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The Life and Legacy of John Steinbeck

Few authors have captured the zeitgeist of twentieth-century America as John Steinbeck did. This legendary author built a name for himself with his depictions of rural California, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression. But his wide interests--from marine biology to history--resulted in an incredibly rich literary legacy.

John Steinbeck

Emerging as an Author

The son of the Monterey County treasurer and a former school teacher, John Steinbeck grew up in the rural town of Salinas, California. The town and the surrounding areas would later become the backdrop for many of Steinbeck's novels and short stories. After graduating high school, Steinbeck went on to Stanford University but left after five years without earning a degree.

Steinbeck went to New York City to pursue a career as a writer, but returned to California after taking several odd jobs and not finding anyone to publish his work. His parents provided free housing to Steinbeck and his first wife, Carol Henning. They also loaned him money so that he could focus on his writing. Steinbeck spent the years of the Great Depression there and finally published Tortilla Flat in 1935.

Achieving Critical Acclaim

Soon after, he began his series of “California novels,” which captured life in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. The best known of these are In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. Published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath was a bestseller that year. It also earned the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The American Booksellers Association named it their favorite fiction book of 1939.

The novel wasn't without its detractors, however; Steinbeck was criticized for negative portrayal of some aspects of capitalism, his sympathy for workers, and his New Deal political views. Grapes of Wrath was actually banned in several places across the country and continues to be a rather controversial title. Yet the novel also remains a seminal classic, part of the American literary canon.

In 1943 Steinbeck started service as a World War II correspondent but left the post in 1944 after being wounded. Three years later, the author made the first of several trips to the Soviet Union. He accompanied renowned photographer Robert Capa, and the pair were some of the first Americans to visit the USSR after the Communist Revolution. Steinbeck's book about his experiences there, The Russian Journal, was published in 1948 and earned Steinbeck an election into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Several of Steinbeck's works found their way to the stage and the big screen. He even wrote The Pearl (1947) knowing that it would immediately be adapted for film. Both The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men were in production at the same time, and he alternated days on the sets. These movies and plays were another layer of Steinbeck's legacy--in total he authored 27 books.

Multiple bibliographies catalogue Steinbeck's works. Some cover only specific Steinbeck collections, such as the one at Salinas Public Library. The most thorough is undoubtedly John Steinbeck: A Bibliographical Catalogue of the Adrian H Goldstone Collection, which documents the collection at the University of Texas and includes listings for virtually every collectible Steinbeck edition.

Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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