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Overview for John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck


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Also Known As: Died: December 20, 1968
Born: February 27, 1902 Cause of Death: Heart Disease and Congestive Heart Failure
Birth Place: Salinas, California, USA Profession: Writer ... novelist screenwriter journalist construction worker migrant worker


John Steinbeck might well be called the conscience of America; throughout his career, the novelist wrote fiction permeated by social concerns and the plight of the downtrodden. Most consider The Grapes of Wrath (1939), his searing examination of the plight of migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl, to be his finest work, but he wrote several other acknowledged classics, including Of Mice and Men (1937), The Pearl (1947) and East of Eden (1952). In addition to his literary career, however, several of his works were made into successful films, and he penned a number of original screenplays as well, such as "Lifeboat" (1944) and "Viva Zapata!" (1952) for which he received Academy Award nominations; in 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, and it is the region with which much of his fiction is associated. The only boy among four children, he shared a love of books with his mother, a former teacher. In childhood, he also developed a love for the landscape, for the coasts and the hills, and this sense of human connection with the environment would become a major theme throughout his writing. He enrolled at Stanford University in 1919 and took some writing classes, but he attended erratically, often dropping out and working alongside migrants, where he saw firsthand the conditions and heard the stories that would later inform his fiction. In 1925, he gave up college altogether without having graduated and moved to New York City to pursue a writing career.

The career was not immediately forthcoming; Steinbeck struggled for several years, unpublished, working construction and for a newspaper, before returning home to California and getting work as a Lake Tahoe caretaker, which afforded him the time to write his first book, Cup of Gold (1929). Readers of his debut would not have imagined the social realist master who would emerge in the coming decade-Cup of Gold was the tale of a pirate, Henry Morgan, with whom Steinbeck had been fascinated in his youth. In addition to finishing and publishing his first book, Steinbeck also met, fell in love with and married his first wife, Carol Henning.

While the two lived together in the Steinbeck family's beach cottage, Steinbeck produced several books, including his first three significant works of fiction: the short novel The Red Pony (1933); his first critically praised work, Tortilla Flat; and the classic Of Mice and Men (1937). Several of the books he wrote at the time are considered his "California novels," most of them dealing with the effects of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression on the lives of working-class and poor people. Of Mice and Men told the story of two migrant workers, one of whom, Lenny, is mentally retarded and is looked after by the other, George. The book was produced as a stage play in New York City and was made into the film "Of Mice and Men" (1939) starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Burgess Meredith, the first of several of Steinbeck's novels to be adapted for the screen. Steinbeck also became more involved with politics, joining the League of American Writers-a Communist organization, though he was not a Communist himself-and attending meetings of the John Reed Club, although he found them too strident.

Steinbeck's greatest success as a novelist came with the publication of The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Tom Joad is the main character in this novel about a family's journey from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California in search of a better life. On its release, the novel was critically acclaimed-it won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction-as well as a popular success-it was the best-selling novel of 1939. It was also enormously controversial; its critics argued that Steinbeck exaggerated the poor conditions on the farms for the sake of his fiction. John Ford, famous for his Westerns and expansive vistas in particular, directed the film version of the book the following year with the same eye for the American landscape so crucial to Steinbeck's vision. "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940) starred Henry Ford as Tom Joad, and the fictional character has become an icon of labor and protest movements, featuring in songs by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, among others.

In 1941, Steinbeck had the opportunity to write his first screenplay, a documentary called "The Forgotten Village" about a small town in Mexico and its struggles in coping with modernity. While Steinbeck's professional life was soaring, however, his personal life was falling into shambles. Carol had been instrumental in building his early career, editing and typing his work, but their marriage was suffering by the time they accompanied Steinbeck's close friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist, on a specimen-gathering journey around the Gulf of Mexico, which Steinbeck wrote about in the book Sea of Cortez (1941) and a later, shorter account of the journey The Log from the Sea of Cortez that removed the scientific catalog and replaced it with an essay about Ricketts. The two divorced in 1943 and Steinbeck married Gwyndolyn "Gwyn" Conger.

Meanwhile, Steinbeck's series of successes in film continued. Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamar starred in the film adaptation of "Tortilla Flat" (1942), while a year later "The Moon is Down" (1943), dealing with the resistance movement in an unnamed northern European country followed on the heels of the novel released by the same name. As a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, Steinbeck returned home wounded in body and soul and was given the opportunity to pen an original screenplay with "Lifeboat" (1944), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The effort garnered him an Academy Award nomination. His first son, Thomas Myles Steinbeck, was born the same year. Steinbeck received a second Academy Award nomination for scripting duties on "A Medal for Benny" (1945).

After writing Cannery Row (1945)-for which the district in Monterey was named-Steinbeck produced the novella The Pearl (1947) and the screenplay based on it, "La perla" (1947), almost simultaneously, and traveled for its filming to Mexico, where he would be inspired to pen the story of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata several years later. Steinbeck also made one of several trips to Russia, and his second son, John Steinbeck IV, was born. But he was beginning to struggle with a number of things. His marriage to Gwyn was ending, critics were attacking his books for lacking the weight of The Grapes of Wrath and his beloved friend Ed Ricketts died. During this time, he wrote the screenplay for "The Red Pony" (1949), which starred Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum, and made his first foray into television writing with an episode of "The Nash Airflyte Theater" (CBS, 1950-51). It was meeting and marrying his third wife, Elaine Scott, and moving to New York, however, that signified a shift for him and better times ahead.

In the 1950s, Steinbeck worked with director Elia Kazan, controversial for his later naming of names of purported Communists in Hollywood for the House Un-American Activities Committee. "Viva Zapata!" (1952) starred Marlon Brando and earned Steinbeck his third Academy Award nomination. Three years later, Kazan directed "East of Eden" (1955), the film version of what many consider to be Steinbeck's last great work, although Steinbeck did not write the script this time; it was James Dean's first major movie. Steinbeck also wrote for a number of television shows throughout the 1950s, mostly anthology shows, including "Omnibus" (ABC, CBS, NBC, 1952-1961), "Lux Video Theater" (CBS, 1950-59) and "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958). Steinbeck's major work was behind him, however, with the exception perhaps of his American travelogue, Travels with Charley (1962), about several months spent traveling around the country with his dog.

In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature, but critical reaction was mixed, and he was said to have been hurt by the attacks as he was throughout his life. He wrote no more novels after The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), a critical failure, and his pro-American stance in a series of articles he wrote for Newsday as a Vietnam war correspondent was considered a betrayal of his earlier values, though many argued that he was simply concerned about his son in combat. Steinbeck died of a heart attack in 1968, but adaptations of his work for television and the big screen have continued, and his literary reputation has not flagged. "Cannery Row" (1982) starred Debra Winger and Nick Nolte while the Gary Sinise-directed "Of Mice and Men" (1992) featured Sinise, John Malkovitch and Ray Walston. While Steinbeck's early triumph with The Grapes of Wrath may have overshadowed his successive efforts, critical and popular opinion toward him is more measured today, and he is firmly established in the canon of film and literature.

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