| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
John Steinbeck was born into a middle-class family
in the agricultural center of Salinas, California. His father was county
treasurer; his mother, once a school teacher, raised him on anecdotes of
unusual rural happenings. A life among farmers, migrant workers, and ranchers
of the Salinas Valley; biblical lore; the knightly adventures of King Arthur; a
summer course in marine biology; a devotion to The Golden Bough; and a
fascination with the mysteries of the unconscious all shaped Steinbeck’s
writings. In his lifetime the Nobel Prize-winning author wrote over
twenty-eight plays, movie scripts, short story collections, books of
non-fiction, novels, and political documents.
popular student in high school, Steinbeck reluctantly attended Stanford
University, in whose magazine his stories were first published. Leaving without
a degree in 1925, Steinbeck continued working at odd jobs to support his
writing. Initial success came with Cup of Gold (1929). In 1930 he married Carol
Henning, the first of his three wives, received financial support from his parents
as well as the use of their Pacific Grove cottage, and became a full-time
writer. The couple joined the bohemian culture of aspiring painters and
writers, sharing the gossip about the denizens of Monterey and Cannery Row.
his thirty-year writing career, Steinbeck wrote from three general perspectives
that focused on the interaction between consciousness and experience.
At first, his subject was the individual struggling with his
consciousness. “The Chrysanthemums” is representative of the short stories
depicting individuals whose dreams or illusions are thwarted by reality. The
clash of totalitarian movements, the migrations from the Dust Bowl, and the
appearance of New Deal social legislation offered a broader horizon upon which
Steinbeck staged his action. In the mid-1930s he began writing of the
individual’s relationship with political, familial, or other groups he called
“phalanxes.” To explain the solidarity underlying phalanx behavior, Steinbeck
developed the concept of a shared or collective consciousness. The writings for
which he is most famous—In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of
Wrath—dramatize the extent to which people surrender their individuality,
separate themselves, or, in the case of the Joads, reinvent themselves so as to
balance individual and collective identities. The war over and the phalanx
movement in retreat, Steinbeck explored his own layers of consciousness in
autobiographical works that appear as fiction. Whether the subject is divorce,
cultural values, or writing itself, the central character is painfully aware
that the world for which his mind and art are programmed has vanished. Common
to all Steinbeck’s writing are circumstances or events that challenge and often
destroy the individual’s sense of reality.
Steinbeck’s enormous popularity today derives in part from his gift as a
storyteller and from his portrait of the individual as a tragic figure. His
style varies from symbolic to allegorical. Usually he wrote with a theme in
mind for which he created archetypal characters and a symbolic landscape. While
his characters live in the present, they are linked to the past with a
collective memory and through age-old rituals of sacrifice, death, and rebirth.
Yet characters are not without choices. A human being is ultimately a pragmatic
creature. That we are capable of perceiving the best course of action is the
small hope Steinbeck willed his world audience.
his artistic powers waned in his later writings, Steinbeck’s concerns for
humanity broadened. He had a voice in Democratic politics from Roosevelt to
Johnson and edited the Great Society Platform of 1964. He died in New York and
his ashes were returned to California.
University of Lowell
In the Heath Anthology
from The Grapes of Wrath
The Pastures of Heaven
To a God Unknown
In Dubious Battle
Of Mice and Men
The Long Valley
The Wayward Bus
East of Eden
The Winter of Our Discontent
Travels With Charley
The Grapes of Wrath, a film
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Biographical sketch and bibliography of secondary materials.
John Steinbeck: Advice for Beginning Writers
A letter from Steinbeck to new writers.
John Steinbeck Page
Bibliography of primary and secondary texts, links, and news about recent bannings of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
The National Steinbeck Center
Information about the Center (activities and archives), Steinbeck biography and more.
The SJSU Center for Steinbeck Studies
Information about the Center's activities and Steinbeck's life and work.
Richard Astro and Tetsumaro Hayashi, eds., Steinbeck: The Man and His Work, 1971
Jackson Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, 1984
Harold Bloom, ed., Modern Critical View, 1988
Donald Coers, et al., eds., After The Grapes of Wrath, 1995
Robert DeMott, ed., Working Days:The Journal of the Grapes of Wrath, 1989
John Ditsky, ed., Critical Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, 1989
Warren French, John Steinbeck, 1961; rev. 1975
Joseph Fontenrose, John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation, 1963
Cliff Lewis and Carroll Britch, eds., Rediscovring Steinbeck, 1989
Peter Lisca, John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth, 1978
Jay Parini, John Steinbeck, Biography, 1996
Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, eds., Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, 1975