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  1. John Steinbeck´s life
  2. Comments on John Steinbeck´s works
  3. Comments on one of his works- "The Grapes of Wrath"

John Steinbeck´s life

John Ernst Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902 of German and Irish ancestry. His father, John Steinbeck, Sr., served as the County Treasurer while his mother, Olive (Hamilton) Steinbeck, a former school teacher, fostered Steinbeck's love of reading and the written word. During summers he worked as a hired hand on nearby ranches, nourishing his impression of the California countryside and its people. After graduating from Salinas High School in 1919, Steinbeck attended Stanford University. Originally an English major, he pursued a program of independent study and his attendance was sporadic. During this time he worked periodically at various jobs and left Stanford permanently in 1925 to pursue his writing career in New York. However, he was unsuccessful in getting any of his writing published and finally returned to California. His first novel, Cup of Gold was published in 1929, but attracted little attention. His two subsequent novels, The Pastures of Heaven and To a God Unknown, were also poorly received by the literary world. Steinbeck married his first wife, Carol Henning in 1930. They lived in Pacific Grove where much of the material for Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row was gathered. Tortilla Flat (1935) marked the turning point in Steinbeck's literary career. It received the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal for best novel by a California author. Steinbeck continued writing, relying upon extensive research and his personal observation of the human condition for his stories. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) won the Pulitzer Prize. During World War II, Steinbeck was a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Some of his dispatches were later collected and made into Once There Was a War. John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 “...for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception.” Throughout his life John Steinbeck remained a private person who shunned publicity. He died December 20, 1968, in New York City and is survived by his third wife, Elaine (Scott) Steinbeck and one son, Thomas. His ashes were placed in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Salinas.

Comments on John Steinbeck´s works

It is true that there is a streak of sentimentality, even cheapness, in Steinbeck, and that his work has, in general, shown a falling-off since The Grapes of Wrath. He has written many good things, however, and the sharpness of American critical comment makes one suspect some animus which has more to do with the sociology or psychology of his novels, that their literary merit. There is a tendency, in other words, to criticize Steinbeck´s treatment of social issues for being over-simplified and his characters for being grotesques. On both counts, the allegations are not without some justification. It is doubtful, however, whether it is valid criticism of a novel to say that paisanos never in real life lived like the characters of Tortilla Flat, nor Oklahoma dirt-farmers like the Joads. The criterion is surely whether, given the terms within which he is working, the novelist´s work as a whole has life and substance, and presents a convincing picture of human existence. Steinbeck´s best work does carry this kind of conviction. The Red Pony has that peculiar mixture of sympathy and savagery, an awareness of life´s fundamentals, however, his vision tends to become warped by the very sympathy which makes his shorter work so satisfying. This is true of In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath where fierce loyalties have led him nearer to propaganda than is healthy for a novelist. In quite another type of novel, Of Mice and Men, not only the type of protagonist chosen but the manner in which that (simple-minded) protagonist is treated is more simple (and sentimental) than the highest standards require. Similarly, the near-whimsicality of Tortilla Flat turns into the gamey indulgence of Cannery Row, without touching that norm of human conduct which, if Steinbeck only knew it, is his forte. Yet another attempt, East of Eden, is too large, too rambling, and too melodramatic for success, although, as one is always forced to recognize with Steinbeck´s work, it is full of excellent T

Comments on one of his works- "The Grapes of Wrath"

Around noon on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 1938, John Steinbeck completed the last 775 words of “The Grapes of Wrath” and scrawled “END #” at the bottom of the last page in letters an inch and a half high. In his working journal he concluded that date’s entry with, “Finished this day -- and I hope to God it’s good.” Decades later we know how that half-formed prayer was answered: This novel is not merely good, it approaches greatness. It is such a wrenching story of one decent family’s disintegration and such a vivid description of the exploitation of a powerless segment of American society, you may forget that what you have in your hands is not some incredibly well-done documentary, but a work of literary art. Steinbeck’s literary reputation has always been less than solid, and some say he should never have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It may be that never before and never afterward did he reach the heights he reached in “The Grapes of Wrath,” but there is no denying he reached them. In one remarkably short period of concentrated writing from June to October 1938, he produced a masterpiece about migrant workers during the Depression. He consciously meant this book to be art, which is usually a sure route to failure. It was conceived with another art form in mind -- a symphony. It is written contrapuntally, with chapters of action that move the narrative along alternating with chapters of history, reflection and ideas. There is even a chapter that is like a musical introduction to a longer work. Chapter 3 is solely about a turtle’s attempt to crawl across a highway. Threatened by vehicles, nearly killed, it eventually makes it, and in the process carries an oat seed -- a sign of continuing life. The turtle’s struggle anticipates and sums up the saga of the Joad family -- Ma and Pa, Tom, Al, Ruthie and Winfield, Noah, Rose of Sharon and her husband, Connie, Gramma and Grampa, and the preacher, Jim Casy. Torn asunder and beaten down, they are never defeated. The final scene on the last page in which Rose of Sharon, whose child died at birth, offers her milk-filled breast to a starving man is itself a return to that sign of the unquenchable urge to life. Admittedly, the novel is also a social document. It is a good -- meaning eminently readable -- story of migrant workers’ conditions as they travel from their failed farms in the Dust Bowl to California, where they hope to get work. The Joads are exploited and gouged and reviled and cheated and mocked. They, and hundreds of thousands like them, rarely find work, and when they do it is usually for pay that barely sustains them, and sometimes not even that. Steinbeck was angry at the greed of the banks, land companies and farming conglomerates that brought the migrants to their sorry state. At one point,he says business is a “curious ritualized thievery, and businessmen know it.” The book’s major fault is that it runs to sentimentality. Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy is made to sound a bit gooey: “She was all secrets now that she was pregnant, secrets and little silences.” There are great lyrical authorial soliloquies that are embarrassingly thick. Similarly, depicting the preacher, who has gone to support some strikers, as a Christ figure when he is beaten to death is romantic overreaching. “You don’ know what you’re a-doin’,” he tells his killers. The big strength of the book is the indomitable figure of Ma. She is strength itself, a personification of the forbearance of the people. “The Grapes of Wrath” may not be the greatest novel ever written in America, but one thing is sure. Thirty-seven years from now, on its centenary, people will still be reading it and examining it and finding that it is very good indeed.

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Lourdes, University of Deusto, May, 2003.