1902-68, American writer

He was born in Salinas, Calif. His works are marked by a compassionate understanding of the world's disinherited.


In 1962 he won the Nobel Prize in literature. He also got on the Modern Library's 100 Best Books: Fiction for The Grapes of Wrath

He also got on the list of Top 100 Works of Journalism In the United States In the 20th Century for an article he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner.

He is among Foreign authors banned by Ireland in 1922 and The Most Frequently Banned Books in the 1990s

Source: McMichael, George (Ed.), "Anthology of American Literature", Macmillan Publishing, NY, 1974 Last Updated 04.15.04


John Steinbeck was a prolific author, but not all of his works were highly acclaimed. Though some of his works are very famous and widespread, most of them are considered to be failures. Steinbeck's most famous and most successful books had one thing in common. They all contained poor laborers and farmers struggling against the class system that existed in America at the time of Steinbeck's writing.

Successful Works

Three of Steinbeck's most successful works are The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, and East of Eden. They were all successes because John Steinbeck wrote about what he knew about- farmers and laborers. He wrote simply and directly, using stereotypical characters that readers could relate to, and this is what made him popular with the masses.

The Grapes of Wrath is a very famous novel and it received high praise from critics. According to Jones, Steinbeck uses "eye dialect, using the actual dialect of the Okies, to make the dialogue as real as possible." He creates two stories within The Grapes of Wrath, one that focuses on a single family, the Joads, and another that focuses on the overall plight of the migrant workers.

Ma Joad is the mother of the family and the one who holds it together. She is a very generous and giving person, because, as she says herself, "If you're in trouble or hurt or need - go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help - the only ones." (335). Pa Joad is the father of the family, and he is driven to act by Ma. She would sometimes rile him up on purpose so that he might actually get things done. The family also had a grandmother and grandfather who both died.

Tom Joad is the protagonist in the novel. From the beginning of the book to the end, he undergoes a change from selfishness to selflessness (Jones). In the beginning of the book, Tom is released on probation, which he breaks, and he is forced into obeying the law when he travels to California in search of a better life. Uncle John is a minor character who shows us what happens if we worry about our own sins too much. Al Joad is interested in only two things, cars and women. He tries to leave the family and work at a garage, but Ma manages to keep him with them.

Rose of Sharon went through a lot of hard times. The father of her child left her, and the child ended up being stillborn because of undernourishment (Jones). Rose complained a lot and was very selfish until the end of the book when she used her breast milk to feed a starving man. Noah Joad was deformed at birth and so he feels that the family doesn't care about him as much as they do the others. He is the first family member to leave.

It is important to look at each of these characters first as individuals, and then as a whole. Because Steinbeck grew up around poverty and this sort of poverty, he was able to write a successful story about them. The characters in The Grapes of Wrath not only seemed very real, but they were also typical of laborers and farmers, and therefore those who read this novel could relate to what Steinbeck had said. He uses first the individual family to give a sense of realism, and then the entire migrant worker population in order to show how the entire mass of people are affected. That is why this novel was a success.

The Pearl is another of Steinbeck's more famous literature. The story is about greed, something that people, especially the poor laborers, are forced to deal with each and every day. Kino finds an enormous pearl, and because of it, the entire world seems to be consumed by greed.

Kino is a poor fisherman. Together with his wife, Juana, and his son, Coyotito, he lives by the sea so that he can go out diving for pearls and fish. In the beginning of the story, a scorpion stings Coyotito, and Kino tries to get the doctor to treat him. Kino and Juana can't afford the price that the doctor wants, so they have nothing to do to save their son. Then Kino finds "the pearl of the world". It's the largest pearl that anyone in the town had ever seen.

Soon, the whole village is beset by greed. The doctor comes to treat Coyotito so that he might get paid with some money from the pearl. The man who Kino tries selling the pearl attempts to con Kino because he thinks that because Kino is poor, then he must be stupid. Also, two men are after the pearl the entire time, and they wouldn't hesitate to kill Kino for it. Juana, seeing that the greed is getting to Kino, tries to take the pearl and throw it into the sea. Kino stops her and hits her, showing that the greed even came between husband and wife. Because of Kino's greed, the trackers end up shooting and killing Coyotito, and Kino realizes that now that he's lost his son, there's no reason for him to have the pearl anymore.

Again, as with The Grapes of Wrath, people can relate to these characters. Kino, the breadwinner of the family who is taken in by greed, Juana, the sensible and loyal wife, and Coyotito, the innocent victim, all are stereotypical of farmers and laborers. This is Steinbeck's major focus for most of his books, and it is also what made him such a successful author.

East of Eden was what Steinbeck felt would be his most successful novel. He felt that this novel was what his entire career had been culminating to. He began writing the story as the story of his family, but it changed as he wrote it. Certainly, the story was about farmers, and certainly Steinbeck knew what he was talking about since it was based upon his family. However, it wasn't as successful as Grapes of Wrath or The Pearl. The problem was with the characters.

East of Eden followed the lives of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The Trask family contained two sets of brothers, Adam and Charles, and Aron and Caleb, the latter being Adam's children. In each case, the brothers were meant to be a parallel to Cain and Abel of the bible, as we even see their initials are the same. Adam and Charles had the unfortunate luck to meet up with Cathy Ames.

Cathy Ames was an innocent child in the beginning of the book. An entire chapter is devoted to her development into the antagonist of the story. According to Stephens, at age ten, she is molested by two boys four years older than she. At fourteen, her Latin teacher commits suicide while she watches. At sixteen, she runs away from home, and when her family finds out, they drag her back and beat her. Cathy is used in the book as another parallel to the bible, the natural evil of women beginning with Eve is shown through Cathy.

Adam marries Cathy, but Cathy betrays him and sleeps with Charles. Charles gets her pregnant, and eventually Cathy has the babies. Cathy can't stand being there, so she shoots Adam and tells him to drop the babies down the well. Cathy runs away to Boston to become a prostitute, and changes her name to Kate. She gets a job at a brothel and becomes a perfect prostitute. The woman who runs the place likes Kate a lot, so she puts her into her will. Kate kills the woman off, and inherits her things from the will.

While there is still more to the story, the point can be seen from this. The Trask family, the main family in the story, are atypical for farmers and laborers. The Hamiltons were more normal than the Trasks were, but the story didn't focus much on them. So while the common people could relate to the characters in East of Eden, they couldn't relate to the main ones, however interesting they were. Even though Steinbeck knew what he was writing about, the common person didn't. This is why East of Eden proved to be less successful than The Grapes of Wrath or The Pearl.

Unsuccessful Works

Steinbeck's first three novels were very unsuccessful. Two of them, Tortilla Flat and To a God Unknown, were still based on Salinas Valley in California like most of Steinbeck's famous works. They even focused on farmers and laborers. The problem was that the characters were beset by abnormal problems.

In To a God Unknown, Joseph Wayne is a simple farmer. On his farm, there is a magnificent tree that Joseph believes is the physical embodiment of the spirit of his father. Joseph's brothers all agree, and all of their farms prosper as a result of it. One of Joseph's brothers, however, is frightened by the pagan belief of the other Waynes, and he cuts down the tree. Disasters begin to happen, and plague and famine beset the Waynes.

Because the problems in this book are mystical rather than the typical problems of a laborer, this novel wasn't a success. The book did have natural problems, such as the drought caused when the tree was cut down, but it was too much for people to believe that it was the tree that could have caused the drought.

Tortilla Flat is also about farmers. The difference with this book is that it's a comedy. All of the characters in this novel are meant to be comical, and because of that, there is an overabundance of drinking in the novel. The problems brought on to the large group of friends are by no means normal ones, nor do they respond to the problems in the normal way that a laborer or farmer would.

Steinbeck's first novel had even more problems than the following ones. Cup of Gold was about a pirate, and adventures on the high seas. Steinbeck had no experience with pirates and very little with the sea when he wrote this story, and according to Scott Simkins, later even he regretted writing it.

The dialogue in Cup of Gold was poorly done because of Steinbeck's lack of experience on the subject of pirates. In addition, the plot and characters were "highly allegorical" (Simkins). In other words, not only were the characters poorly developed and unrealistic, but people couldn't even relate to them. This novel ended up being unsuccessful, but it at least got Steinbeck on the road to writing about the things he knew- the simple plight of the laborer and the farmer, which, while it wasn't anything spectacular, it was what people enjoyed to read about.


After all is said and done, Steinbeck was a successful author. Despite his many failures, he had many huge successes, such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men. As John Steinbeck developed, he learned to write about those things that he knew about, the things that he grew up around, the things that the rest of the world could relate to. Due to his literary growth, he has gone down in history as one of the major authors of America.

Works Cited

Jones, Andrew. "The Grapes of Wrath".

Simkins, Scott. "Cup of Gold".

Stephan, Ed. "The California Novels".

John Steinbeck - biographical notes

John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902 in Salinas, California. He was the third child of John Ernst Steinbeck and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck. His father worked variously as the manager of a flour mill, owner of a food and grain store, at Spreckels sugar plant, and finally, when his son was a teenager, as Treasurer of Monterey County. He taught his son to love the natural world and accept responsibility for his colt - experiences which Steinbeck recalled in the collection of stories called The Red Pony. His mother, on the other hand, instilled a love of books and stories in her son. She read to him so much as a child that by the age of five, he was a fluent reader.

He was given an abridged version of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, which he later remembered as the first book which was truly 'his own'. This work was to influence him greatly later in life.

Though ahead of his classmates academically, Steinbeck became out of touch with his peers by skipping the fifth grade, meaning that he was a year younger than his classmates throughout his academic career until entering Stanford University in 1919.

At university he chose the courses which he felt would help him to develop as a writer. He earned B's in most classes, but withdrew from a number in which he was failing. All of this meant that he never completed a degree, despite remaining at the university for six years.

He did, however, enjoy the short story clubs and joined an English Club where he met other writers who encouraged him to persevere with his writing. During his summer holidays, he worked as a labourer variously in harvest fields, in a sugar beet factory, and in a laboratory.

He finally dropped out of college in 1925 and went to New York where he worked in construction and later as a journalist for the newspaper The American. He soon returned to California and began work on his first novel - Cup of Gold - while working at a lodge and resort south of Lake Tahoe. Cup of Gold was published in 1929.

In January 1930, Steinbeck married Carol Henning, and settled with her in Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts, who became a close friend and provided inspiration for the character Doc in the novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday.

In 1934, Steinbeck won the O. Henry award for the best story of the year.

In 1937, Steinbeck was asked to write a series of articles on farmers who had migrated to California from the Southwest dustbowl for the San Francisco News. It was from this trip that Steinbeck gained inspiration for his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which was published in 1939 and became an instant bestseller.

Exhausted from the completion of such an epic novel, Steinbecktook some time out to work on other projects, first making a documentary in Hollywood, and then aiding Ed Ricketts in marine biology. When he returned from this hiatus, he learned that The Grapes of Wrath had won the Pulitzer prize. However, his marriage to Carol had become increasingly tense during this time, and they divorced in 1943, leaving Steinbeck to marry Gwendolyn Conger soon afterward.

During the early 1940s, Steinbeck was deeply involved in the war effort as a consultant for government propoganda agencies and the US Air Force.

Steinbeck and Gwyn moved back to Monterey in 1944 and Cannery Row appeared in 1945.

In 1948, Ed Ricketts was killed in a collision between his car and a train. Steinbeck was devastated by this loss, and his marriage was becoming increasingly unstable, so much so that he returned from a short trip to Mexico to find that Gwyn had returned to Los Angeles, taking the couple's sons, Thom and John, with her. They divorced soon after.

After recovering from these losses, Steinbeck married Elaine Scott. They settled in New York and started work on his 'big book' - East of Eden - which was published in 1952.

In the following ten years, Steinbeck embarked on many small, largely unsuccessful projects, until in 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although he was one of only six Americans to have acheived this honour, the decision was branded controversial by some of the American press.

In 1967 Steinbeck, whose elder son was involved in the war, went to Vietnam as a reporter for Newsday, but soon realised that he could not give his unquestioning support for the war, but he continued to back the soldiers for their thankless task. On his return to the United States in April 1967, Steinbeck was operated on for a back injury. After some months of ill health, he died of heart failure in December 1968. He is buried in Salinas, California.

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