Sunday, February 27, 2011

Happy birthday, John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck
Today is the birthday of John Steinbeck, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath. He was born in 1902 in Salinas, California.

His first commercial and critical success came in 1935 with the publication of Tortilla Flat, the story of homeless young Mexican-American men enjoying wine and life in Monterey, California, after World War I. The book was the basis of a 1942 movie starring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr and John Garfield.

Steinbeck’s best-known work, The Grapes of Wrath, was published in 1939. It told of the plight of Oklahoma sharecroppers during the Depression who are driven from their land by drought and migrate to California.

It received immediate critical acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1940. It was the basis of a 1940 film starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford.

Steinbeck’s closest friend was Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist. Ricketts and Steinbeck took a trip in 1940 to the Gulf of California to collect invertebrates for scientific study. They wrote a book based on the trip called Sea of Cortez. Rickets served as the model for characters in some of Steinbeck’s books, including Cannery Row, The Grapes of Wrath, and some of his short stories.

In 1948, Ricketts and Steinbeck planned to go to British Columbia for another book they planned to write together. About a week before the trip, Ricketts was injured when a passenger train struck his car. Ricketts was put in a hospital and Steinbeck returned to California to visit him. Ricketts died shortly before Steinbeck arrived.

Steinbeck was depressed for about a year after his friend’s death. Ricketts strongly influenced Steinbeck’s work, especially his ecological themes. One biographer said that Steinbeck’s work declined after Ricketts died. Critics lauded his 1952 novel, East of Eden, which Steinbeck considered his best work. It was made into a movie starring James Dean in 1955.

In 1960, Steinbeck took a road trip across America with his poodle Charley. His book, Travels with Charley: In Search of America tells of that trip. Steinbeck’s son, Thom, said his father took that trip because he knew he was dying and wanted to see the country again before he died.

Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. On the day the prize was announced, a reporter asked if Steinbeck thought he deserved the prize. Replied Steinbeck: “Frankly, no.”

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