BackgroundBiography, Works, Themes & Philosophy, Style John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was born in the Salinas Valley in California, and that area became the setting for many of his best known works. After high school, he attended Stanford, and while he didn’t graduate, he did make some friends in the English Department who helped him with his writing. When Steinbeck was in his twenties, the United States Stock Market crashed and the nation’s attention turned to ec0nomics as the Great Depression began. This deeply impacted Steinbeck. Crowd outside NYSE in 1929 An event at the New York Stock Exchange might seem a world away from the migrant works in the Salinas Valley, but it began a series of events which were worsened by the drought conditions in the Mississippi Valley in 1930. A great deal of the workers who couldn’t find work in states like Oklahoma moved to California. There simply was not enough work for these people. Bank failures (around 20%) made conditions worse. Note how unemployment is 25% in 1932. Before the Depression hit, Steinbeck wrote a romantic piece called Cup of Gold (1929), which is a tale of swashbuckling pirates—today it’s hard to imagine that he could have ever written such a piece. The events of the Great Depression deeply affected Steinbeck, and this is first seen in Pastures of Heaven (1932) which zeroed in on the rural Central Valley of California that he had known all of his life. The interconnected people and families in this novel struggle. Before Steinbeck moved completely away from Romanticism (not concerned with reality) and to Realism, he wrote an allegory titled Tortilla Flat about “paisanos” enjoying wine & life after WWI. In Dubious Battle (1936) represents a political turn in Steinbeck’s work as he wrote about attempts to organize fruit workers. Many accused Steinbeck of being a communist after this point in his career. Of Mice and Men (1937) was originally published as a play and it quickly won over Our Town as the best play that year. Set directly in the Great Depression, the characters struggle to survive on the Tyler Ranch and reality smashes against unrealistic dreams. After writing the short novella The Red Pony (1937), Steinbeck published his most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). It was the most vivid description of The Great Depression and it was both banned and praised. It tells the story of the Joad family’s struggles to move to and be successful in California in the wake of the nation’s severe economic crisis. Steinbeck’s work changed quite a bit when WWII arrived, and Steinbeck did work for the Norwegian underground as a journalist. Eventually he published The Moon Is Down (1942). The end of WWII marked the end of the Depression, and with that Steinbeck could never recapture the power of his earlier work. He was the writer for the Depression. Steinbeck went on to publish Cannery Row (1945), East of Eden (1952), Sweet Thursday (1954), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), and Travels with Charley (1962). In 1940 Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. (Steinbeck accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature on the right.) Steinbeck lived in an era where it seemed like humankind was totally abandoned. He noticed the brutality that people had to endure during the Depression, and it shaped his views. These realities caused Steinbeck to truly embrace Realism – essentially “telling it like it is” with total frankness. But how could man deal with a world that is crushing him/her? One answer that Steinbeck saw was the concept of “the group.” There could be power and solace in the company of others, especially people who were going through the same things you were. The family is a good model for this, or simply one’s friends like Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men. Also, the concept of “Timshel” is key to Steinbeck’s beliefs. This is an old Hebrew word that appears in his novel East of Eden and it mean “thou mayest.” Essentially it means that we might do good or we might do evil. To Steinbeck, this put us on par with angels; we are not animals because we have choice. This idea of choice really flew in the face of the kind of ideas that were coming out of science at the time. For instance, the idea of Determinism was becoming popularized—that is that we are the sum of our experiences and genetic make-up. What we do is just a result of that. Timshel denies this. People, even those in the depths of the Depression, can find dignity in the fact that we still choose our paths and are thus responsible for those choices; also, we can find power in others. “Timshel” in Hebrew above. Steinbeck will probably never be known as a stylist. The writing itself is not flowery or over the top, which probably fits with the time and his focus. This writer was a realist, and while he could be quite descriptive, it’s never “slobbery” or particularly verbose: First sentence of Of Mice and Men: A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hill-side bank and runs deep and green. He did concentrate on dialogue, and the reader gets a real sense of how these people talk. Sometimes this realistic dialogue uses profane language and got his work banned in some situations. He was good at making you see what you wanted to see – in this vein, look for his use of “losers” – people who didn’t make it, which is a part of the real world.