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John Steinbeck | Biography

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Early Years

Born February 27, 1902, in the farming town of Salinas, California, John Ernst Steinbeck is best known for his works that examine the experiences and struggles of the poor and the oppressed. 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 began attending California's prestigious Stanford University in 1919. Steinbeck 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.

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 workers' 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 a grape 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 and the Writing and Reception of The Pearl

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 observations both ecological and philosophical, 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 worse after he finds an enormous pearl. This story became the basis of his 1947 novella The Pearl.

In 1941 Steinbeck released a film, The Forgotten Village, which follows a young Mexican boy who rejects an archaic, superstitious culture to embrace Western ideals of reason, progress, and education. The film has been called a "semi-documentary" and was produced on a shoestring budget according to Steinbeck's vision. Like The Grapes of Wrath, The Forgotten Village was subject to censorship for "indecent" scenes of childbirth and nursing.

Steinbeck visited Mexico several times in the early 1940s, and during one of these visits he met the celebrated director Emilio Fernandez. Fernandez was interested in creating a film that authentically portrayed Mexican life without any Hollywood flourishes, and he wanted Steinbeck to write the screenplay for the film. While Steinbeck was working as a war correspondent and writing nonfiction about his war experiences, he was also contemplating the Mexican folk legend of the unfortunate pearler he had heard about in La Paz in 1940. With the production of a film in mind, and with his wartime experiences fresh in his mind, Steinbeck altered the original story to address a more complex set of concerns. First released in 1945 in a woman's magazine, The Pearl was published as a novella in 1947. Upon its release, the book met with modest but unremarkable critical approval. However, its legacy has grown over the years.

That same year saw the release of the film version, La Perla. Steinbeck co-wrote the screenplay for this film, which was shot in both English and Spanish, using only Mexican actors. Steinbeck's cinematic mindset is evident throughout the text of The Pearl, with its wealth of visual details and its use of musical motifs to express complexities of plot and character.

The film La Perla was awarded the Ariel for Best Picture. The Ariel Awards are Mexico's version of the Academy Awards. The film also won a Golden Globe for Best Cinematography. In a contemporary review, the New York Times called the film "beautiful," "disturbing," and "an exceptional motion picture, both in content and genesis."

Later Years

Steinbeck continued to write and publish 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. Also well received was his 1962 book Travels with Charley, an account of his travels around the United States with his dog. 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 increasing uncritical 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. Heart disease took Steinbeck's life on December 20, 1968. His work, however, continues to attract a strong readership. Because the issues that 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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