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John Steinbeck: A Biography

“Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species… the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation.

I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature. ” –John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech John Steinbeck was born in 1902 on February 27th in Salinas in California in a middle class family of German and Irish ancestry. His father, John Steinbeck, Sr. , was the County Treasurer while his mother, Olive (Hamilton) Steinbeck, was a former school teacher, and it was she who was responsible for cultivating the love of reading and the written word in Steinbeck.

He had two older sisters, Elizabeth and Esther, and he also had a younger sister Mary. His birth place is very close to the famous fertile Salinas valley and during summers Steinbeck worked as a hired hand on nearby ranches, thus he had invaluable knowledge of the California countryside and its people, which served as the background to nearly all his works. John Steinbeck was a shy boy as he was growing up. Very often he was teased because of his big ears, but John did not retaliate. Rather he took to reading books than get into fights with others.

Perhaps growing up in the twentieth century made Steinbeck’s account of the depression, emotional and powerful that he revealed his own passionate ideals, showing his unwavering faith in the common man to overcome all hardships that came his way. In 1915 John enrolled in Salinas High School and he graduated from it in 1919. He was president of his senior class at that time and was one of the 24 students who graduated that year. Thereafter he attended Stanford University. He started as an English Major, but pursued as an independent learner and his attendance was very poor as he worked at various jobs at this time.

He never graduated from Stanford and he left it permanently in 1925, to establish himself as a freelance writer and therefore he went to New York, but he was not successful there. He then returned to California and retired to a lonely seaside cottage where he pursued his writings. He did get some novels and short stories published like Cup of Gold in 1929, The Pastures of Heaven in 1932, and To a God Unknown in 1933, but it was in1935 when he published Tortilla Flat, a series of humorous stories that he became well known.

It contained very interesting tales that were spicy, juicy and comic. The caricatures were almost like the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table and it was a “ welcome antidote to the gloom of the then prevailing depression” (Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969) present in the United States. In 1942, it was made into a film. This marked the turning point in his career. He won the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Medal for best novel by a California author.

His themes were serious as is noted in the novel; In Dubious Battle which was published in 1936 he has depicted the bitter strike by farm workers in California’s fruit and cotton plantation. Mice and Men written in 1937 known as the little masterpiece was made into a film in 1939 and again in 1999. This was followed by a collection of short stories in 1938 known as The Long Valley. The Red Pony was another of his great achievements which was made into a film in 1949. The Gapes of Wrath which came out in 1939 won the Pulitzer Prize and was filmed in 1940.

This was a story of the migration of a family from the dust bowls of California and how the agricultural economics was responsible for their exploitation, how unemployment and abuse of power were responsible for their miseries. ‘Four months after publication of The Grapes of Wrath, criticism of his book was intense, “Although The Grapes of Wrath continues to be regarded as Steinbeck’s major achievement, changing critical fashions have ensured that the novel’s status remains uncertain.

The novel’s standing came under pressure as early as the decades immediately following its publication, as literary studies with the onset of the Cold War intensified a long-standing tendency in modem poetics to strip literary texts of social and political implications” (Nicholas Visser, 1) John Steinbeck responded sharply to mounting criticism of his book: “I know what I was talking about,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter. “I lived, off and on, with those Okies for the last three years. Anyone who tries to refute me will just become ridiculous. “’ ( Susan Shillinglaw, 145).

He earned international fame with this novel. In 1964, Steinbeck was awarded the United States Medal of Freedom by President Johnson. The Winter of Our Discontent which he wrote in 1961 has the same standard which he set in The Grapes of Wrath. In this novel the central figure is the head of the family, who after returning from the war fails in all his ventures, till at last he is employed as a clerk in a grocery store in New England. He is portrayed as an honest, uncomplaining man even though he is exposed to temptation constantly when he observes how material success is to be purchased.

However his personal integrity stops him from falling into such scrupulousness. Steinbeck, here through this man’s conscience brings out the nation’s welfare problems. Travels with Charley, the latest book he wrote in 1962 just before receiving the Nobel Prize tells of his experience of his three month tour of forty American states. He traveled in a small truck all alone with just his black poodle as his companion. The truck had a cabin where he kept his things and slept.

An excellent and experienced observer he brought to color the culture of the people, he rediscovered his country. As in all his books, this book is also a criticism of society. Rosinante-the age old name he gave to the truck; one cannot but observe his indirect way of praising the old at the expense of the new. When he sees the bulldozers flattening the forests of Settle in order to make room for the upcoming residential colonies, he remarks: “I wonder why progress so often looks like destruction. ” Of course this is an international problem and is aimed at all.

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