John Steinbeck - In Dubious Reputation

Diploma Thesis, 2000

47 Pages, Grade: very good



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John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968)

(Photograph taken in1962, when he got the Nobel Prize)[1]

When I decided to write my masters about John Steinbeck, I only knew some of his works. I had read “Tortilla Flat” – which is still one of my favourite books, of course I knew “East of Eden “ and “Of Mice and Men” and “The Pearl”.

Then I started to read his not so well known novels and I wondered about his contradictory writing style and choice of topics. “ He is a crank, a storyteller, a critic, an anti – critic, an “American”, an internationalist, a sage, a prophet.” Reloy Garcia, professor of English Creighton University, states.[2]

In this study I will try to pursue and comment on the different aspects of Steinbeck’s works. Although I read nearly all his books, I chose Cup of Gold, Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown, Tortilla Flat and In Dubious Battle to concentrate on. Each of them seems to me representative for a certain genre and they do not belong to his best-known ones – except Tortilla Flat.

Steinbeck did not like book critics, which is hardly surprising, because each book published in his lifetime was attacked by prestigious reviewers, but even the books considered the weakest

received plaudits from important reviewers. There was never a consensus on a Steinbeck text.[3]

I do not want to judge Steinbeck’s different works. I want to deal with his background and I will try to understand his intentions.

I. Steinbeck on writing

I.1. Steinbeck's rudimentary suggestions for the beginner

When radio entertainer Fred Allen started to write his biography, he asked his friend John Steinbeck for some advice. Steinbeck's emphasis on the accumulation of detail and on allowing the form to arise from the material (rather than having the form determine the material) still indicates something of his own approach to his craft.[4]

Steinbeck wrote to Fred Allen:

“Don’t start by trying to make the book chronological. Just take a period. Then try to remember it clearly so you can see things: what colours and how warm or cold and how you got there. Then try to remember people. And then just tell what happened. It is important to tell, what people looked like, how they walked, what they wore, what they ate. Put it all in. Don’t try to organise it. And put in all the details you can remember. You will find, that in a very short time things will begin coming back to you, you thought you had forgotten. Do it for very short periods at first…. Don’t think back over what you have done. Don’t think of literary form. Let it get out, as it wants to. Over tell it in the matter of detail – cutting comes later. The form will develop in the telling. Don’t make the telling follow a form.”

I.2. The Art and Craft of Writing

Steinbeck loved to discuss his books and the art and craft of writing. This is an important dimension of Steinbeck’s work. He was a “total” writer in love with his craft. Thus he talked candidly about the agony and ecstasy of his creative process. Steinbeck was willing to share his expertise as an experienced writer with his writer – friends. Steinbeck advised Dennis Murphy , for instance, ”to defend yourself against success.” He told him “to keep his holy loneliness[6] ”.Another piece of advice he gave his friends touched on thematic focus and its supreme importance of writing. Steinbeck always demanded not a searchlight but a spotlight – “Make your point and make it angrily”[7] ” Until you cannot put your theme in one sentence, you haven’t it in hand enough to write a novel.”[8] [5]

Steinbeck regarded a writer as a storyteller, who always made sure of his poetic and dramatic

quality to entertain and teach the audience as Horace once said in his Ars Poetica :” Omne tulit punctum, qui miscuit utile dulce/ lectorem delectando, pariterque monendo” ( “He gains universal applause who mingles the useful with the agreeable, at once delighting and instructing the reader.”)[9]

The very fact that he wrote so many letters about writing also testifies Steinbeck’s dedication and commitment to the art and craft of writing. Steinbeck was a writer and to him writing had to be, as he once confessed to Jack Valenti, “my trade, my profession and my obsession.”[10]

I.3.Steinbeck`s 1962 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

In 1962 Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The award noted Steinbeck’s “great feeling for nature, for the tilled soil, the wasteland, the mountains, and the ocean coasts… the midst of and beyond the world of human beings.”[12] [11]

I would like to add Steinbeck's Nobel Prize acceptance speech to complete his previous statements.

“…Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species…the ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement. Furthermore the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

Steinbeck mentioned that the functions of literature are understanding and knowledge and ended with an altered Bible’s word: “In the end is the word, and the word is man, and the word is with man.”

These statements are put at the beginning of my work on purpose. I think, that these passages show Steinbeck’s versatility. He expressed himself in various ways and he chose extremely different topics. What is found again and again is the responsibility opposite the single individual .

II. Life and works

II.1. Origin

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( Surrounding of San Francisco and Monterey, the “ Steinbeck country “

John Steinbeck grew up in Salinas, California. This area had an important meaning to him; this is proven by the fact, that more than half of his 29 novels are based in this area. In 1850 his grandfather moved here from the East coast. When John Steinbeck grew up in Salinas, the area was economically well developed. There were droughts and deserts too, but most of the country was fertile, the “Salad Bowl of the Nation”, as it was later called. A mixture of people of different origin lived there: European settlers from the East coast, Mexican immigrants, Italian fishermen, workers from Japan or China, but also artists and writers.

This place meant native country and refuge to Steinbeck. Many of the fictitious characters of his novels are taken from this place: The unskilled farm workers, the prosperous farmers, eccentrics and outsiders. He describes all details ,– children playing in the streets, mothers counting the chickens, farmers discussing the best cultivation methods. Many of the inhabitants dream the dream of a new country.

Steinbeck also experienced the technological and social changes in his native country: the mechanisation of agriculture, the death of many little farms and later tourist marketing for rich city – dwellers.

But he did not consider Salinas to be paradise on earth. After he had left Salinas valley later in his life, he complained about the intolerance and narrow mindedness in his native city. He thought that his old friends did not want him, partly because of his works and partly because he was so successful. Disappointed, he wrote to his publisher : “This is neither a home nor any form of welcome here… This isn’t my country any more. And it won’t be until I am dead. It makes me very sad.”[13]

Salinas was not happy with John Steinbeck either. James G. Costello, a retired editor of the Monterey Peninsula Herald and a long – time friend of Steinbeck said in 1981 : “ This was a redneck town then and John was considered a liberal and he was disliked. It is only recently that he has been accepted in Salinas, rather than being considered the native son of a good family who went bad.”[14]

The estrangement of his native country was a great disappointment for him, because the Salinas valley had always been important both in his works and in his thoughts and desires.

Steinbeck’s California fiction, from apprenticeship novel To a God Unknown (1932) through his epic treatment of the Salinas Valley East of Eden (1952) – written after his move to New York City envisions the dreams and defeats of common people as shaped by the magnificent land they inhabit.

Steinbeck gradually lost his compelling need to write about California’s land and people when he moved east.

But the books that defined him were written in and about California.

This map depicts the major places mentioned by Steinbeck in his California fiction:[15]

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II.2. Family

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John Ernst and Olive Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s parents[16]

Steinbeck came from a middle class family. His father operated a flourmill, and later was the treasurer of Monterey County for many years. His mother, Olive Hamilton, a schoolteacher, encouraged him to read and therefore he was acquainted as a child with the works of Flaubert, Dostojewski, Milton and George Eliot.,[17] From his mother Steinbeck learned to love books, his favourites were Crime and Punishment, Paradise Lost and Le Morte d’Arthur, which was the first book he ever owned.[18]

Steinbeck was the third of four children, of mixed German and Irish descent. His parents owned some land and the Steinbeck family lived in a comfortable Victorian house. They were not rich by American standards, but they were certainly not poor. For example John got a pony for his twelfth birthday, he grew up on three square meals a day and he never doubted that he would always have enough of life’s necessities. They even owned a house at the seaside.

As a boy John roamed the woods and meadows, explored caves, swam in creeks and became acquainted with the ways of nature. He must have loved the out – of – doors. (All his houses were surrounded by gardens and later, he bought two farms, “Los Gatos” and the “Biddle Ranch”, but he never managed them himself.) Throughout his life Steinbeck revealed a deep love of nature and animals, especially horses and dogs (Cf. Travels with Charley; The red Pony). Lewis Gannett, the husband of Ruth Gannett, who illustrated Tortilla Flat, wrote in 1939 : “ For he ( Steinbeck ) is, despite his name, more Irish than German. Irish Californians understand the brown hills, and the trees in the canyons, and the divinity of the soil, better than do the late – coming Germans and Yankees. One reason the world loves Irishmen is that in them, as in John Steinbeck, toughness and tenderness walk hand in hand.”[19] This sensitivity toward nature found its place in many of Steinbeck’s writings

To the Celtic origin of his mother ‘s side is credited the visionary, mystical strain that persists in the grimly realistic aspects of his writing. The German in him accounts for the attention to the details of writing and the discipline and endurance in completing even monumental works.


II.3. Graduation

When did John Steinbeck begin to write? Elaine Steinbeck, his widow, writes:” One day he drove through a green valley into a town called Salinas… and stopped in front of a pretty Victorian House. Then he pointed to the window above and said:” This is the room I wrote in.” I asked:“ When did you begin to write?” And John said almost in wonder, “I don’t remember a time I didn’t write.”[20] His first successful attempt at writing was for the school magazine of Salinas High School, from which he graduated in 1919.During high school (1915 – 1919) he worked as a hand on nearby ranches. He liked work done by hand and developed a profound respect for the labourers. To my mind he also enjoyed the society of men, as he always remained susceptible to typical male entertainment. We find descriptions of this sort of entertainment in several of his stories.

When Steinbeck had finished high school he went to Stanford University. His parents had wanted him to pursue a respectable career such as law or banking – a real irony when you consider what Steinbeck says about banks in The Grapes of Wrath.

Instead, however, he began to study literature. He did not make any effort with his studies and left Stanford without a degree after six years in 1925. “I don’t like Stanford and I never did. There are only hypocrites and grinds.,“ he mentioned afterwards, but I think that he was also disappointed not to have obtained the degree. During his time at university he held various temporary jobs, including working as a ranch hand, an assistant chemist in a sugar refinery, a labourer in a road building gang and a fisherman in Monterey. He only stayed a few weeks at each of the jobs, but he ate and slept with the workers, he listened to their language and to their stories. The men he met (the women he met usually were prostitutes) were mainly social underdogs: immigrants, poor season workers and unemployed. He worked as a bricklayer, fruit picker and marine biologist and he worked with union members and migrants. These people accepted Steinbeck; they did not worry about his middle class background and his education. “ He loves to speak with people”, a newspaper wrote in 1939, “ That’s the key to his character. He is interested in everything.” This close experience with a variety of people and situations of every day life can be felt in the freshness and sympathy with which he describes the life of the community in his early novels. (Cf. The Pastures of Heaven) He was always gathering material for his writing upon which many of his later stories are based. Human beings, but also situations and places he met at that time can be found in his novels. We must not, however, see this episode in Steinbeck’s life in too a romantic way. He often complained about bad food, back ache, exhaustion and the impossibility to write after a long day’s work. Between his jobs he went back to Salinas to his parents’ home to relax in his own room, until he went back because of the reproaches of his parents, who still wanted him to become a lawyer. He wanted to become a writer – but he had backed his decision for ten years and seemed set to be a total failure. On the other hand these years were important for his further work, not only because of the quantity of material he gathered but because of the fact that he transmitted the American ideal of the self – made – man to the career of a writer. He had failed at university but he did his studies on himself in the working world and wrote simultaneously. To my opinion this attitude was mixed up with the will for manly self – confirmation.

II.4. Taking a risk

Finally Steinbeck accepted that he had to leave Stanford without a degree. He decided to go to New York in 1925. To get there he had to work his passage as a seaman aboard a freighter. New York was the centre of culture and literature at the beginning of the twenties; many publishers had their seat there. Music and theatres, jazz clubs and bars guaranteed the entertainment of the white middle classes. But there was a high unemployment rate – especially concerning the immigrants from Eastern Europe, Jews and Latinos.

Steinbeck’s hopes to succeed in New York did not come true. He was sacked as a reporter and returned to manual work: For example he helped to build Madison Square Garden.

Disappointed he went back to California in 1925. Disappointed by his bad experiences with the metropolis he found an occupation as a caretaker at Lake Tahoe, which is situated in the North of San Francisco. There he spent two lonely years on working in the house and garden of a rich lady’s house - and on writing, of course. Again he cultivated his masculine poses, and was fond of his role as a lonely boy drinking sometimes to excess. For company he had dogs and liked to shoot in his spare time.


[1] Annette Pehnt, John Steinbeck, München, dtv, 1998

[2] Reloy Garcia, A new study guide to Steinbeck’s major works, New York & London,The scarecrow Press, 1993

[3] John Steinbeck,The Contemporary Reviews, M.Thomas Inge ( Ed. ), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996

[4] Fred Allen, Much Ado About Me, N.Y., Little, Brown and Company, 1956

[5] Tetsumaro Hayashi, John Steinbeck, the Art and Craft of Writing, in A new Study Guide to Steinbeck Major Works, with critical Explanations, London, The Scarecrow Press, 1993…p.274

[6] A Letter by John Steinbeck to Dennis Murphy, ed. Robert de Mott, San Jose State University, 1985

[7] A Life in Letters, eds. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, N.Y.,Viking Press, 1975, p. 575

[8] Ibid., p. 528

[9] Horace, Ars Poetica, London, Ernest Benn, 1967

[10] Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel, N.Y., Viking Press, 1969, p. 115

[11] Viking’s The Portable Steinbeck, N.Y., Viking Press, 1971

[12] Michael Goodman (Ed.), John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, N.Y., Barron’s Educational Series,Inc., 1984


[14] The Boston Globe, 13.8.1981

[15] San Jose State University, Center for Steinbeck Studies

[16] John Steinbeck, p.12

[17] Cf. John Steinbeck, The Pearl, Notes by Margaret Young, Beirut, Librairie du Liban, 1995

[18] Cf. Barron’s Book Notes by Michael Goodman, New York, 1984

[19] Gannett’s Notes on Steinbeck, wsimkins/gannett.html,.2000-02-01

[20] Foreword by Elaine Steinbeck, The Short Novels, London, Minerva, 1995

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John Steinbeck - In Dubious Reputation
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John Steinbeck, Unterrichtsbeispiele, lesson examples
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