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Four Years at the Mount

Historical Figures

Happy Birthday, Mr. Steinbeck

Sarah Muir
MSM Class of 2018

(2/2017) So spoke the classic American writer, John Steinbeck, "Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen."

A brilliant observation, but then again, you can always count on writers to supply the public with numerable similes and metaphors to explain even simple things, like ideas. Ideas make the world go ‘round, but in the case of the writer, ideas make the world; they create the situations and circumstances necessary for the writer to work at their craft. Steinbeck’s novels and stories reflect this and have withstood the test of time, many of them are now considered a part of great American classic literature.

It was on February 27, 1902 when John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California. His father, John Ernst Steinbeck II worked as a treasurer for the county while his mother, Olive Hamilton worked as a school teacher. She shared in and nurtured her son’s love of reading and writing. Little did either of them know that he would grow up to be a famous author and Nobel Prize winner.

The man that would later become a famous classic American author began in a small frontier-like town in Monterey County. Since a great deal of the area at that time had rich and fertile soil, he spent many of his summers working alongside migrant workers on local farms. It was there that he was inspired to write such works as Of Mice and Men, a novel that would highlight the grim reality of migrant labor and the shed light on the dark side of human nature. His characters were mostly the hard-working, everyday man, the kind he saw and worked with frequently.

He graduated in 1919 from Salinas High School and attended Stanford University near Palo Alto, to study as an English Major. He left school in 1925 without a degree and made his way to New York City, pursuing his plan on becoming a published writer. Unfortunately, he left New York a few years later after his works were rejected. He returned home to California where he worked as a tour guide and where he fell in love and married Carol Henning in 1930. Even after their divorce in 1941, she remained an influence on his work, becoming the inspiration for the character Mary Talbot in Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row which would be published in 1945.

While he managed to publish novels such as, Cup of Gold, and other short stories, it was not until 1935 when he received critical acclaim for his novel Tortilla Flat. With the attention of this novel, Steinbeck received his first award and first medal from the Californian Commonwealth Club for best Californian novel. In another two years, he would write his most well-known novel, Of Mice and Men. The play adaptation of it would win him the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In 1937, he wrote the Grapes of Wrath, a novel that would earn him the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1940.

Soon after his first divorce in 1941, he met and married his second wife Gwendolyn Cogner in 1943. While world famous for his novels, Steinbeck also traveled abroad to Europe and Africa as a World War II correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune while at the same time, writing novels, stage-plays, short stories, and producing documentaries. In the early 1940’s, for instance, he produced a documentary about Mexico called The Forgotten Village and spent six weeks in the Gulf of Mexico with Ed Ricketts, a noted Marine biologist and good friend to Steinbeck, on a research expedition, and his work Lifeboat was nominated for an Oscar for best story.

Ed Ricketts was a long-time friend of Steinbeck. They both would take expeditions to the coast and they would even write a small book together that would be published as soon as the United States entered into the second World War. Due to the timing, the work did not sell well, but Ricketts and Steinbeck remained lifelong friends. Tragedy struck when Ricketts died in 1948 after a fatal car accident and Steinbeck fell into a period of depression that was punctuated by his second divorce. However, two years later he met his third and final wife Elaine Anderson Scott, and two years after that he wrote East of Eden.

It was December 20, 1968 when he died at the age of 66, leaving in the wake of his passing, a legacy of 27 books that highlighted man’s struggle with himself and the light and darkness that exists in all of us. His writings also worked as a memory trapped in the pages and ink of his stories that served as a reminder to the California of his youth; the sights, smells, and the feeling that he tied to Salinas Valley.

It was sometime during my Junior year of High School when I first read Steinbeck. It was East of Eden, the same worn paperback version that my mother read when she was in high school; its pages yellow and fragile and the spine was nearly torn in half from years of use. It is still on my bookshelf, right next to a newer version. It has taken its place in my heart as one of my favorite American novels. Even Steinbeck labeled it his best work, a culmination of everything he had learned throughout his years of writing.

After decades of writing, he won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for his imaginative and realistic writing. However, this decision was heavily censured both by American and foreign critics. Even Steinbeck did not believe that he was the best choice to receive the award, but accepted it and took pride in the accomplishment. During his speech he said, "Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed." Those who love literature, whether as a reader or a writer, know this to be true and know that with the passing of time the need for it grows ever stronger.

Read other articles by Sarah Muir