Born 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.
Steinbeck 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."
Steinbeck’s next 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 fiction.
In East 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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