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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Steinbeck

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.

A 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.

Over 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.

John 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.

If 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.

Cliff Lewis
University of Lowell

In the Heath Anthology
The Chrysanthemums (1938)
from The Grapes of Wrath
      Chapter Five (1939)
      Chapter One (1939)

Other Works
The Pastures of Heaven (1932)
To a God Unknown (1933)
Tortilla Flat (1935)
In Dubious Battle (1936)
Of Mice and Men (1937)
The Long Valley (1938)
The Pearl (1945)
The Wayward Bus (1947)
East of Eden (1952)
The Winter of Our Discontent (1961)
Travels With Charley (1962)

Cultural Objects
FILM fileThe Grapes of Wrath, a film

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John Steinbeck
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.

Secondary Sources

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