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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He set many of his novels in and around his birthplace of Salinas, California, including Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Cannery Row. After leaving Salinas High School in 1919, Steinbeck studied at Stanford University from 1920 to1925, but never completed a degree. The courses which attracted his attention most were zoology, English, and classical literature. After leaving the University, he worked at a variety of jobs. Between 1925 and 1927 he attempted to earn a living as a reporter and a free-lance writer, but was unsuccessful.
Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), is based on the life of Sir Henry Morgan, a famous English pirate of the sixteen hundreds. His next work, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), is a collection of stories about the people on a farm community near Salinas. In this work, Steinbeck focuses on the struggle between human beings and nature. These first two books received scant attention. Finally, in 1933, Steinbeck achieved success with his short story, The Red Pony.
Steinbeck's next novel, Tortilla Flat (1935), dealt with the migrant workers and poor farmers. In Dubious Battle (1936) realistically portrays the labor strife in California during the nineteen thirties. This novel also sets forth Steinbeck's concept of "group humanity" through the character of Doc Burton. This concern reappears in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and The Sea of Cortez (1941). Of Mice and Men (1937) became a best seller and was adapted for the stage and a movie. In it, Steinbeck tells the tragic story about a physically powerful but mentally retarded farm worker, Lennie, and his best friend and protector, George; their plans for owning a farm never materialize. Instead, Lennie kills a woman and George shoots him.
In 1940, Steinbeck went on an expedition to the Gulf of California (also called The Sea of Cortez) with his friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist. Steinbeck shared with him a deep interest in biology. The result of this trip was a joint publication, The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. The book is in two parts. The first part narrates the voyage and records various conversations and speculations and the second part describes the marine organisms collected by the men.
Other works include Cannery Row (1944), The Wayward Bus (1947), The Pearl (1947), Burning Bright (1950), East of Eden (1952), Sweet Thursday (1954), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). East of Eden is Steinbeck's longest and most ambitious work. It follows three generations of a Californian family from 1860 to the first World War. The title refers to the family strife, which parallels the conflict between the Biblical figures of Cain and Abel.
Steinbeck received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He died on December 20, 1968.
The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is Steinbeck's most famous novel and won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize. The novel tells the story of the Joads, who migrate to California in search of a better life during the Great Depression of the nineteen thirties. Steinbeck effectively portrays how the struggle of the Joads mirrors the hardships of the entire nation. The Joads learn, through the inspiration of Jim Casy, that the poor must work together in order to survive.
Two great historical and social phenomena merged in the thirties to create The Grapes of Wrath. The first was a growing interest among the American intellectuals in the philosophy of Marxism, or Socialism as a means of helping the laboring classes. Casy's thinking in the novel is based upon these philosophies. The second phenomenon was the natural disaster of the Dust Bowl. In November of 1933, a huge dust cloud rose over an area of the U.S. stretching from Texas to South Dakota. The dust storm eroded the topsoil of the region and blew it away. Crops were destroyed, and many small farmers lost their lands to the banks that held mortgages on their farms. Corporations were forced to farm under intensive large-scale operations, using tractors to replace the horse- drawn plows of the small farmer.
Thousands of sharecroppers were evicted from their lands which had been settled by their forefathers. About 4,000 people were, therefore, forced by circumstances to travel in unreliable cars to California in search of work. With deteriorating conditions for the farm workers in the West, there were innumerable strikes during the years of 1933 and 1934. Steinbeck, as a newspaper reporter, saw first-hand the difficult life of the migrants during his visits to the labor camps.
He resolved to write a "big book" chronicling the suffering and oppression of the migrants. The outcome of his efforts was The Grapes of Wrath.