“I think I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and the ranches in the wilder hills. I can see how I would like to do it so that it would be the valley of the world.” Steinbeck’s letter to George Albee, Salinas, 1933
Whether he was reporting from the front lines of the war on poverty or the conflict in Vietnam, John Steinbeck brought honesty and integrity to his craft. Steinbeck understood that readers sought out what was true in this world. From his first book to his last, Steinbeck capitalized on the stories he had heard from the people around him. He listened to the hobos, the migrant workers, the drifters, and the dreamers. He listened to the men in the trenches of war or to the women on the street of Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s greatest talent was to turn the real world into a fascinating, visual image that gave his readers a compelling glimpse into the lives of others.
Born and raised in Salinas, Steinbeck knew the rural town well. He was born at 132 Central Street on February 27, 1902 to John and Olive Steinbeck. Steinbeck”s father was a quiet, disappointed man who had failed at managing a flour mill and failed, again, at running his own feed store. Perhaps as a reaction to this, Steinbeck”s mother was filled with ambition for her son. She hoped he would be a doctor or lawyer. It was one of his greatest disappointments that neither of his parents lived to see him achieve international success as a writer.
Both of Steinbeck’s parents encouraged him to develop a love for literature. His connection to books grew when an aunt gave him a copy of Morte d’ Arthur for his ninth birthday. This was the book that gave the young Steinbeck a literary compass that he would follow for the rest of his life. In his introduction to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, Steinbeck wrote about his connection to Lancelot, Mordred, Galahad, and the search for the Grail. I think my sense of right and wrong, my feeling of noblesse oblige and any thought I may have against the oppressor and for the oppressed, came from this secret book, wrote Steinbeck.
He had a fairly typical childhood for rural Salinas in the early twentieth century. He had two older sisters, Esther and Beth, who doted on him. He had a younger sister, Mary, who was three years his junior. He and Mary shared a pony, Jill, stabled just a few blocks away from their house. His parents were involved in the local community. After his father’s disappointment in business, local townspeople came to the family’s rescue by getting the elder John a lifetime appointment as the treasurer of Monterey County.
Little in Steinbeck’s early life seemed to indicate that he would win the Pulitzer Prize or Nobel Prize for literature. His parents, teachers, and friends knew he had a modest degree of talent as a writer because they had seen him writing in the margins of his father’s used accounting ledgers or heard stories of his dresser drawers full of manuscripts. Few people, however, associated Steinbeck with success. He was tall, awkward, and gangly. He didn’t join social groups or clubs. And he constantly worried about his looks. Lacking social grace, Steinbeck came to embrace his role as the class loudmouth or local prankster. After high school, he attended Stanford on and off for six years, but never graduated. He attended classes sporadically and relished his status as a bohemian.
When Steinbeck needed money for his college tuition, he did manual labor. He worked on a dredging crew or at the Spreckel’s sugar plant. Through his work, Steinbeck met hobos, factory workers, and migrant fruit pickers and listened to their stories. As he gained experiences outside of the classroom, his writing improved. Edith Ronald Mirrielees, an English professor at Stanford, convinced Steinbeck that he needed discipline to succeed as a writer. She crossed out his inflated phrases and encouraged him to write shorter, more powerful sentences packed with truth.
Here, then, we have the foundations of his life as a writer. He was deeply affected by the sense of good and evil that permeated Morte d’ Arthur. He was a loner who may have felt more connected to people who lived on the outskirts of society than those who lived in the mainstream. He had an ambitious mother and a chronically disappointed, depressed father who spent hours walking the hills of Salinas with his son. He learned in college that he would need discipline to succeed as a writer. And, most importantly, Steinbeck knew his characters because he had worked alongside the working poor. When it came time to write, he wrote the stories he knew best.
East of Eden was a fictionalized re-telling of Stienbeck”s family history. The Red Pony sprang from his childhood pony. Tortilla Flat came from the characters he knew around Salinas. Of Mice and Men came from the farms where he had picked fruit to help support himself while he attended college. The Grapes of Wrath evolved from the time Steinbeck spent writing newspaper articles about the farm families who had fled Okalahoma in search of better lives in California.
It’s important to note that Steinbeck struggled for years before he became a successful writer. He rambled from California to New York and back again. He fell in and out of love, took a series of odd jobs, and ended up as a caretaker at a cabin in Tahoe. Over the course of a snowbound winter in Tahoe, Steinbeck had one short story published and polished an earlier manuscript about the pirate Henry Morgan. In August,1929, his first book, Cup of Gold, was published.
Publication, however, did not mean immediate success. He married his first wife, Carol, and settled in the family cottage in Pacific Grove. During the early years of their marriage, the young couple relied on small loans, Carol’s typing income, and twenty-five dollars a month from Steinbeck’s father. Steinbeck lost his mother to a stroke in 1934 and his father died in 1935. In the meantime, his manuscript for Tortilla Flat was rejected numerous times and he lost the manuscript to The Red Pony. Finally, after years of struggle, Pascal Covici offered to publish Tortilla Flat and reissue Steinbeck’s earlier books.
When he received the royalties from Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck took a three-month trip to Mexico with Carol. He was exhausted when he left California. He had lost both of his parents, had lived through the Depression, his writing wasn’t popular, and his relationship with Carol was strained because she felt that he had neglected her to attend to his writing. The couple enjoyed their time in Mexico, but it was one of the last times Steinbeck could travel with a guarantee of being anonymous. When he returned to California, Steinbeck learned that Tortilla Flat had been a commercial success. He was famous.
Doc was collecting marine animals in the Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Peninsula. It is a fabulous place: when the tid e is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef. But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely. Cannery Row
In the summer, when the family vacationed together at their cottage in Pacific Grove, Steinbeck played in the tide pools with his younger sister Mary. When he returned to the area as an adult, he lived in the family cottage in Pacific Grove. While in Pacific Grove, he met and became a life-long friend of Ed Ricketts. Steinbeck met Ricketts in the waiting room of a dentist’s office. (Ricketts was pulling his own tooth out because he was tired of waiting to see the dentist.) The two men became fast friends. They discussed philosophy, science, politics, and everything else under the sun.
Born in Chicago, Ed Ricketts had studied at the University of Chicago, but never graduated. Ricketts ran the Pacific Biological Laboratories first out of Pacific Grove, and, later, out of Monterey. Artists and philosophers such as Henry Miller and Joseph Campbell met for informal parties and discussions at Ricketts’ lab. Ricketts’ philosophy about the interactions among animals had a profound effect on the author and influenced Steinbeck’s writing about people. In his writing, Steinbeck often took himself out of the picture (much like a scientist) to observe his characters without moralizing about them.
Ed Ricketts first appeared in Steinbeck’s work as a partner in the expedition south in The Log from The Sea of Cortez. It was during this trip to Mexico that the writer heard the story that evolved into The Pearl. Upon his return home, he set out to capture the local street life in Cannery Row. In Cannery Row, Steinbeck immortalized Ricketts as one of the great characters of literature, Doc. Like Doc, in Cannery Row, Ricketts collected biological specimens and sold them to student labs throughout the country.
As his works grew in popularity, Steinbeck’s life became conflicted. He divorced Carol and married a singer named Gwyndolyn Conger, then set out immediately to cover the overseas action of WWII. Gwyn bore Steinbeck two sons, Thomas and John, but she never forgave him for neglecting his family for his writing.
He lived briefly in Monterey before settling permanently in New York. A crisis caused him to return to Monterey in the spring of 1948. In a letter to a friend, Steinbeck wrote, You see, Ed Ricketts’ car was hit by a train, and after fighting for his life for three days, he died, and there died the greatest man I have known and the best teacher. It is going to take a long time to reorganize my thinking and my planning without him.
Ed Ricketts died on May 11, 1948. After the funeral, Steinbeck flew back to New York where Gwyn gave him the news that she was seeking a divorce. In a matter of days, his world had turned upside down. He suddenly found himself alone and in debt. Although he had some royalties from earlier works, Steinbeck owed alimony, child support, and taxes.
Depressed after the loss of Ricketts and the demise of his second marriage, he retreated to the cottage in Pacific Grove. Penniless, Steinbeck had his editor, Pat Covici, send him writing paper. Eventually, Steinbeck revived when he met Elaine Scott, the woman who would become his third wife. Steinbeck said his happiest marriage was with Elaine. Elaine had been a stage manager on Broadway, so she eased Steinbeck into socializing, an activity that had previously caused him a mixture of stress and dread. Fame had changed his old friends and the town of Monterey, however, so the couple moved back to New York.
He continued to write, but, the work was never easy. As he wrote in his letters to John Murphy in June, 1961, Nine tenths of a writer’s life do not admit of any companion nor friend nor associate. And until one makes peace with loneliness and accepts it as a part of the profession, as celibacy is a part of priesthood, and until then there are times of dreadful dread. I am just as terrified of my next book as I was of my first. It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder and more heartbreaking and finally, it must be that one must accept the failure which is the end of every writer’s life no matter what stir he may have made.
At the time that he wrote, Steinbeck’s themes were often a source of anger, contention, and mistrust. One reason Steinbeck left California was that he was seen as a source of friction between the ranch owners and workers. Even his favored little sister, Mary, broke off with him for awhile over political disagreements. Steinbeck continued working until the end of his life. Some critics claimed that none of his later works equaled The Grapes of Wrath, but others saw his work differently. They believed that he should be rewarded for his honesty and social vision. In 1962, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for literature.
He traveled overseas frequently with Elaine. He continued to grow more comfortable with himself and his fame, but he became disenchanted with the evolution of American culture. In Travels with Charley and The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck expressed sarcasm, sadness, and frustration with the race riots of the 1960s, the consumerist mentality of American culture, and the growing gap between the rich and poor. Once again, Steinbeck put his finger on social themes that would serve as a source of debate and contention for his readers many years after his books had been published.
Steinbeck spent the last part of his life in New York. He died on December 20, 1968, in New York. He once commented to Elaine that, No man should be buried in alien soil, so she had his ashes interred in his family’s plot back where he had started his life–in Salinas, California.
Michelle Potter is a freelance writer. She lives three hours north of Salinas, California.
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