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John Steinbeck - BIOGRAPHY
on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, John Ernest Steinbeck was the third
of four children. Though poor, Steinbeck had a normal childhood and attended public
school, graduating from Salinas High School in 1919. As a student, he had an inclination
towards reading and writing, which was encouraged by his mother, a schoolteacher
herself. He was a frequent contributor to the school magazine.
studied at Stanford University from 1920 to1925. Although he intended to become
a marine biologist, he never completed a degree. The courses which attracted his
attention most were zoology, English, and classical literature. While at Stanford,
he wrote frequently and was often published in the college newspaper. After leaving
the University, he worked at a variety of jobs. He went to New York, determined
to become a writer. Between 1925 and 1927, he attempted to earn a living as a
reporter and a free-lance writer, but was unsuccessful. Disappointed, he left
New York and returned to the West Coast, where he met his first wife, Carol.
Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), is based on
the life of Sir Henry Morgan, a famous English pirate of the sixteen hundreds.
His next work, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), is a
collection of stories about the people on a farm community near Salinas. In this
work, Steinbeck focuses on the struggle between human beings and nature. These
first two books received scant attention. Finally in 1933, Steinbeck achieved
success with his short story, "The Red Pony."
novel, Tortilla Flat (1935), dealt with the migrant workers and
poor farmers. In Dubious Battle (1936) realistically portrays
the labor strife in California during the nineteen thirties. This novel also sets
forth Steinbeck's concept of "group humanity" through the character
of Doc Burton. This concern reappears in The Grapes of Wrath
(1939) and The Sea of Cortez (1941). Of Mice
and Men (1937) became a best-seller and was adapted for the
stage and a movie.
In 1940 Steinbeck went on an expedition to the Gulf
of California (also called The Sea of Cortez) with his friend Ed Ricketts, a marine
biologist. Steinbeck shared with him a deep interest in biology. The result of
this trip was a joint publication, The Sea of Cortez:
A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research.
The book is in two parts. The first part narrates the voyage and records various
conversations and speculations, and the second part describes the marine organisms
collected by the men.
Other works include Cannery Row (1944),
The Wayward Bus (1947), The Pearl (1947), Burning
Bright (1950), East of Eden (1952), Sweet Thursday
(1954), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961).
East of Eden is Steinbeck's longest and most ambitious work.
It follows three generations of a Californian family from 1860 to the First World
War. The title refers to the family strife, which parallels the conflict between
the Biblical figures of Cain and Abel.
Steinbeck received the Pulitzer
Prize in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He died on December
20, 1968, and is buried in Salinas, California, the place of his birth and setting
for many of his novels.
Steinbeck was the pre-eminent writer of the Great Depression. He often wrote
protest fiction, which reached its height in the 1930s. Like much of the protest
fiction, Steinbeck wrote in the tradition of Naturalism. Naturalism was a literary
movement that was prominent in American fiction in the 1890s and in the 930s.
Naturalism was coined as a term in France and originally meant scientific. When
it was adopted by novelists, it was intended to impart a philosophy of skepticism
and determinism to the world of fiction. In naturalism, a writer would regard
the most important element of the fictional world to be the social, historical
and economic context of the setting. A naturalist writer would provide all the
elements of the characters’ environment and those elements would exert their influence
until the inevitable result would occur. The individual’s ideas and desires would
in no way free her or him from fate. In fact, the individual’s ideas and desires
would be derived entirely from the social world, not from some unique vision held
only by that person. Determinism, then, was the prevailing narrative mode of naturalist
of Eden, naturalism is mixed together with another kind of philosophical
system of thinking--structuralism. At the time Steinbeck wrote the novel, Structuralism
had taken hold in all areas of intellectual life, from anthropology to literary
studies. It involved a philosophical observation of the world as one that was
divided along a series of binary structures. In anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss
identified one of the core elements in all social systems as the difference between
the raw and the cooked. In literary studies, structuralists identified all literature
as arising from a limited set of binary conflicts: humanity versus nature,
humanity versus God, and humanity versus humanity. John Steinbeck
seems to have been greatly influenced by the structuralist thinking of his time.
He writes his novel out of a conception that the complexities of the social world
and the human psyche can be reduced to the simple binary of good versus evil.
Steinbeck’s fiction reflects his philosophical framework. It is lyrical
rather than prosaic, concentrating on the idealized outlines of large human movements
rather than the complexities wrought by mundane living. At his best, he captures
the cadences of his characters’ speech, giving the novel an oral quality. At his
worst, Steinbeck writes a stiff dialogue with his characters giving voice to abstract
principles. In this respect, Steinbeck’s characters tend to be ideologues--advocates
of particular ideologies. That is, they are in the novel to embody a particular
set of ideas. Their complexity, then, is often compromised. Many of them are so
dedicated to representing one ideal that they lose their credibility as complex
characters living in a complex reality.
Steinbeck’s vision as a writer
prevented him from maintaining the simplicities of structuralism and naturalism
from beginning to end. By the end of the novel, Steinbeck has created a complex
character in Cal Trask. He is supposedly born with evil tendencies, but he has
chosen to act for the good. Aaron, the character who represents the pure quality
of goodness, is shown to be self-indulgent in his idealism, and his death at the
end of the novel has little emotional force. The embodiment of pure evil, Cathy/Kate,
is a stagnant figure who is incapable of changing at anytime in the novel. She
is so evil that the reader can always figure out her next move.
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