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John Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California, the third of four siblings. His father, John Ernst Steinbeck II, worked as a local government official, and his mother, Olive Steinbeck, was a teacher. Steinbeck read great literature when he was a young boy, including novels by Dostoevsky, Hardy, and Flaubert. He studied English at Stanford University off and on between 1919 and 1925 but never earned his degree. While beginning to write fiction, he worked to make ends meet as a lab assistant and fruit picker. During World War II, he worked as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and later took a trip to Vietnam for the New York Daily News. In 1930, he married Carol Henning, but their marriage dissolved in 1942. He quickly remarried and had two sons with his second wife, Gwyndolyn Congor, before they got divorced in 1949. His third marriage to Elaine Scott in 1950 lasted until his death in 1968.
Steinbeck published his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929. The fictionalized story of a seventeenth-century pirate, Cup of Gold was not a critical or commercial hit. His next novel, Tortilla Flat (1935), was much more successful, and it was turned into a film starring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr in 1942. Steinbeck is famous for his novels of California, so much so that Salinas, California, is sometimes referred to as Steinbeck Country. One of the best known of these California novels is Of Mice and Men (1937), the story of two struggling migrant workers. Director George S. Kaufman worked with Steinbeck to turn the novel into a stage play, which was a thundering success. Steinbeck never saw the play in person, saying that he didn’t want to compromise the perfection of the production he imagined in his mind. The novel was made into a film in 1939, the same year that he published his most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath. Using an innovative narrative structure, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of an impoverished family of farmers struggling to survive the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Widely hailed then and today as Steinbeck’s best novel, The Grapes of Wrath won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film of the same name later that year.
Much of Steinbeck’s work is overtly political because he spent time with labor-union leaders, radicals, leftists, and communists. Still, he was leery of far-left political persuasions, particularly socialism. The views expressed in Steinbeck’s writing have offended some people, including members of his own family. He has been attacked for being both too left-leaning and not being left-leaning enough. He’s also been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes. The Grapes of Wrath, for example, has been accused of sentimentalizing the poor, misrepresenting Oklahoma farmers, and shoving a liberal agenda down readers’ throats. Nevertheless, Steinbeck was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1948 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Steinbeck the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Even Steinbeck’s detractors concede that his work is suffused with passion, social consciousness, and sometimes anger. Steinbeck felt a great deal for the downtrodden, working class, and dregs of society. His short story “The Chrysanthemums” (1938) also proves that he had an understanding of the struggles faced by women in his day. Like his novels, Steinbeck’s short stories feature realistic dialogue, nerve-racking dramas, and sympathetic examinations of characters trying to find happiness in the face of poverty and oppression.