20th century literature by providing an important portrayal of one of America's most significant eras. Explore our selection of books by and about John Steinbeck, and read our interview with Steinbeck biographer and expert, Dr. Susan Shillinglaw.
by Susan Shillinglaw
by Susan Shillinglaw
by Jackson J. Benson
by John Steinbeck
Which of Steinbeck's books are most relevant today, and why?
SS: That's a tough question, since one could make the argument that nearly every book he wrote is relevant: The Grapes of Wrath and homelessness; Cannery Row and holistic ecology; The Winter of Our Discontent and analysis of the post-modern temperament; America and Americans and race, ethnicity, morality, greed, the environment. To be relevant in fiction or nonfiction is, after all, to cause people to see the world from fresh perspectives, to reconsider positions. One aim of Steinbeck's writing was to have people participate in his prose - it was a word he used a lot; he wished to engage readers in all levels of his work. Both ideas were grounded in science, marine biology to be specific, and both were notions that he and his closest friend in the 1930s, Ed Ricketts, discussed concerning ecological issues.
Which of Steinbeck's books do you think is the most underrated of his works and why?
SS: Considering that Steinbeck was again lambasted - or damned with faint praise - in a recent issue of NY Review of Books, one could argue that Steinbeck is today being forced into the same old Procrustian beds of criticism: he's a realist, he's sentimental; he's a naturalist. What is important in reading Steinbeck, I think, is to appreciate that notion of levels I mentioned above: certainly all writers like to be considered more complex than merely to read for plot - level one, if you will. The lucid surface of Steinbeck's prose suggests to many that's all there is. New ways to see his works are to consider his serious engagement with science, from the 1930s on; his environmental stances; his notions of group/individual behavior which shift throughout his career; his negotiation with gender (which is far more complex than noting only the roles that women play in his book); his playful, often serious reconstruction of the notion of family. Cannery Row, for example, is a superb book - a book about place, war, a skewed family, gender, spirituality/or Ricketts’ notion of breaking through from physical to metaphysical. Steinbeck said that Cannery Row had four levels. Sea of Cortez, one of my favorites, was also Steinbeck's own favourite - that book deserves attention..
If Steinbeck where to publish a new book as an unknown author today do you think he would attain the same notoriety?
SS: That one I can't answer. I was in a book group where, reading Persuasion, one reader said that if Jane Austen wrote that book today she wouldn't get it published. To my mind, that is a preposterous notion. And it's equally impossible to know if Steinbeck would be embraced if he came out with a new book - notoriety is a result of seizing the political moment - or shocking. Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath not intending or wishing for notoriety - he simply wrote about a problem he thought needed addressing. Honesty was called for - and still is, always and forever.
What legacy did Steinbeck leave?
SS: People keep reading his books, because he engages his readers. He can be funny and serious. He's a great writer - lucid and clear. He evokes a sense of place like few other westerners before him or since. He was engaged in political and social events of half the 20th century - the Depression, World War II, Russia and the Cold War, politics, Vietnam. He was empathetic - he cared about working people, people who work with their hands, or dig ditches or fix cars. He cared about marginalized people -those on the fringes of society who, today, can't buy gasoline for their cars.