John Ernst Steinbeck

The great[est] American novelist

Posted 09 Feb 2017    Edited 09 Feb 2017

John Steinbeck is my favorite person, probably. He wrote some of the most acclaimed American novels including The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, The Winter of Our Discontent, and East of Eden, among other great novels + he won the Pulitzer Prize + he won the Nobel Prize.

The first Steinbeck novel I ever read is The Pearl. I read it when I was about thirteen years old. It talks about a poor pearl diver in Mexico who finds the biggest pearl in the world and it ends up being really, terribly tragic for him and his family. It uses these in-depth descriptions of music and songs to describe the abstract thought of the main character.

As a thirteen-year-old, I had never experienced anything even like that before. I knew that there was something about the writing that was way beyond my ability to understand, but that was really, really good and meaningful.

I didn't know anything about Steinbeck as a man. I just started reading his stuff. I felt [and I still feel] that Steinbeck really understood people. He was like a human expert or something. And his stories are all about the people.

John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr

John was born in Salinas, California 27 February 1902 as a little, tiny baby. During John's life, his father managed a flour mill but got fired; then, he opened his own feed and grain store and it failed. He finally got a steady income as the Monterey County treasurer. John's mother Olive was a schoolteacher. Olive is actually a pretty major minor character in Steinbeck's novel East of Eden.

John was a bright, shy kid. He loved the stories he was read as a child; some of the really influential material that guided his writing was first introduced to him in his home as a really young boy. He heard the Bible, Robin Hood, and Malory's Le morte d'Arthur [a gift from his aunt] read by his mother; themes from these stories are present even in his later works.

The Steinbeck House at 132 Central Avenue, Salinas, California, the Victorian home where Steinbeck spent his childhood. "Steinbeckhouse" by original uploader was Googie man at en.wikipedia - transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under cc by-sa 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

He started writing his own poetry and stories in his early teen years and was dedicated to becoming a career writer. As a teenager and young adult [and full-grown adult, really] Steinbeck engaged in manual labor. Through high school and college Steinbeck worked as a ranch hand and for a while in the warehouse and the laboratory of the Spreckels Sugar Company.

The experience at Spreckels had to have been one of the most defining periods of Steinbeck's human experience. According to Spreckels's own company history:

Spreckels imported Germans from the east coast, but they were tradesmen, not farmers so labor problems continued in the factory and on the farm. There were many Asians [Chinese and Japanese] imported to work the railroad and the fields. The state labor commissioner, acting on complaints from unions, intervened in Spreckels's business practices of hiring Asian labor in the factory and on the farm.

At this point, I have a personal connection to Steinbeck. I also worked in a warehouse and as a farmhand while I was in high school. I the experience of working with migrants and hearing their stories. Granted, Steinbeck and I had these experiences in two really different periods of American history, but I still witnessed the oppression and exploitation of migrant workers first-hand. And, it's not just what you see [although you do witness some real messed-up shit]; it's also the scar stories you hear from the people who suffered injustices getting here and working here and trying to stay here.

Owing to his experiences [and, i'd say, especially his time at Spreckles] Steinbeck's eyes were opened to the condition of the American laborer. A very strong thread of sympathy for the working man runs through his canon, especially his early successful novels [most especially The Grapes of Wrath].

Steinbeck attended Stanford University, studying English and some biology classes. One of his professors said that he only cared to take classes that were personally interesting to him, and that he was always just a writer. He left Stanford after six years of intermittent attendance without a degree.

He left California for New York City in 1925. He tried to get work writing [and he did get a little as a reporter], but he mostly supported himself working odd jobs. Interestingly, he was on a construction crew that helped build Madison Square Garden. He said of that period:

I had a thin, lonely, hungry time of it in New York. And I remember too well the cockroaches under my wash basin and the impossibility of getting a job. I was scared thoroughly. And I can’t forget the scare.

After three years in NYC he moved back to California and got a job at Lake Tahoe as a caretaker and tour guide. Two big things happened at Lake Tahoe: he wrote his first novel [Cup of Gold, published in 1929 with 1500 copies sold] and he met Carol Henning [he married her in January 1930 in Los Angeles].

He really hit the writing hard after that. He and Carol were able to stay rent free in a cottage owned by Steinbeck's family in Pacific Grove. He wrote to a friend about it and said: "Financially we are in a mess, but 'spiritually' we ride the clouds." His parents sent him money so he could focus on his writing and Carol worked around. They received welfare and occasionally stole food.

From 1930 to 1933, Steinbeck wrote three novels: The Pastures of Heaven, The Red Pony, and To a God Unknown. None of them were successful. I think they were good, though, especially To a God Unknown. I like that one a lot.

In 1935 Steinbeck published Tortilla Flat a year after his mother's death and weeks after his father's - which is a shame because it was a pretty huge success they never got to witness. In 1936, he published In Dubious Battle, a novel about the conflict of the depression-era labor movement.

At this time, Steinbeck was working on the novel Of Mice and Men and he was also doing some in-depth reporting for the San Francisco News. They asked him to cover the conditions of a huge swell of migrant workers in California. As part of this assignment [and in preparation to write a novel], he chose to get real and travel and live with the workers. He accompanied some workers from Oklahoma to California. He even lived with them in "Hoovervilles" once they arrived and witnessed their struggle to find work.

Inspired by these revelations, Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath. It was published in 1939. Its original printing sold half a million copies. Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for best novel of the year. It is, by pretty far, his most acclaimed novel.

Grapes would not only bring Steinbeck a ton of success, but also a bunch of stress. The book was banned by counties and school districts across the country for lots of different reasons. Some cited it as communist propaganda; others claimed that its content was sexually explicit. Mostly, it made people in Oklahoma and California mad because there were some nasty realities about each place exposed in the novel.

This opened a floodgate of criticism that would eventually discourage Steinbeck from writing. He didn't write a single novel in the last six years of his life despite that he probably had it in him to write at least two or three in that time. With everything he wrote after 1939, critics were always like, "Yeah, but why don't you just write something exactly like Grapes of Wrath again? That was good. This new thing sucks compared to that."

Following Grapes, Steinbeck continued writing in the form of novels, film scripts, non-fictions, and a new medium he invented called 'play-novellas.' Steinbeck had a major interest in writing for the theater, but none of his productions written specifically for the stage achieved success.

He became really involved in war reporting. In the last years of his life, his two sons served in the war in Vietnam and he went over there to check it out. According to him and other people, he actually manned a machine gun post while his son and the rest of the unit slept. He wasn't a sissy about waging war and being in war, but his experience in Vietnam put a bad taste in his mouth about it, even though he was personal friends with President Lyndon Johnson and LBJ freaking loved the war.

Before that, in 1962, Steinbeck travelled to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize for literature. It was actually revealed years after the fact that Steinbeck was considered a "compromise recipient" on a list of people that the committee didn't feel really merited recognition with the award. Slow year in literature, I guess.

Steinbeck in 1962 with the other Nobel recipients

In his acceptance speech, he said,

The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.

I think he exemplified that. I also think the thing that makes Steinbeck's writing so good is that he lived fully. He had a well of real experience to draw on, and he witnessed the very real, gritty aspects of the lives of others. I didn't know a lot of this stuff before studying in preparation for the blog entry; now i'm even more impressed than I was when all I knew was the writing. John Ernst Steinbeck was amazing. Over the course of his career he wrote twenty-seven books. At least three of these are considered major American novels.

I won't go into every publication, I guess, but you can take a look at the list here. I don't get the harsh criticism against Steinbeck, but i'm totally biased. He was the first to show me what really great writing was. I feel like Steinbeck is to me what Grapes of Wrath was to his critics: nothing else seemed quite as good after that exposure.

My personal top five + one, starting from most-favorite are:
  • East of Eden
  • The Pearl
  • The Winter of Our Discontent
  • The Wayward Bus
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Cannery Row

If you've never read Steinbeck, I suggest Cannery Row or Tortilla Flat to start. They're really short, so not much commitment there, but they're pretty representative of his style. If you like one of those, i'd say go head-first into Grapes of Wrath. That one is way heavy compared to the other two, but if you still like him, go ahead and read everything he ever wrote.

If you've already read Steinbeck and you don't like him, I guess we're just going to disagree [and, you're wrong, by the way]. If you haven't read him, I hope you're inspired to start. If you end up liking his stuff half as much as I do, he'll be one of your new favorite authors.