Biography of John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902 and attended Stanford University intermittently between
1920 and 1926. Steinbeck did not graduate from Stanford, but instead chose to support himself through manual labor while writing.
His experiences among the working classes in California
lent authenticity to his depiction of the lives of the workers who are the central characters of his most important novels.
Steinbeck spent much of his life in Monterey County, which later was the setting of some of his fiction.
Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold was published in 1929, and was followed three years later by
The Pastures of Heaven and, in 1933, To a God Unknown. However, these first three novels were unsuccessful both critically
and commercially. Steinbeck had his first success with Tortilla Flat in 1935, an affectionately told story of Mexican-Americans
told with gentle humor. Nevertheless, his subsequent novel, In Dubious Battle (1936) was marked by an unrelenting grimness.
This novel is a classic account of a strike by agricultural laborers and a pair of Marxist labor organizers who engineer it,
and is the first Steinbeck novel to encompass the striking social commentary of his most notable work. Steinbeck received
even greater acclaim for the novella Of Mice and Men (1937), a tragic story about the strange, complex bond between two migrant
laborers. His crowning achievement, The Grapes of Wrath, won Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award. It was also
adapted into a classic film directed by John Ford that was name one of the American Film Institute's one hundred greatest
films. The novel describes the migration of a dispossessed family from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California and critiques their subsequent exploitation by a ruthless system of agricultural
After the best-selling success of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck went to Mexico
to collect marine life with the freelance biologist Edward F. Ricketts, and the two men collaborated in writing Sea of Cortez (1941), a study of the fauna of the Gulf of California. During the second world war, Steinbeck wrote some effective pieces of government
propaganda, among them The Moon Is Down (1942), a novel of Norwegians under the Nazis. He also served as a war correspondent.
With the end of World War II and the move from the Great Depression to economic prosperity Steinbeck's work did soften somewhat.
While containing the elements of social criticism that marked his earlier work, the three novels Steinbeck published immediately
following the war ? Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl and The Bus (both 1947) were more sentimental and relaxed in approach. Steinbeck
also contributed to several screenplays. He wrote the original stories for several films, including Lifeboat (1944), directed
by Alfred Hitchcock, and A Medal for Benny, and wrote the screenplay for Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata!, a biographical film about
Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican peasant who rose to the presidency.
Steinbeck's later writings were comparatively slight works of entertainment and journalism, but he did
make conscientious attempts to reassert his stature as a major novelist: Burning Bright (1950), East of Eden (1952), and The
Winter of Our Discontent (1961). None of these works equaled the critical reputation of his earlier novels. Steinbeck's reputation
depends mostly on the naturalistic novels with proletarian themes he wrote during the Depression. It is in these works that
Steinbeck is most effective in his building of rich symbolic structures and his attempts at conveying the archetypal qualities
of his characters. Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, and died in New
York City in 1968.
About The Pearl
John Steinbeck wrote The Pearl during the time in which he was at the height of his fame. He had
completed The Grapes of Wrath, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was renowned and reviled as a subversive,
unpatriotic man who threatened the national interest through the socialist themes of his novels. This view of Steinbeck was
inconsistent with his soft-spoken nature, but by 1944, when Steinbeck began to write The Pearl, Steinbeck had come to reconcile
this aspect of his fame.
Steinbeck wrote The Pearl based on his personal convictions, and based the story on the biblical
parable of a ?pearl of great price.' In this story, a jewel for which the merchant trades everything he owns becomes the metaphor
for Heaven. Everything in the merchant's earthly existence, however, becomes worthless when compared to the joys of living
with God in Heaven. However, Steinbeck uses the parable as a meditation on the American dream of success. Steinbeck, who himself
had risen quickly to prosperity, explores how Kino, the protagonist of The Pearl, deals with his newfound prominence in the
community and riches.
Steinbeck found a second inspiration for The Pearl in the tale of a young Mexican boy told in Steinbeck's
Sea of Cortez.
However, the boy in the original form of the story wished to use the pearl to buy clothing, alcohol and sex. The story contains
several similar plot points, including the rapacious dealers and the attacks on the boy to find the pearl, that would recur
in the story's final form.
The Pearl derives much of its force
from the descriptions of the impoverished lifestyle of the Mexicans of La Paz, the location of the story. The plight of the
impoverished is a consistent theme in Steinbeck's work, including The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Although these
novels dealt with white protagonists, Steinbeck turned to the plight of Mexicans for The Pearl based on the 1942 and 1943
Zoot Suit Race Riots in Los Angeles. By the time
that Steinbeck wrote The Pearl, he had gained an interest in writing screenplays, and thus wrote the novel in a form suitable
for easy adaptation to film. The story has a simple plot structure and an economy of characters, but unlike The Grapes of
Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden, Steinbeck did not adapt The Pearl. Instead, Steinbeck focused on screenplays written
originally for the screen for his subsequent works.