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John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck with Elia Kazan, who directed film adaptations of the author's novels EAST OF EDEN and VIVA ZAPATA!.


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John Steinbeck, (1902-1968), an American author, won the 1962 Nobel Prize in literature. Steinbeck's best-known fiction sympathetically explores the struggles of poor people. His most famous novel, THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1939), won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize. The novel tells the story of the Joads, a poor Oklahoma farming family, who migrate to California in search of a better life during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Steinbeck effectively demonstrated how the struggles of one family mirrored the hardship of the entire nation. Through the inspiration of the labor organizer Jim Casy, the Joads learn that the poor must work together in order to survive.

Steinbeck set much of his fiction in and around his birthplace of Salinas, California, where he was born on Feb. 27, 1902. His first novel, CUP OF GOLD (1929), is based on the life of Sir Henry Morgan, a famous English pirate of the 1600s. Steinbeck's next work, THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN (1932), is a collection of stories about the people of a farm community near Salinas. In this work, Steinbeck focused on the struggle between human beings and nature. TORTILLA FLAT (1935) deals with migrant workers and poor farmers. IN DUBIOUS BATTLE (1936) realistically portrays labor strife in California during the 1930s. OF MICE AND MEN (1937) is a short novel that Steinbeck adapted into a popular play in 1937. It is a tragic story about a physically powerful farmworker with mental retardation and his best friend and protector.

Steinbeck's most ambitious novel is EAST OF EDEN (1952). It follows three generations of a California family from the 1860s to World War I (1914-1918). The title refers to the family's strife, which parallels the conflict between the Biblical figures of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck's last novel was THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT (1961). It is a modern story of moral failure.

Steinbeck wrote the humorous novels CANNERY ROW (1945), THE WAYWARD BUS (1947), SWEET THURSDAY (1954), and THE SHORT REIGN OF PIPPIN IV (1957). In his nonfiction work TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY (1962), Steinbeck described a cross-country trip with his pet poodle. A selection of Steinbeck's other nonfiction was collected in AMERICA AND AMERICANS, published in 2002, after his death. He also wrote screenplays for several films, notably VIVA ZAPATA! (1952). He died on Dec. 20, 1968.

Barbara M. Perkins, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor, University of Toledo; Associate Editor, NARRATIVE.

From THE WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA © 2007 World Book, Inc. By permission of the publisher. Visit World Book Encyclopedia for more information on John Steinbeck and related subjects.

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The American Novel