Today in Literary History – December 20, 1902 – John Steinbeck is born

Nobel Prize winning novelist John Steinbeck was born on December 20, 1902. He was born in rural California and spent most of his life there.

During the Depression Steinbeck and his neighbours suffered severe hardship, which became the subject of many of his books, especially The Grapes of Wrath, his masterpiece about Dust Bowl migration.

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In his fiction Steinbeck used his first-hand knowledge of the struggles of migrants and the underclass who were shut out of the American Dream. But, giving voice to the downtrodden caused a backlash from the capitalist landowners he criticized. Despite this his books were critically and commercially successful and many went on to become popular movies.

The Grapes of Wrath won many prizes, including the Pulitzer, and was the best selling book of 1939. John Ford filmed it in 1940, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, and it has become a classic of American film-making.

 

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Apart from being taught in high school and university courses, Steinbeck’s books are still read by a wide audience today, not just The Grapes of Wrath, but also East of Eden (which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 2003), Cannery Row, The Pony, The Pearl, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men and others.

Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. The Nobel Committee cited his “realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” Steinbeck was politically a man of the left all his life. He was a member of several left wing groups and visited Russia many times. His winning the Nobel was roundly denounced by conservative critics.

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Steinbeck died in 1968, at the age of 66, from congestive heart failure brought on by a lifetime of heavy smoking.

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