Study Guide

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck Introduction

Steinbeck Country. If you have ever driven the central California coast, from the broad yellow valleys of Salinas, through rolling green hills of farmland to the slick, fog-draped streets of Monterey, then you have been there. That part of California is so closely associated with John Steinbeck's novels and stories that even today Monterey County and its towns proudly advertise their connections to the famous writer, who was born and buried in the farm town of Salinas.

Of course, Steinbeck's perspective was far wider—and his legacy is far greater—than simple depictions of the Monterey County landscape. Steinbeck's real gift was to see people that the rest of society chose to overlook: defeated refugees of the Dust Bowl, unemployed paisanos, cannery workers eking out a living on a factory wage. During his 40-year career, Steinbeck crafted roughly two dozen novels, short story collections and works of nonfiction, and also wrote for Hollywood and the stage. His 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, a stark depiction of migrant farmers in the Dust Bowl, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and is acknowledged as one of the classics of American literature.

In his fiction, plays and travelogues, Steinbeck challenged his readers to look at the harsh realities of life, with the belief that facing such conditions was the first step toward improving them. Steinbeck's strongest belief was in the ability of man to improve his condition. "The ancient commission of the writer has not changed," he said upon accepting his Nobel Prize in 1962. "He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement." By giving voice to voiceless people, John Steinbeck lived up to the challenge he set for himself.

John Steinbeck Trivia

Steinbeck came under Federal Bureau of Investigation surveillance in the 1940s after others complained about his working-class sympathies and journalistic visits to Soviet Russia. In a 3 December 1942 letter to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, an unidentified informant wrote, "For some time past I have resented books by Steinbeck, for they portray such unrepresentative pictures of our American life in rural districts. I live near the Everglades farms district and most of the migrants out there live better than I do, while they are here for the picking season."

Steinbeck's dog ate his first draft of Of Mice and Men.

Steinbeck's realistic portrayals of working-class life have often been deemed too realistic by parents and librarians. The Grapes of Wrath was banned and burned in several districts when it first appeared, with censors citing coarse language, references to sex, and anti-establishment tones as the reason for its suppression. His books still draw controversy— Of Mice and Men has been one of the American Library Association's Top Ten Most Challenged Books since 1990, for a variety of reasons that include language, violence, and its depiction of the mentally handicapped.

Steinbeck was fond of late-night meals of chili, tuna fish on crackers, and red wine from a jug.

Steinbeck had a camper van specially outfitted for his 1960 journey through America with his poodle Charley. He named the camper Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse.

Steinbeck liked to write with pencils, using as many as 60 each day.

According to Steinbeck's own records, East of Eden took one year of uninterrupted writing, 25 dozen pencils and about 36 reams of paper to complete. By the time he was done he had a callus on the middle finger of his right hand from writing.

In 1996, the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State and Steinbeck's widow Elaine created the Steinbeck Award. The prize is given to artists whose work reflects John Steinbeck's liberal democratic ideals and respect for the common man. Recipients have included Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Arthur Miller and Sean Penn.

John Steinbeck Resources

Books

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
History has judged this the crowning achievement of Steinbeck's career. Based on his experiences reporting about migrant workers in California, the book champions the dignity of the common man against the horrors of Depression-era living. It won the Pulitzer Prize and nearly every other literary award, and made Tom Joad an enduring symbol of the working man.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)
Steinbeck believed that this novel, an allegorical tale of good and evil, was his best work. He spent eleven years thinking about the book and then poured himself into the writing, declaring afterward that "It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years. … I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this." Are you still not convinced? Oprah chose it for her Book Club. So there.

John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (1945)
This is one of the best examples of Steinbeck Country. Set amidst the fish canneries of foggy Monterey California, the novel follows a group of men through the comic and tragic turns of their lives. It's so real you can practically smell the fish guts. This may or may not be a selling point.

John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley (1962)
Steinbeck's wife tried to talk him out of making the cross-country road trip on which this book is based, citing his poor health. He wouldn't budge, and readers are lucky he didn't. There is something very charming about this book, a travelogue of Steinbeck's 10,000-mile journey in a camper van named Rocinante, with his pet poodle Charley by his side.

Jackson J. Benson, John Steinbeck, Writer (1990)
Benson spent about thirteen years assembling this a doozy of a volume, which weighs in at more than 1,000 pages. Buried inside is about everything you could hope to know about John Steinbeck, and probably much more. Benson is one of the foremost Steinbeck scholars and does a fine job of assembling the story of the writer's life.

Rick Wartzman, Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of The Grapes of Wrath (2008)
This book helps to explain the controversy that has dogged The Grapes of Wrath since publication. While critics have rightly pointed out that Wartzman's writing is occasionally overblown, the book illuminates the interesting dynamics of censorship and free speech.

Music

Bluegrass
If any of the Dust Bowl victims brought guitars with them to ease the difficult journey, it was likely bluegrass music that they sang around the fire. For a good introduction to the genre, check out the Smithsonian's compilations of classic American recordings.

Norteño Music
Steinbeck was heavily influenced by the Mexican migrants he encountered in his work and travels. Norteño music provided the soundtrack for many Mexican-Americans along the border during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

Woody Guthrie
Guthrie was raised in Depression-era Oklahoma and was forced to hitchhike his way to California when he was wiped out by the Dust Bowl, just like Steinbeck's Joads. The struggles of Steinbeck's characters had special significance for him. His "Dust Bowl Ballads" album, released in 1964, is a tribute to the era and to Steinbeck's fiction—the album features a two-part ballad entitled "Tom Joad."

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
One of the most famous songs of the Depression, this song was covered by countless musicians and was banned from some radio stations at the time for being too depressing. This version is by Tom Waits. If you're not used to Waits' voice, don't worry—he's not shouting at you.

The Boss!
If Steinbeck recorded the forgotten man's stories on the page, Bruce Springsteen recorded them in song. Springsteen actually received the Steinbeck Award from San Jose State University's Center for Steinbeck Studies in 1996. The award is given to an artist whose work reflects Steinbeck's empathy and belief in the dignity of the common man. Listen to "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and remember why the Boss rules.

O Brother Where Art Thou?
The soundtrack to this 2000 Coen Brothers movie is evocative of Steinbeck's era—traditional bluegrass and folk music from the era of the Great Depression. It's a great compilation and pulls you into the period's sorrows and simple joys.

Images

John Steinbeck
A portrait of the writer.

John Steinbeck
An up-close, intimate portrait.

Dust Bowl Family
Dorothea Lange's iconic Dust Bowl photograph

Dust Storm
Photograph of Dust Bowl storm

Migrant Workers
Photograph of agricultural workers in Depression-era Salinas, California.

Steinbeck Family Portrait
Steinbeck with his two sons and second wife Gwyndolyn.

Steinbeck and Charley
A photograph of the writer and the pet poodle that accompanied him on his cross-country road trip.

Steinbeck Birthplace
Steinbeck's childhood home is now a museum.

Nobel Prize
A photograph of Steinbeck accepting the Nobel Prize.

The Grapes of Wrath
Dust jacket of the first edition.

East of Eden
Dust jacket of the first edition.

Of Mice and Men
Dust jacket of the first edition.

Movies & TV

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The tagline screamed, "The thousands who have read the book will know why WE WILL NOT SELL ANY CHILDREN TICKETS to see this picture!" We are not quite sure why children should not learn about history, but then again we don't write movie posters. John Ford directed this film, one of the best interpretations of a Steinbeck novel ever to hit the big screen. Henry Fonda was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as Tom Joad.

The Forgotten Village (1941)
John Steinbeck wrote the screenplay for this documentary about life in a Mexican village. Burgess Meredith narrated the film. You can download it here.

Lifeboat (1944)
John Steinbeck was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story for this film about survivors of a torpedo attack stuck on the same lifeboat as the guys who torpedoed them. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Tallulah Bankhead, whose name we love to say, this is a great Hitchcock film that deserves a spot on your Netflix queue. Tallulah.

The Red Pony (1949)
It will take you about as much time to read Steinbeck's short novella about the bond between a boy and his pony as it will to watch this movie. It's probably better to read the book.

Viva Zapata! (1952)
John Steinbeck co-wrote the screenplay for this biopic of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata. It was directed by Elia Kazan and stars Marlon Brando in the title role. Steinbeck's screenplay was also nominated for an Academy Award. Worth a watch, especially if you have ever wondered what Marlon Brando would look like in a giant sombrero.

East of Eden (1955)
Another Elia Kazan take on a Steinbeck piece. James Dean stars as Cal Trask in this bleak portrayal of life in the Salinas Valley. Some critics have called it the doomed young star's best performance. In one scene, he pounds a desk so hard that he had to be taken to the hospital when filming stopped.

Of Mice and Men (1992)
Gary Sinise produced, directed and starred as George in this interpretation of Steinbeck's novella. John Malkovich, who creeps us out fabulously in everything he does, plays poor Lenny. Most of the best adaptations of Steinbeck's work were made during the black-and-white era. If you can't deal with a film unless it's in color, try this one.

Websites

Center for Steinbeck Studies
The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University has gathered just about everything there is to know about Steinbeck and his work. This is an excellent place to start your research.

National Steinbeck Center
Headquartered in the writer's hometown of Salinas, California, the National Steinbeck Center offers a wealth of authoritative information about the man and his work. It also has information about events and festivals related to all things Steinbeck.

Nobel Prize
The Nobel Prize web archive has Steinbeck's acceptance speech, presentation speech, a bibliography and other useful resources about his career.

Monterey County
The county where Steinbeck grew up and set many of his books has compiled useful resources on their native son, especially for visitors interested in Steinbeck country. The site has a timeline of Steinbeck's life, historical information and maps that let you trace the various places the author lived in or wrote about.

Surviving the Dust Bowl—PBS
Created for a PBS documentary on the Dust Bowl, this site has timelines and special features that help you place the historical events that frame Steinbeck's work.

Weedpatch Camp
Steinbeck visited the Arvin Federal Government Camp while researching The Grapes of Wrath. The camp, which appears in the book as Weedpatch Camp, is still used as a migrant camp today. Many of the structures Steinbeck saw still exist. This site has fascinating history, photos and interviews of the camp and people who lived there.

Why Books Get Banned - BBC
Despite his contribution to American literature, John Steinbeck is one of the most frequently challenged authors. This BBC site helps explain why some books are targeted for censorship, and gives examples of notable book bans.

Video & Audio

Steinbeck on his 'certain angers'
Steinbeck talking about The Grapes of Wrath.

Scenes from the Great Depression
Dorothea Lange's iconic photos of the Great Depression set to period music. Watch this before you open The Grapes of Wrath to set the mood.

The Great Dust Storms
A mini-documentary about the ecological disaster.

Dust Bowl—The Great Depression
A mini-documentary about the Dust Bowl featuring Dorothea Lange's photographs and Woody Guthrie's music.

Grapes of Wrath trailer
The original trailer for the 1940 adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Try and count how many times they use the phrase "The Grapes of Wrath" in the first 45 seconds.

Tom Joad
A clip of Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath.

The Night John Steinbeck Died
A touching musical tribute to the author.

John Steinbeck & the Grapes of Wrath
Mini-documentary about Steinbeck's research for The Grapes of Wrath.

Banquet Speech
Recording of Steinbeck's Nobel Prize acceptance speech

Nobel Prize
Soundless one-minute film of Steinbeck receiving the Nobel Prize

Primary Sources

The Harvest Gypsies
Excerpts from a 7-part article Steinbeck wrote for the San Francisco News in 1936.

Nobel Prize acceptance speech
Steinbeck's speech after receiving the 1962 prize for literature.

Nobel Prize presentation speech
Remarks of Nobel Prize presenter Anders Osterling.

FBI file
FBI documents regarding surveillance of John Steinbeck

Pigasus
A note from Steinbeck's wife explaining Pigasus, his personal symbol.

John Steinbeck Map of America
A Steinbeck-inspired mural by Molly Maguire