Cannery Row | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck | Biography


Early Years

Born February 27, 1902, in the farming town of Salinas, California, John Ernst Steinbeck is best known for works that examine the experiences and struggles of the poor and the oppressed as well as their close connection to or rejection of the land. From an early age, Steinbeck displayed sympathy for, and interest in, the working-class experience. The son of a schoolteacher and a local politician, Steinbeck enrolled at California's prestigious Stanford University in 1919. He did not pursue a degree at Stanford, but rather took classes that piqued his interest, and dropped out several times to take jobs in factories, or on farms and ranches, ultimately to pursue a career in writing.

Early Works and Critical Success

Steinbeck left Stanford in 1925 without having earned a degree, and traveled to New York City. There he wrote his first novel, Cup of Gold. The novel, which examined the psychology of the pirate Henry Morgan, was published in 1929. In that same year, the catastrophic collapse of the stock market ushered in the Great Depression, a decade-long worldwide economic downturn that sparked widespread social and economic changes. Cup of Gold was not a critical success, and Steinbeck returned to California.

1930 was a major year in Steinbeck's life. Not only did he marry Carol Henning, but he also met marine biologist Edward Ricketts. This was the beginning of a friendship that would have a profound influence on Steinbeck's life, worldview, and literary output. Steinbeck next published a short-story collection, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), and a second novel, To a God Unknown (1933). These works examined the spiritual nature of the relationship between humans and the land through the context of life in rural California. However, it was not until Tortilla Flat (1935), a lighthearted story about friendship among Mexican Americans living in Monterey, California, that Steinbeck began to earn the respect of critics.

Steinbeck's Activist Fiction

As the Depression wore on and migrant workers poured into California seeking relief from poverty, Steinbeck turned his attention to the problems of labor and worker's rights. Working as a journalist, Steinbeck published a series of articles about migrant farm workers in a San Francisco newspaper. The fiction Steinbeck published in the late 1930s also dealt with these issues. In Dubious Battle (1936) is the story of an apple picker's strike. The following year, Steinbeck published what was to become one of his most beloved and well-known works, the novella Of Mice and Men, a tale of friendship between two very different farmhands.

In 1939 as the Great Depression ended and the horrors of World War II began, Steinbeck published his most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath. The following year he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this story of dispossessed Oklahoma farmers who encounter contempt and further hardship after traveling to California in search of better lives. Despite winning a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, the novel was subject to censorship, including banning and burning, beginning the year of its publication. The censoring of Steinbeck's novel prompted the American Library Association to pass a Library Bill of Rights the same year. This Bill of Rights was meant to ensure controversial opinions and points of view were not withheld from the American public.

Steinbeck in Mexico

In the spring of 1940 Steinbeck accompanied his friend Ed Ricketts on an expedition to study the marine ecology of the Gulf of California. Also known as the Sea of Cortez, this body of water separates the Mexican mainland from the Baja California peninsula. Steinbeck's record of this trip, which included both ecological and philosophical observations, was later published as the nonfiction book The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). It was during this trip that Steinbeck heard the legend of the young diver whose fortunes change for the worst after he finds an enormous pearl. This story became the basis of his 1947 novella, The Pearl.

Later Years

During World War II Steinbeck used his writing talents to create government propaganda. He also served as a war correspondent. After the war, he explored the genres of travel fiction in Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962), as well as script writing, adapting The Pearl and The Red Pony (1949) for film. Steinbeck continued to write and publish novels throughout the 1940s and 50s, notably the novels Cannery Row (1945) and East of Eden (1952). In 1961 his novel The Winter of Our Discontent received praise from critics. In 1962 Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Academy called Steinbeck one of "the masters of modern American literature" and his writings "realistic as well as imaginative ... [and] distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception." Toward the end of his life, Steinbeck's increasingly critical support for American policies, including the unpopular and disastrous Vietnam War, led him to fall out of favor with some of the day's liberal thinkers including many prominent writers and critics. Heart disease took Steinbeck's life on December 20, 1968. His work, however, continues to attract a strong readership. Because the issues Steinbeck wrestled with in his art are still relevant today, his work continues to compel, interest, and educate the modern reader.
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