John Steinbeck

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Date: 1981
Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 3,947 words

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About this Person
Born: February 27, 1902 in Salinas, California, United States
Died: December 20, 1968 in New York, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Steinbeck, John Ernst, Jr.; Glasscock, Amnesia



  • Of Mice and Men, 23 November 1937, Music Box Theatre, New York, 207 [performances]; musical version, 4 December 1958, Provincetown Playhouse, New York, 37.
  • The Moon Is Down, 7 April 1942, Martin Beck Theatre, New York, 71.
  • Burning Bright, 18 October 1950, Broadhurst Theatre, New York, 13.

Selected Books

  • Cup of Gold (New York: McBride, 1929; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1937).
  • The Pastures of Heaven (New York: Brewer, Warren & Putnam, 1932; London: Allan, 1933).
  • To a God Unknown (New York: Ballou, 1933; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1935).
  • Tortilla Flats (New York: Covici Friede, 1935; London: Heinemann, 1935).
  • In Dubious Battle (New York: Covici Friede, 1936; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1936).
  • Of Mice and Men [novel] (New York: Covici Friede, 1937; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1937).
  • Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts (New York: Covici Friede, 1937).
  • The Red Pony (New York: Covici Friede, 1937).
  • The Long Valley (New York: Viking, 1938; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1939).
  • The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking, 1939; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1939).
  • The Forgotten Village (New York: Viking, 1941).
  • Sea of Cortez (New York: Viking, 1941); republished as The Log from the Sea of Cortez (London, Melbourne & Toronto: Heinemann, 1958).
  • The Moon Is Down [novel] (New York: Viking, 1942; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1942).
  • The Moon Is Down: Play in Two Parts (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1942; London: English Theatre Guild, 1943).
  • Bombs Away (New York: Viking, 1942).
  • Cannery Row (New York: Viking, 1945; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1945).
  • The Wayward Bus (New York: Viking, 1947; London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1947).
  • The Pearl, (New York: Viking, 1947; Melbourne, London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1948).
  • A Russian Journal (New York: Viking, 1948; London, Melbourne & Toronto: Heinemann, 1949).
  • Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form [novel] (New York: Viking, 1950; Melbourne, London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1951).
  • Burning Bright: Play in Three Acts (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1951).
  • East of Eden (New York: Viking, 1952; Melbourne, London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1952).
  • Sweet Thursday (New York: Viking, 1954; Melbourne, London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1954).
  • The Short Reign of Pippin IV (New York: Viking, 1957; Melbourne, London & Toronto: Heinemann, 1957).
  • Once There Was A War (New York: Viking, 1958; London, Melbourne & Toronto: Heinemann, 1959).
  • The Winter of Our Discontent (New York: Viking, 1961; London, Melbourne & Toronto: Heinemann, 1961).
  • Travels With Charley (New York: Viking, 1962; London, Melbourne & Toronto: Heinemann, 1962).
  • America and Americans (New York: Viking, 1966; London: Heinemann, 1966).
  • Journal of a Novel (New York: Viking, 1969; London: Heinemann, 1970).
  • The Portable Steinbeck, enlarged edition, ed. Pascal Covici, Jr. (New York: Viking, 1971)--includes "Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech".
  • The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976).


  • The Forgotten Village, Arthur Mayer-Joseph Burstyn, 1941.
  • The Pearl, by Steinbeck, Emilio Fernandez, and Jack Wagner, RKO, 1948.
  • The Red Pony, Republic, 1949.
  • Viva Zapata!, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1952.

Periodical Publications

  • "... the novel might benefit by the discipline, the terseness ...," Stage, 15 (January 1938): 50-51.
  • "Critics, Critics Burning Bright," Saturday Review of Literature, 33 (11 November 1950): 20-21.


  • Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, ed. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (New York: Viking, 1975).


John Ernst Steinbeck was in the course of his mixed career a common laborer, world traveler, novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and playwright. Although he will be most importantly remembered for his eighteen volumes of fiction and eight works of nonfiction, his three plays are an interesting sidelight in his long career. Of Irish and German ancestry, he was born in Salinas Valley, California, an area that served as the setting for many of his best novels and one of his plays, Of Mice and Men (1937).

Steinbeck was both a good student and athlete in high school, but his attendance at Stanford University was sporadic (1919-1920, 1922-1923, 1924-1925). In college he became interested in biological and ecological studies, but he never completed a degree. His first marriage in 1930 to Carol Henning ended in divorce in 1942; his second marriage in 1943 to Gwyndolyn Conger ended in divorce in 1948. He married his third wife, Elaine Scott, in late 1950 and they lived together until his death. Although his most notable award was the Nobel Prize for Literature in December 1962, his work was recognized in many other ways. Several of his novels reached a large popular audience when they were chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club; his critical success peaked when The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. His first two plays, Of Mice and Men and The Moon is Down (1942), were included in the Burns Mantle Best Plays Yearbook. The first play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the 1937-1938 season and the second play won the King Haakon Liberty Cross, a Norwegian award, in 1946. Both plays appeared in film versions. During the 1940s Steinbeck also wrote several original screenplays. He died of a heart attack in New York City at the age of sixty-six; his ashes were buried in Salinas, California.

Some of Steinbeck's major themes and techniques are reflected in the three stories he dramatized for the stage. In discussing his attitude toward form, he remarked in Saturday Review , "If a writer likes to write, he will find satisfaction in endless experiment with his medium. He will improvise techniques, arrangements of scenes, rhythms of words, and rhythms of thought." This statement hints at his motivation for attempting the medium of theatre and also records some of the dramatic devices he employed, especially repetitions or "rhythms" of scenes and symbols. As far as the content of his works--including his three plays--is concerned, Steinbeck comprehensively summarized his major themes in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement. Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit--for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love." Steinbeck's brief career as a dramatist, then, is of significance because his plays reveal his passion for experimenting with new forms and they dramatize some of the basic themes found in his best fiction.

By his own admission, Steinbeck had in mind, while he was writing the novel version of Of Mice and Men , the clear possibility of its performance on the stage. In an article which appeared in Stage (January 1938), he wrote: "Simply stated, Of Mice and Men was an attempt to write a novel that could be played from the lines, or a play that could be read." Years later, he called this type of writing the "play-novelette" form. Several play agents were interested in the idea, but it was under the supervision of George S. Kaufman , the play's ultimate producer, that Steinbeck prepared his story for dramatic presentation. The opening and closing scenes of the play are set on a sandy bank of the Salinas River; the other four scenes take place in the several buildings on a ranch nearby. The two main characters are the itinerant ranch hands, George Milton and Lennie Small. George is described by the playwright as being "a small, sharp-faced ranch hand"; Lennie is his "huge, but not bright, companion." The two men have a close, but not always harmonious relationship, with George assuming responsibility for his simple-minded friend. There are five other ranch hands--Slim, Candy, Carlson, Whit, and Crooks--who appear on stage along with the boss of the ranch, his son Curley, and Curley's Wife, the only woman in the play and one who remains nameless throughout.

In the play Steinbeck develops two of his main themes--the exposition of our faults and failures as well as our dreams and schemes for improvement. These themes are suggested in the play's title which recalls Robert Burns ' lines in the poem "To a Mouse" (1785) that "The best-laid schemes o'mice an' men/Gang aft a-gley." The play is a series of conflicts and confrontations as George and Lennie encounter troubles in their dealings with society. At a more fundamental level, the work is a study of the chilling loneliness that keeps men apart--an isolation that cannot even be remedied by such utopian dreams of a new community such as the repeatedly envisioned "little place" where George can "live off the fat of the land" and Lennie can tend his soft and lovable rabbits. In the opening scene George describes the harshness of the pair's present situation: "Guys like us that work on ranches is the loneliest guys in the world. They ain't got no family. They don't belong no place." In the scenes that follow, violence breeds violence in rhythmic patterns. Lennie loves to stroke soft animals, but his grip is suffocatingly possessive and means certain death for both mice and puppies. In the human sphere, Lennie unintentionally strikes out in childlike defense and confusion when he crushes every bone in Curley's hand in a bunkhouse fight; later he accidentally breaks the neck of Curley's Wife during the barn scene, which is the climax of the play. The emotional pitch is high in the play's final scene as the solitary George mercifully ends with a pistol shot the life of his partner Lennie and pathetically spoils forever the dream the pair had of owning their own small plot of land, complete with chickens, rabbits, and a vegetable garden. Any audience would be moved to share in the feelings of sorrow, guilt, and love that are reflected on George's face as he contemplates the catastrophe and hears the voices of the approaching lynch mob, a group whose intentions have also been foiled.

There are positive and negative features to the way Steinbeck handles his themes in the play. Certainly he conveys a remarkably sincere and compelling compassion for the oppressed laborers and the half-witted, man-child Lennie. Also, the scene set in the separate room over a manure pile that is inhabited by Crooks, the negro stable hand, is one of the most powerful in the play and stands in the vanguard of American theatre for its naked and unsentimental revelation of what it is like to be a proud, intelligent, and sensitive black, but to be discriminated against and barred from as simple an entertainment as a bunkhouse card game. One of Crooks's intense statements conveys his hostile sadness: "A guy gets too lonely, he gets sick." The playwright is, however, less successful in delineating several other characters and themes. While it is possible to accept the interpretation that Curley's Wife has no name because she has no real identity but instead mimics the movie-star image and the dream of being in Hollywood's "pichers," there is ample evidence that the delineation of the play's only female character is unclear and confusing. Claire Luce, who played the part in the original production, felt compelled to write Steinbeck for fuller directions concerning the nature of the character. Furthermore, why does Curley's Wife serve as not only the catalyst but the cause of the undoing of George and Lennie? She is a mysterious bringer of trouble and if the dramatist means to suggest that sex and female flirtatious behavior often lead men to murder and destruction, his presentation is unconvincing. Likewise, his social protest does not ring clear. Although Crooks delivers a bitterly pessimistic speech predicting the average man's inability to ever attain individual economic security, the deeper problems inherent in the labor-management system that exploits migrant workers are never adequately explored.

The critical reception of the play Of Mice and Men in 1937 was almost uniformly favorable. The greatest tribute to the work appeared on the citation that accompanied the Drama Critics Circle Award: "For its direct force and perception in handling a theme genuinely rooted in American life; for its bite into the strict quality of its material; for its refusal to make the study of tragical loneliness and frustration either cheap or sensational, and finally for its simple, intense and steadily rising effect on the stage." Other critics agreed with these sentiments. Brooks Atkinson called it "a masterpiece" that was "infinitely moving" and "somberly beautiful"; Stark Young called it "an absorbing work of theatre art"; Edith J.R. Isaacs claimed that the play deserved "extravagant praise"; and John Mason Brown called it "one of the finest, most pungent, and most poignant realistic productions." Only a handful of critics dissented. Several complained that the play relied for its emotional effects on melodramatic and sentimental elements. The strongest objections were raised against the play's dialogue, which several reviewers labeled as "starkly naked," "sacrilegious," "appalling," "offensive to good taste," "raw," "lusty," and "hair-raising." Before the play went on a road tour after its run in New York, some of the dialogue was prudishly modified by the producer, George S. Kaufman .

Although Steinbeck finished his dramatization of the novel The Moon Is Down on the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, it was 7 April 1942 before producer Oscar Serlin brought the play to the New York stage. The title is taken from Shakespeare's Macbeth (act 2, scene 1: "The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.") and implies a time of temporary but intense darkness. The drama, which has eight scenes and is divided into two parts, presents the thoughts and actions of both the invaders and the conquered people in a neutral country that is presumed to be Norway during World War II. In order to suggest the universality of the issues, the two nationalities involved are not explicitly stated. Yet by concentrating intently on one particular small mining town, the playwright presents a dramatic microcosm of the larger wartime struggle. Throughout the first half of the play the action per se is restrained and slow-paced as the dramatist concentrates instead on developing the opposing perspectives of the two contending forces. Various political concepts and positions are explored as the leaders negotiate, compromise, and sometimes collaborate. Outright resistance is exhibited at first by only two lowly and hot-tempered characters: the irate cook Annie throws boiling water on the soldiers who attempt to invade her kitchen and Alex Morden, a rebellious miner who refuses to work, strikes one of the invading officers fatally with a pickax. Otherwise, the plot moves forward through a series of long reflections that are a mixture of politics and philosophy, such as the interchange between the leaders of the opposing sides, Colonel Lanser and Mayor Orden:

MAYOR: Then we needn't talk any more.
LANSER: Yes, we must talk. We want you to help .... I suppose I knew it. Maybe Corell will have to be Mayor after all. You'll stay for the trial?
MAYOR: Yes, I'll stay. Then he won't be alone.
LANSER: We've taken on a job, haven't we?
MAYOR: Yes. The one impossible job in the world. The one thing that can't be done.
MAYOR: To break man's spirit ... permanently.

Talk diminishes and violent action increases in the second half of the play as "the people" begin to fight for their freedom. In what is perhaps the most moving scene of the play, a young Lieutenant Tonder, who is lonely and tired of war, attempts to woo Molly Morden, the widow of the executed miner who rebelled against working in the mines. The scene conveys some vestiges of tenderness and humanity, but not for long as Molly, who symbolizes the resolve of the conquered to be free, transforms her sewing scissors into the steel dagger that ends the life of the lieutenant, a romantic who often "dreams of the perfect ideal love of elevated young men for poor girls." The time of collaboration ends as violent rebellion spreads. Using dynamite sticks dropped by British bombers, "the people" sabotage railroad lines, bridges, dynamos, transformers, and the mines. Although the town's mayor and doctor are executed in retaliation for the explosions set by the essentially unconquerable "free men," even the occupation commander, Colonel Lanser, admits that defeat is near for the invaders who are doomed to lose because they are "herd men, followers of a leader." The full implications of the play's central metaphor--"The flies have conquered the fly-paper"--are realized.

As a play dealing with a contemporary wartime situation, The Moon Is Down raises interesting questions concerning the function of theatre performed during wartime. Steinbeck eschewed dogmatic or simplistic thematic statements that would reduce his play to wartime propaganda. The invaders are presumed to be Nazis but they are never explicitly identified as such. There are degrees of civilized behavior and humane ideas on both sides throughout the play. If there is a compelling point that is impressed upon the audience in the drama it is that war reduces all men to a lowest common denominator; it is conducted at the expense of civilization itself. This point is effectively made in the stage directions: the settings become increasingly austere as the graceful art works and comfortable furnishings in the drawing room of the palace are replaced by the clutter and chaos of wartime gear, maps, and instruments.

Among both critics and the public, Steinbeck's wartime play sparked much controversy. Public support of the drama seemed to ebb and flow, but when the play closed after a nine-week run, over 56,000 theatregoers had seen it. Concerning the public's reaction Peter Lisca has observed that "the realities of the newsreel as well as the efforts of propaganda had led the public to expect more obvious heroics on the one hand and degenerate bestiality on the other." Critical reception was heated and mixed. The highest praise came from Rosamond Gilder, Brooks Atkinson, and Dorothy Thompson . Gilder wrote: "The power and the poignancy of Steinbeck's play lie in its immediacy, its ability to express world issues with the terrible nearness of little things, its affirmation of the dignity and nobility of man." Brooks Atkinson called it "a calm and reasonable story" and "a remarkably convincing play"; Dorothy Thompson affirmed her basic faith in the German people by insisting that the "enormous power in Mr. Steinbeck's drama is that it is not an attack on Nazis. It is an attack on Naziism." Objections to the play were numerous and often intense. Critics complained that the playwright's overly confident thesis that the democratic forces must inevitably prevail was naive, misleading, and "even dangerous." Others objected to his "high-minded tolerance" in portraying Nazis who were not "sufficiently villainous." It was "unpatriotic" to present charming "gentle Huns" who showed qualities of humanity and civilization. John Mason Brown complained that "These Germans at the Martin Beck are too nice for comfort or belief"; Richard Lockridge argued that "By making his invaders more sinned against than sinning, Mr. Steinbeck has dissipated his drama." Several critics specifically objected to some of the play's dramatic devices. The dialogue was "rhetoric" and it was "wooden," "pedestrian," "stilted," or "stuffily unalive and somewhat pretentious." The Time reviewer's comment about the preponderance of offstage action that left at best a weak, secondary impression was trenchant: "The play lacks sustained action and commits the dramatic crime of having almost everything exciting take place offstage."

In his third and final attempt in what he now labels the "play-novelette" form, Burning Bright (the title is derived from William Blake 's poem "The Tyger" 1794), Steinbeck intensified the tendency evident in The Moon Is Down to present a drama of ideas with a minimum of action on the stage. In fact, the third play leaves the realm of realistic drama in its use of expressionistic techniques. Concerning the heightened symbolism in the play Steinbeck remarked: "The attempt was to lift the story to the parable expression of the morality plays." It is the poetic language and the universal settings that elevate the play to an Everyman status above that of the play's particular action.

The plot outline is quite simple: over a telescoped period of about ten months, a woman bears a child and the four characters in the play adjust their attitudes to the new arrival. Joe Saul, who has been left sterile by a childhood attack of rheumatic fever, is forced--through the insistent pressurings of his Friend Ed--to face this fact and he comes to accept the child that has been conceived as a result of his devoted wife Mordeen's sacrificial relationship with a young, callous, and opportunistic lover named Victor. In the final scene Joe Saul proclaims gratefully that "There is a shining!" Somewhat melodramatically, Victor is pushed into the sea by Friend Ed. It should be stressed that the story's primary focus is not upon the sensationalistic implications of a love triangle but upon the exploration of man's elemental fear of sterility.

What complicates the play's basic actions and ideas are the dramatic devices employed. Although the story and the characters continue through the three acts of the play, the settings and the characters' professions change in each act. Steinbeck said that "to indicate a universality of experience" he placed the characters in a series of "three professions which have long and continuing traditions, namely the Circus, the Farm, and the Sea." Furthermore, he poeticized the play's language: through "rhythm, sound, and image" Steinbeck sought, as he explained, to create "a kind of universal language not geared to the individual actors or their supposed crafts, but rather the best I was able to produce."

It was not the play's theme but its dramatic devices that the critics attacked with fury. A reviewer for Theatre Arts, for example, praised the play for being "an affirmation of faith in the human race, an avowal of belief in the dignity of man stated with unmistakable sincerity," but called the language "highly stylized" and "awkward" and the three background shifts "artificial" and "a theatrical trick." A host of other critics strongly condemned the dialogue and used such adjectives as "pretentiously archaic," "stilted," "improbable," "synthetic," "pseudo-poetic," "unwieldy," and "high-pitched and mawkish." Even though the play had the advantage of being produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, it closed after only thirteen performances. In disappointed retaliation, Steinbeck wrote the essay "Critics, Critics Burning Bright." Warren French claims that during this period, Steinbeck's stature as a public literary figure "was at just about its lowest point."

In the defensive essay that Steinbeck addressed to the critics, he perhaps unwittingly provided the best epitaph to his career as a dramatist when he wrote: "But a book can wait until any frightening innovations have ceased to be objects of fear or derision. If my work had been exclusively for the theatre I believe that it would be unknown--and perhaps rightly so--for the theatre cannot wait." Although Steinbeck lived eighteen years after the failure of Burning Bright, he never again attempted what he once so enthusiastically called "this new form--the play-novelette." Neither the critics nor the public could accept the movement of his drama away from the earthy realism of Of Mice and Men to the expressionism of Burning Bright. Although the compassionate optimism for mankind and his future that informs Steinbeck's best works of fiction is evident in all three of his plays, his dramatic devices, especially the dialogue, ceased to impress theatre audiences. Ultimately, however, his experiments with drama will stand as a courageous and interesting sidelight in his remarkably diversified literary career.




  • Tetsumaro Hayashi, A New Steinbeck Bibliography (1929-1971) (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973).


  • Thomas Kiernan, The Intricate Music: A Biography of John Steinbeck (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979).


  • Warren French, John Steinbeck (Boston: Twayne, 1975).
  • Howard Levant, The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974), pp. 130-163.
  • Peter Lisca, John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth (New York: Crowell, 1978).


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200002071