In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Steinbeck

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Scholarly Journals
  • Archival Sources
  • Biographies
  • Personal Reminiscences

American Literature John Steinbeck
Barbara Heavilin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0225


John Steinbeck’s life was framed by global conflict. Born on 27 February 1902, in Salinas, California, he was twelve years old when World War I began and sixteen when Germany and the Allies signed an armistice bringing to cessation the “War to End All Wars.” Unfortunately, World War II began in 1939. Echoes of the rise of Adolf Hitler and threats of war occur throughout his early works, as in the journals accompanying The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in which he writes of the angst of his times, fearing the inevitably approaching conflict. When World War II came, he became involved in the wartime efforts, working as a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and experiencing the London Blitz, with sixty-six of his eighty-five dispatches gathered in Once There Was a War (1958). Recognizing Steinbeck’s expertise as a writer and desiring to enlist public support, the government commissioned him to write Bombs Away (1942), an account of a bomber team and its specially equipped plane. Hence, he observed American airmen as they trained and went into battle, flying on forays with them. Similarly, during the Vietnam War Newsday hired him as a war correspondent, and again he went to the front and into battle with the enlisted men, with his accounts collected in Letters to Alicia (1965). On the home front, the San Francisco News commissioned him to report on Dust Bowl migrants working as harvesters in California. Incensed by what he witnessed—the specter of starvation, babies and children dying, and malnutrition taking a toll on the very humanity of the migrants—he wrote The Harvest Gypsies (1936), background for The Grapes of Wrath. An early ecologist, Steinbeck loved the land, depicting the earth as a living, sensate character in The Grapes of Wrath—an elegiac mourning over its the desecration. Later, his nonfiction America and Americans (1966) decried pollution and the felling of redwood trees. Looking into the future with some hope but much trepidation, this work also addressed ethnic and racial prejudices, questionable politics, ageism and sexism, loss of ethical moorings. Believing his country to be infested with a deadly immorality, he warned Americans to root out this cancerous growth in order to survive. His last work of fiction, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), carried these same concerns, with protagonist Ethan Allen Hawley portrayed as an Every American, who must rise above his failings. John Steinbeck died 20 December 1968, of congestive heart failure.

General Overviews

Čerče 2011 addresses the gap between readers and scholars in evaluating Steinbeck’s work. Fontenrose 1963 is noteworthy for its concise, insightful summation of the writer’s literary merit. A pioneer in Steinbeck studies, French 1961 is one of Twayne’s United States Authors Series, with a chronological survey covering all of Steinbeck’s fiction except his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. Lisca 1958 is an essential beginning point for an overview of Steinbeck’s philosophy (especially “Is-thinking” and the “group man” theory), his critical reception, and his craftsmanship. Moore 1968 (originally published in 1939) is still of value for its assessment of Steinbeck’s aesthetics. Owens 1985 considers Steinbeck’s major fiction with emphasis on works set in California, where Americans seek the American Dream and where it often dies. Originally published in 2006, with a second edition reprinted in 2011, the third edition of Shillinglaw 2019, with photographer Nancy Burnett, provides a pictorial account of Steinbeck’s relationship to his California environment. Stubbs 2013 (cited under Politics: Book-Length Studies) looks at the cultural influence of Ireland on Steinbeck and his heritage of Romanticism. Timmerman 2014 traces Steinbeck’s ethical vision from 1930 to 1965, finding an increasingly inward turn as he sought to discover why Americans were losing their ethical moorings. By considering authorial intentions, British critic F. W. Watt (Watt 1962) brings fresh perspective to Steinbeck studies. Zirakzadeh and Stow 2013 (cited under Politics: Book-Length Studies) explores the writer’s political activism, finding him to be “a dangerous writer,” who is still pertinent, speaking to issues of current times (p. 8).

  • Čerče, Danica. Reading John Steinbeck in Eastern Europe. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2011.

    Section 1 covers Steinbeck’s reception in eastern Europe, particularly Slovenia, Čerče’s native country, and discusses the challenge of translating Steinbeck into Slovenian. Section 2 is an ideological assessment of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden, showing their value in face of an oppressive social and political climate. Section 3 compares works by Steinbeck and Thomas Hardy. Records past stereotypical views and introduces a time of reassessment and appreciation.

  • Fontenrose, Joséph Eddy. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963.

    Includes a chronology, biographical introduction, and discussions of the novels, ending with “East of Eden and After.” There follows a conclusion noteworthy for its concise summation of Steinbeck’s literary achievement. Finds that “biology and myth provide the two poles of Steinbeck’s world, tide pool and paradise,” with the biological emphasis receiving little attention in East of Eden and works thereafter and with myth and legend providing a palimpsest for most of his stories (p. 139).

  • French, Warren. John Steinbeck. New York: Twayne, 1961.

    Pioneer work in Steinbeck studies. Condescending in his view of Steinbeck as “a country boy at heart” (as book jacket states), who did not know the city well enough to write about it in his later works. Nonetheless praises early works, while rejecting those of the 1940s. Chapter-by-chapter analysis of Cannery Row. Covers all works except The Winter of Our Discontent.

  • Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1958.

    Discussions of “group man” and “is-thinking” offset critical claims that Steinbeck is a sentimentalist. The Afterword maintains that critics misjudged Steinbeck’s three major post-Depression novels by considering them sociologically rather than aesthetically and, in terms of craftsmanship and context, examines each of them chronologically. Ditsky 2000 (under Reference Works) asserts that Lisca’s introduction, “The Failure of Criticism,” ends the critical bashing of John Steinbeck, showing the writer to have more depth and aesthetic prowess than hitherto acknowledged (p. 7). Republished 1981.

  • Moore, Harry Thornton. The Novels of John Steinbeck: A First Study. 2d ed. Chicago: Normandie House, 1968.

    Originally published in 1939. New edition adds “Epilogue.” Some gaffes—assuming Steinbeck made the westward trek with Okies. Finds Steinbeck’s sense of place more significant than anyone since D. H. Lawrence. Maintains that The Grapes of Wrath points toward new writings by this writer who is “the poet of our dispossessed” (p. 72). Epilogue reverses course and is largely a diatribe warning Steinbeck admirers of the danger of losing their “critical values.” Berates the author for “sentimentalism” (pp. 97, 106).

  • Owens, Louis. John Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

    Draws on Steinbeck’s 1929 ledger entry on “new eye” opening in the West, a way of seeing that no one will recognize for two-hundred years (p. 3). Proposes that Steinbeck strove to awaken Americans to failure of American Dream. Offers alternative in commitment to humanity and environment in “one inseparable unit” (p. 3). Works organized under titles “The Mountains,” “The Valleys,” “The Sea,” with concluding chapter on the American conscience in The Winter of Our Discontent.

  • Shillinglaw, Susan. A Journey into Steinbeck’s California. 3d ed. Berkeley, CA: Roaring Forties Press, 2019.

    Originally published in 2006 by Roaring Forties Press, with a reprint in 2011. Art, photography, biography, and travel guide provide an overview of Steinbeck and his home state—a fascinating and informative pictorial account of his relationship with the environment that influenced so much of his writing. With photographs by Nancy Burnett.

  • Timmerman, John. Searching for Eden: John Steinbeck’s Ethical Career. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2014.

    Tracing Steinbeck’s ethical vision from 1930 to 1965, finds that his perspective “turned increasingly inward” as he searched for the nature and causes of America’s ethical decline (p. 173). As is typical of Steinbeck, he provides no clear solutions for the moral breakdown, but rather suggests panaceas for this nation’s sad malaise—among them, a movement away from avarice and materialism to compassion for the needy.

  • Watt, F. W. John Steinbeck. New York: Grove, 1962.

    British critic brings fresh perspective by viewing Steinbeck’s move away from California in the 1940s as “the era of travel” rather than as a writer’s deserting his roots and the inspiration for his works (p. 9). Reads the author’s works in light of his own intentions. Bears the same title as the French text, which was evidently unavailable to him at the time.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.