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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 examining 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. Rather, he took classes that piqued his interest, and he dropped out several times to take jobs in factories or on farms and ranches.

Early Works

Steinbeck left Stanford in 1925 without a degree and traveled to New York City. There he wrote his first novel, Cup of Gold. The novel examined the psychology of the pirate Henry Morgan, and it 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.

In 1930, a major year in Steinbeck's life, he married Carol Henning and 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. Neither was a critical success in its time.

Publication of Tortilla Flat

Tortilla Flat (1935), a lighthearted story about friendship set in Monterey, California, was the first successful Steinbeck novel, and it was well received by both critics and the public. The main characters of the story are paisanospeople of mixed Spanish, Native American, and "assorted Caucasian" descent. The heroes are idle alcoholics, vandals, and petty thieves whom Steinbeck describes admiringly in another of his novel's Cannery Row (1945) as "saints and angels and martyrs and holy men." Steinbeck praises the paisanos for their simplicity and lack of materialism—but he also suggests that people with these qualities are destined to suffer in a modern, selfish world. His contemporaries reacted to the novel as a sweet, frivolous read, praising it for its humor and its depiction of a carefree life—two qualities people craved during the Great Depression. Even critics rarely looked at the novel as anything more than entertainment, and few delved deeply into its themes of goodness, evil, and the conflict between wealth and poverty. These themes are explored more explicitly and solemnly in the activist fiction of Steinbeck's later career.

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 in a San Francisco newspaper about migrant farm workers. 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 National Book Award and 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 its reception, 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 the Library Bill of Rights the same year. This was meant to ensure controversial opinions and points of view were not withheld from the American public.

Later Years

Steinbeck continued to write and publish throughout the 1940s and '50s, notably the novels Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), 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."

Heart disease took Steinbeck's life on December 20, 1968. Toward the end of his life, Steinbeck's increasing uncritical support for American policies, including the unpopular and disastrous Vietnam War (1954–75), led him to fall out of favor with some of the day's liberal thinkers. 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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