Skip over navigation

Tortilla Flat

John Steinbeck

Context

Table of Contents

Plot Overview

John Steinbeck was born in the scenic and fertile Salinas Valley of California. His father john was the county treasurer, and his mother Olivia was a schoolteacher. Steinbeck decided that he wanted to become a writer in 1916 at fourteen years of age, and in 1919 he enrolled at Stanford University. At Stanford, the aspiring writer took only classes that he was interested in, mostly from the English department, and as a result never actually received a degree. Upon leaving the school in 1925, Steinbeck traveled to New York to pursue life as a journalist and freelance writer. He enjoyed brief success as a journalist, but was soon fired from his job. In order to support himself, the author took a job as an apprentice painter, caretaker, surveyor, and fruit picker.

In 1929, Steinbeck released his first work of fiction, a historical novel called Cup of Gold, which reinvented the legend of Captain Henry Morgan, Jamaican Pirate and purveyor of rum. Unfortunately, the book did not meet with much initial success. In 1930, Steinbeck landed a job back in California as the caretaker of a Lake Tahoe Estate. This provided him with money to live on and plenty of time to work on his writing. During this time, he also married the first of his three wives, Carol Henning. When his stint as caretaker was up, the Steinbeck's moved back to the family home in Salinas where John continued his writing and Carol took a job as a teacher in order to support them.

Tortilla Flat was the book that achieved lasting literary success and popularity for Steinbeck. It was released in 1935 and received immediate attention from critics and book clubs. This allowed Steinbeck to focus all of his energies on writing, and he enjoyed the most productive period in his career. In 1936 he released In Dubious Battle and then the works that are regarded as his masterpieces, Of Mice and Men in 1937 and The Grapes of Wrathin 1939. The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into what is regarded as a classic movie in 1940. All of these books are characterized by Steinbeck's extreme sentimentality towards the common man. He glorifies paisanos, farmers, striking workers, and migrants alike. The books are also enhanced by Steinbeck's beautiful but noninvasive detailing of the California landscape. He makes the wildlife of Monterey and Carmel come alive by describing it exactly as it is without glorifying to the point where it could annoy readers. For this, many biographers have dubbed him the author of the California Experience.

When World War II broke out, Steinbeck took a job as a foreign correspondent and revived his journalism career. When the war was over, he moved to New York again, and continued to write voluminously, spreading out from his focus on the California working man. He wrote East of Eden in 1952, and The Winter of Our Discontent in 1961, both of which are worthy classics. Steinbeck's work was often criticized for its controversial handling of the poor and the repressed. He experienced spells of unpopularity in America, though his work stayed popular in Europe throughout his career. Of Mice and Men, in particular, was often banned or burned in schools. In the 1960's, Steinbeck traveled through forty American states with his poodle and wrote Travels with Charlie in Search of America. The result of the tour and the book was the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us