In a way, each of Steinbeck’s novels is similar to a great painting that emotionally overwhelms the viewer. When the viewer moves closer and examines the brush-strokes, the painting is just a lot of colourful smudges. Steinbeck’s words, even his sentences, are often ordinary. He describes scenes and people in very straightforward language. Yet, he combines those same simple words and sentences to breathtaking effect so that the result is every bit as emotionally stirring as a great painting. This rare talent separates Steinbeck from other outstanding writers and places his work amongst the best literature of the 20th century.
Invariably, his intention is to unsettle the reader for some moral purpose. Regardless of the story, most of his work is concerned with the plight of the disadvantaged and man’s freedom to choose between good and evil. In The Grapes of Wrath he draws attention to the dreadful lot of dust bowl tenant farmers forced to migrate in destitute circumstances to California. In East of Eden, he retells the morality story of Cain and Able setting it in California at the turn of the 20th century. The main tenet of this work is that, like Cain, every human being has the freedom to choose between good and evil.
John Steinbeck was born in February 1902 in Salinas, California, the town that was to feature in so many of his future works. His mother’s family, the Hamiltons, were Irish Presbyterian immigrants. Undoubtedly, his mother Olive brought a Christian ethos into the home. It is likely also that as a former teacher, she instilled a love of reading and writing in her son at a young age. He seemed to have been an average pupil in Salinas High School from where he graduated in 1919. During school vacations, he worked in local farms, often side-by-side with migrant workers. In such surroundings, he witnessed first-hand the hardships they endured. The experience brought him fact to face with the arbitrary inequalities of the world and the harsh conditions endured by the poor.
After Salinas High, he went to Stanford University where he attended lectures intermittently, but finally gave up without graduating in 1925. This seems to suggest that he became impatient to get on with life and didn’t feel he needed academic qualifications to achieve his ambitions. When he left Stanford in 1925, he moved to New York to try to make it as a freelance writer. That didn’t work out, so he returned to California.
Back in California, he worked at a variety of jobs. One was as a tourist guide, a position that turned out to be somewhat prodigious as one of the tourists was his wife to be, Carol Henning. They married in 1930.
Just as his mother’s literary and moral influence were pivotal to his development as a writer, his father’s relative wealth was crucial. John Steinbeck Sr. served as Monterey County Treasurer and provided financial assistance to his son in the early part of his writing career. He also allowed his son to live in a cottage he owned in Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula and gave him financial help to purchase manuscript paper and other supplies. With this significant support, the son was able to give up a demanding warehouse job in San Francisco and channel his energies into writing. In 1935, his personal fortunes changed with the publication of his first financially successful novel: Tortilla Flat.
During his career, John Steinbeck produced nearly thirty highly acclaimed and hugely successful novels, travelogues and journals. His work is challenging and inspirational in both the literary and sociological sense, and his ability to express profound ideas in simple language makes it accessible to everyone. He received numerous honours in his lifetime culminating in the Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to him in 1962. He died in December 1968 in New York aged 66.