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John Steinbeck publishes 'Tortilla Flat'

John Steinbeck publishes 'Tortilla Flat'

John Steinbeck’s first successful novel, Tortilla Flat, is published on May 28, 1935.

Steinbeck, a native Californian, had studied writing intermittently at Stanford between 1920 and 1925, but never graduated. He moved to New York and worked as a manual laborer and journalist while writing his first two novels, which were not successful. He married in 1930 and moved back to California with his wife. His father, a government official in Salinas, gave the couple a house to live in while Steinbeck continued writing.

Tortilla Flat describes the antics of several drifters who share a house in California. The novel’s endearing comic tone captured the public’s imagination, and the novel became a financial success.

Steinbeck’s next works, In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men, were both successful, and in 1938 his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath was published. The novel, about the struggles of an Oklahoma family who lose their farm and become fruit pickers in California, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939.

Steinbeck’s work after World War II, including Cannery Row and The Pearl, became more sentimental. He also wrote several successful films, including Forgotten Village (1941) and Viva Zapata! (1952). He became interested in marine biology and published a nonfiction book, The Sea of Cortez, in 1941. His travel memoir, Travels with Charlie, describes his trek across the U.S. in a camper. Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962 and died in New York in 1968.


John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat is not for 'literary slummers'

Tortilla Flat was the book that made John Steinbeck’s name – and his fortune. By the time it was published in May 1935, he’d managed to publish four other books, but they had been poorly received. He was in his 30s, close to the breadline, living in a house his father had given him and largely dependent on his wife’s paychecks.

And then the reviews started rolling in for Tortilla Flat. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “exceptionally fine”. “Not since the days of WW Jacobs making his charming characters out of scoundrels has there been a book quite like this one,” said the New Republic. The Spectator suggested that the book might make “a wet afternoon wetter for its readers”, as they cried both with laughter and sadness. The Saturday Review admired its “facile style and the whimsical humour underlying its sharp and clear-cut presentation of character”.

And so it went on. The book sold in huge quantities, the film rights were bought and Steinbeck was properly launched. Soon he would produce classics including Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.

Surprisingly, he was also soon regretting writing the story of central character Danny and his bibulous housemates. “When this book was written it did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish. They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat,” he wrote in a 1937 edition foreword. “Had I known that these stories and these people would be considered quaint, I think I never should have written them.”

The problem was that the paisano inhabitants were, as Thomas Fensch explains in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, judged “to be bums – colourful perhaps, eccentric yes, but bums nonetheless”.

Steinbeck continued: “I wrote these stories because they were true stories and because I liked them. But literary slummers have taken these people up with the vulgarity of duchesses who are amused by and sorry for a peasantry. These stories are out, and I cannot recall them. But I shall never again subject to the vulgar touch of the decent these good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes, of courtesy beyond politeness. If I have done them any harm by telling a few of their stories, I am sorry. It will not happen again.” Perhaps mindful of drawing even more attention to the paisanos, Steinbeck soon withdrew that foreword.

His upset seemed strange to me when I read Tortilla Flat last week. Like other “literary slummers” before me, I worried about those innocent and honest saints, their strange moral code and their lack of ambition. Perhaps I even saw “bums”.

These weren’t such big concerns for me when I first read the book in my early 20s. I remember delighting in the paisanos’ ignorance of the scourge of work, their heroic dedication to sharing ever more wine together, and their ability to live under the same roof in simple harmony. This time around, I found myself worrying about their hygiene and their livers and how they were going to support themselves in retirement. I still laughed at the episode where a woman proudly pushes around a vacuum cleaner that isn’t attached to any electrical circuits. I enjoyed the eventual revelation that the machine didn’t even have a motor. I took Steinbeck’s point about the absurdity of overvaluing material possessions. But I also worried about the dust in the house and the fact that the woman still had to tidy by hand.

Through such concerns, I realised that the book held up a mirror to my own ageing. I wasn’t entirely delighted. It was hard not to feel a pang for the younger man who would have enjoyed staying up all night with Steinbeck’s paisanos – and who also would have been as receptive to the pleasures of the world. Would I still be able to let an afternoon grow on me “as gradually as hair grows”? Would I be as overcome by the simple beauty of my surroundings as these men often are – and count seeing other people going about their business as fulfilment enough for a day?

But the second reading also brought its compensations. I wasn’t as spellbound as I was before: sometimes the book seemed crude and silly. And I wouldn’t be a Guardian journalist if I hadn’t worried about its sexual politics, and the few horrible moments of casual racism. But I also saw new depths. Then, I mainly saw the book as a funny celebration of life outside the mainstream now, I couldn’t help thinking that while Steinbeck wanted to deny that his characters were bums, he doesn’t celebrate their lives quite as wholeheartedly as he suggests in that 1937 foreword.

Similarly, while the book may (as Thomas Fensch says) have offered “escapism and entertainment” during the Great Depression, it also has sadness at its heart. It is not, as some have suggested, a happy book with a surprisingly tragic ending. It’s one that pushes inevitably towards darkness. Right from the start, Danny is on the run from responsibility, horrified by the idea of house ownership, settling down, or even living within the constraints of the law. His friends help distract and shelter him from reality, but cannot keep him from it for ever. Clocks may be eschewed in Tortilla Flat, but time marches on. Danny is still ageing. And now I’ve gone through more of my own journey into adulthood, I saw his fears more clearly. I also felt I had a better understanding of his tragedy. As a younger reader, I understood the sadness of the book’s final chapters and Danny’s decision to fly roaring into the depths of the gulch near his house. But my older self also knows what he’d be missing thanks to that decision. It gave the book a poignancy I hadn’t felt before. Even if Danny is a bum, he’s also a complex and haunted man.


Tortilla Flat? This John Steinbeck’s is not for ‘literary slummers’

Tortilla Flat was the book that made John Steinbeck’s name – and his fortune. By the time it was published in May 1935, he’d managed to publish four other books, but they had been poorly received.

He was in his 30s, close to the breadline, living in a house his father had given him and largely dependent on his wife’s paychecks.

And then the reviews started rolling in for Tortilla Flat.

The San Francisco Chronicle called it “exceptionally fine”. “Not since the days of WW Jacobs making his charming characters out of scoundrels has there been a book quite like this one,” said the New Republic.

The Spectator suggested that the book might make “a wet afternoon wetter for its readers”, as they cried both with laughter and sadness. The Saturday Review admired its “facile style and the whimsical humour underlying its sharp and clear-cut presentation of character”.

And so it went on. The book sold in huge quantities, the film rights were bought and Steinbeck was properly launched. Soon he would produce classics including Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.

Surprisingly, he was also soon regretting writing the story of central character Danny and his bibulous housemates. “When this book was written it did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish. They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat,” he wrote in a 1937 edition foreword.

“Had I known that these stories and these people would be considered quaint, I think I never should have written them.”

The problem was that the paisano inhabitants were, as Thomas Fensch explains in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition , judged “to be bums – colourful perhaps, eccentric yes, but bums nonetheless”.

Steinbeck continued: “I wrote these stories because they were true stories and because I liked them. But literary slummers have taken these people up with the vulgarity of duchesses who are amused by and sorry for a peasantry. These stories are out, and I cannot recall them. But I shall never again subject to the vulgar touch of the decent these good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes, of courtesy beyond politeness. If I have done them any harm by telling a few of their stories, I am sorry. It will not happen again.” Perhaps mindful of drawing even more attention to the paisanos , Steinbeck soon withdrew that foreword.

His upset seemed strange to me when I read Tortilla Flat last week.

Like other “literary slummers” before me, I worried about those innocent and honest saints, their strange moral code and their lack of ambition. Perhaps I even saw “bums”.

These weren’t such big concerns for me when I first read the book in my early 20s.

I remember delighting in the paisanos ’ ignorance of the scourge of work, their heroic dedication to sharing ever more wine together, and their ability to live under the same roof in simple harmony.

This time around, I found myself worrying about their hygiene and their livers and how they were going to support themselves in retirement. I still laughed at the episode where a woman proudly pushes around a vacuum cleaner that isn’t attached to any electrical circuits. I enjoyed the eventual revelation that the machine didn’t even have a motor.

I took Steinbeck’s point about the absurdity of overvaluing material possessions. But I also worried about the dust in the house and the fact that the woman still had to tidy by hand.

Through such concerns, I realised that the book held up a mirror to my own ageing.

I wasn’t entirely delighted. It was hard not to feel a pang for the younger man who would have enjoyed staying up all night with Steinbeck’s paisanos – and who also would have been as receptive to the pleasures of the world.

Would I still be able to let an afternoon grow on me “as gradually as hair grows”? Would I be as overcome by the simple beauty of my surroundings as these men often are – and count seeing other people going about their business as fulfilment enough for a day?

But the second reading also brought its compensations.

I wasn’t as spellbound as I was before: sometimes the book seemed crude and silly. And I wouldn’t be a Guardian journalist if I hadn’t worried about its sexual politics, and the few horrible moments of casual racism. But I also saw new depths.

Then, I mainly saw the book as a funny celebration of life outside the mainstream now, I couldn’t help thinking that while Steinbeck wanted to deny that his characters were bums, he doesn’t celebrate their lives quite as wholeheartedly as he suggests in that 1937 foreword.

Similarly, while the book may (as Thomas Fensch says) have offered “escapism and entertainment” during the Great Depression, it also has sadness at its heart. It is not, as some have suggested, a happy book with a surprisingly tragic ending.

It’s one that pushes inevitably towards darkness. Right from the start, Danny is on the run from responsibility, horrified by the idea of house ownership, settling down, or even living within the constraints of the law.

His friends help distract and shelter him from reality, but cannot keep him from it for ever. Clocks may be eschewed in Tortilla Flat, but time marches on. Danny is still ageing. And now I’ve gone through more of my own journey into adulthood, I saw his fears more clearly.

I also felt I had a better understanding of his tragedy. As a younger reader, I understood the sadness of the book’s final chapters and Danny’s decision to fly roaring into the depths of the gulch near his house. But my older self also knows what he’d be missing thanks to that decision. It gave the book a poignancy I hadn’t felt before. Even if Danny is a bum, he’s also a complex and haunted man.


2. John Steinbeck wrote (but never finished) a book based on King Arthur.

As a child, Steinbeck was enthralled with Arthurian tales of knighthood, adventure, and honor—and as he began producing his own work, like 1935's Tortilla Flat, he borrowed many of the plots and themes that defined Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur (or The Death of Arthur). In 1958, Steinbeck even set out to retell Malory’s stories for a modern audience in The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. But by 1959, the author had abandoned the project and never completed it before his death in 1968. In 1976, though, the unfinished manuscript was posthumously released and remains in print today.


Tortilla Flat - Contemporary Reviews

Pen and ink drawing by Ruth Gannett from the first edition of Tortilla Flat (1935), depicting Danny: "And so for one month Danny sat on his cot in the Monterey city jail. Sometimes he drew obscene pictures on the walls, and sometimes he thought over his army career. Time hung heavy on Danny’s hands there in his cell in the city jail" (19).

Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, provided John Steinbeck his first commercial success as a novelist, as readers were eagerly entertained by the adventures of Danny and his group of friends, who lived in a carefree manner that most readers could hardly even imagine. Published during the Great Depression, it is easy to see how Tortilla Flat could entice readers with its deceptively simple comedy. In an introduction to Tortilla Flat,Thomas Fensch explains that during the Great Depression, "Reading and the movies were escape, pure and simple. Escape from grinding poverty, escape from worrying about how to pay the rent, escape from worrying about how to find a job (or keep a menial one), even escape from worrying about where money for the next week's groceries could come from" (viii). Tortilla Flat's idyllic setting where "money is seldom needed," and all the characters desire is "[. . .] enough food, a warm place to sleep, wine, and – occasionally – women and parties" provided a perfect escape (Fensch x). The characters ofTortilla Flat were poor, but pleasantly so they never suffer much from their poverty or want for much of anything. Depression era readers could take comfort in such a portrayal of want.

Critics, too, enjoyed Tortilla Flat as entertainment, even when they found problems with the story line. The New YorkWorld Telegram describes the reading of the book as a "grand time" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 31), even though the reviewer also felt that Steinbeck "has realized Danny only partially [. . .] and the tragic end of Danny seems a trifle too casual to be moving" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 32). The incongruity of the sad ending with the rest of the book appears to have troubled reviewers at the time of the novel's publication, and even today, critics are still not sure what to make of it. Some critics also questioned the authenticity of Steinbeck's setting. A reviewer for The New York Times doubted that "life in Tortilla Flat is as insouciant and pleasant and pleasing as Mr. Steinbeck has made it seem" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 39). Nonetheless, the reviewer simultaneously praised the novel as "first rate" and credited Steinbeck with having "a gift for drollery and for turning Spanish talk and phrases into a gently mocking English" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 39). Though these critics found Tortilla Flat to be flawed, they nevertheless greatly appreciated certain aspects of it. At the very least, reviewers enjoyed the comedy of the novel, even if they did overlook some of its more serious and complex content.

Some reviews found virtually no fault with Steinbeck's work at all, such as Joseph Henry Jackson's glowing review in The San Francisco Chronicle, which proclaimed:

The problem with a book like this is that you can't describe it. The best you can do is to indicate it – faintly, in the sketch book manner, at best leaving out all the intangibles that really give it its quality. I can't reflect the charm, the humor, the pathos, the wit and wisdom and warm humanity which illuminate every one of Mr. Steinbeck's pages. (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 33)

He urges readers, "Don't, please, miss it" (qtd. in McElrath, Crisler, and Shillinglaw 33). The New York Herald Tribunewrote that only Steinbeck could have written this novel and created these characters: "It takes the wondering gentleness, the wide-eyed and extremely skillful naïveté, the clear precision of Mr. Steinbeck's writing [. . .] to give them their special life and sharpness" (37).

In more recent times, Tortilla Flat has been criticized because of Steinbeck's characterization of the paisanos. Critics argue his portrayal of Mexican Americans is highly inaccurate and the paisanos epitomize racial stereotyping. Arthur Pettit attacks Tortilla Flat as "the prototypical Anglo novel about the Mexican American. The fact that it has spawned relatively few imitators," he argues, "enhances its isolated position while highlighting the fact that the novel contains characters varying little from the most negative Mexican stereotypes" (191). In marked contrast, biographer Jackson Benson argues to the contrary, calling the novel a "tour de force" (279). Rather than being based on simple racial stereotypy, Benson asserts, "Tortilla Flat is a folktale peopled by semimythic characters, its effectiveness comes from a strong undercurrent of truth and sympathy" (364). As a folktale, it enlarges upon authentic characteristics of a locale and people in a very exaggerated and grandiose manner in order to celebrate, rather than demean them.

Arthur Simpson points outs that Steinbeck himself believed that readers who were offended by his characters missed the point. Steinbeck criticized the critics for finding the paisanos "quaint and curious" and seeing them as "a simplistic glorification of the animal side of man," which he argues was not at all his intention (Simpson 223). Despite Steinbeck's own defense against charges of racism and stereotyping, certainly in light of the contemporary political and cultural struggle of Mexican Americans and Hispanic immigrants in the United States, it is easy to see why Tortilla Flat, with its shiftless and drunken Mexican-American characters, would come under such scrutiny.

Besides his controversial characters, critics have also questioned the merit and purpose of Steinbeck's comparison between Danny and his friends and the Round Table of King Arthur. Some argue the parallel is not clear enough, or strained and forced, and that the attempted comparison detracts from what Simpson characterizes as more "important elements of the novel's theme and form," like the "conflict between the values of Danny's paisano fraternity and those of 20th century civilization" (Simpson 223). He asserts that the novel ultimately lacks an "important story or argument" and needs "something to hold it together" (Simpson 215). On the other hand, long time Steinbeck critic Louis Owens cautions readers not to allow the Arthurian parallel to distract them from the evident, central focus of the novel. He concludes that the novel is most importantly about "the unity which formed about Danny and his house [. . .] the Arthurian materials are significant only insofar as they reinforce this central theme" (Owens 167).

Fensch eloquently sums up the importance of friendship in the novel and concludes that the Arthurian parallel plays an important role in elevating Danny and the paisanos out of the negative realm of stereotyping and into the celebrated realm of legend and myth: "In short, Steinbeck values the Arthurian legends and the paisanos too highly to demean either. By adding the language of the paisanos and their convoluted moral code to his novel, he elevates them toward Arthurian status, without demeaning them or the tales of the knights that he was so captivated by throughout much of his life"(xxiii). Thus, Steinbeck imbues the novel with a strong and virtuous undercurrent of trust, loyalty, and friendship, giving it both shape and focus, despite what Steinbeck argued was critics' inability to understand the purpose of the Arthurian parallel.

Regardless of its shortcomings, Tortilla Flat has generated much conversation among critics over the years and has remained a steady favorite of Steinbeck fans since its publication. Its sometime raucous, sometimes ironic comedy amuses readers, while its flippant portrayal of poverty and alcoholism perplexes. Tortilla Flat both entertains and calls into question the emerging values of the 20th Century. Readers will find both something to laugh at and more seriously reflect upon in the novel—a winning combination.


On May 28, 1935, the world saw the release of Tortilla Flat . It would become John Steinbeck’s first truly successful book, heralding the arrival of a truly distinguished American voice. Steinbeck later went on to write more ambitious novels like East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath , ultimately leading the author to a Nobel Prize in Literature. But before all that pomp and regard, there was a slim, comic novel about jolly laborers passing time in California.

By what you were assigned in school, you might not have thought the works of John Steinbeck to be very funny. There isn’t much to laugh about, after all, in the morbid ending of Of Mice and Men or the Depression travails of the Joads. Yet humor was an important part of Steinbeck’s reputation. In 1962, when the Nobel committee recognized the author for his entire career, they were sure to give mention to the writer's "sympathetic humor."

Tortilla Flat is a comic novel. It’s set in Monterey, a city not far from the author’s birthplace in Salinas. This central area of California meant much to Steinbeck, inspiring everything from settings of novels to his studies in marine biology.

Without the distinct culture of the area, Tortilla Flat would not have been possible. The book brings to life a group of paisanos , men of a heritage mixed with Spanish, indigenous, white, and Mexican genes. To the people of Monterey, they were minimally employable, and not worth inclusion in in the greater parts of society, but no matter. The paisanos had more elevated concerns—like friendship, good company, and wine.

The grand comic conceit of the book, as it’s known to writers of sketch comedy and sitcoms, is to “map” the world of the paisanos onto the court of King Arthur. Inheritances are not kingdoms but humble houses. Long ships do not carry fleets so much as paddle-driven boats contain fisherman. The spirits of the characters are high, but the stakes are much lower, making a fine comedy for many readers. The book’s release date, 1935, coinciding with the worst parts of the Great Depression, gave the humor an urgency. Most of its fans received it as a funny, romping work of escapism and carelessness. It was precisely what they needed in a difficult time.

Yet to see one of the 'Great White Men' illustrate people of color in such a way will naturally make us uncomfortable. What is perhaps surprising is how soon Steinbeck’s book was met with backlash. Almost immediately, the author was criticized for his portrayal of Hispanic Americans. Some saw his portrayal as stereotypical, harmful, and driven by not a sympathetic perspective as much as a condescending one. In the next edition of the book published by Modern Library in 1937, John Steinbeck penned a preface to address his critics:

When this book was written, it did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish. They are people whom I know and like, who merge with their habitat. In men this is called philosophy, and it is a fine thing.

Had I known that these stories and these people would be considered quaint, I think I never should have have written them… If I have done them harm by telling a few of their stories I am sorry. It will never happen again.

The author’s passionate apologia was never printed again, and the 1937 Modern Library edition remains a coveted book among collectors.

Steinbeck’s convincing sincerity aside, there are many Mexicans who find his depictions troublesome. In the '70s, Philip D. Ortego penned an essay against the book’s politics. “To believe Steinbeck’s descriptive diagnosis of the Chicano ethos in Tortilla Flat ,” he argues, “is to reinforce the most prevalent stereotypes and caricatures about Chicanos.” What we have on our hands is a “sad book in more ways than John Steinbeck may have ever imagined.”

Another critic has pointed out how the paisanos in the novel are “freaks,” with the ability to drink copiously with no consequences. Many have felt, and continue to feel, that Steinbeck’s limited vision serves to diminish the dignity of Mexican-Americans. It is hard to blame them for feeling this way.

It seems very likely that Steinbeck wrote the world of Tortilla Flat with immense sympathy and care, all the while distorting—if not undermining—the culture of a people. Steinbeck, who was always wary of the effect money had on the soul, genuinely adored the paisanos, who brought far more important things, like friendship, community, and symbiosis to a glorious height. For in Steinbeck’s philosophical mind, the paisanos had something to teach us about living in happiness and harmony. But there were other other barriers—racial, cultural, and political ones—that Steinbeck seems to have thought about less, preventing him from seeing the full picture.

It is the job of the fiction writer to examine the manifold ways in which we don’t get along. The miscommunications surrounding Tortilla Flat remind us why it is often so easy to fail in our understanding of each other.


Tortilla Flat

In his first commercially successful novel, Tortilla Flat (1935), John Steinbeck creates his own modern day version of Camelot and King Arthur's roundtable it is "the story of Danny and Danny's friends and of Danny's house" (1). As a twist on local color fiction, Tortilla Flat records semi-mythic events from the lives of the paisanos from Monterey County. Episodic in nature, the tales recount the escapades of Danny and his group of ragged and drunken friends as they drink, fight, engage in random acts of petty theft and, occasionally, do good deeds. Throughout their many adventures and misdeeds, the one thing that remains as constant as their desire to avoid doing any real work or live respectable lives, is their loyalty to one another. Steinbeck creates a story about epic friendship, and yet, just like the original round table, "this story deals with how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated" (1). The hilarious, drunken adventures of the kind-hearted yet misguided paisanos makes for a rousing, seemingly frivolous little novel. Under the comedic surface, however, is a provoking picture of alcoholism and poverty that reminds readers of the substandard social status of Mexican-Americans in California in the 1930s.

Tortilla Flat was first published by Covici-Friede in 1935. The novel was adapted into a play in 1937 and released as a film in 1942.


The 1950s and 1960s

In 1949, the actress Ann Sothern visited Steinbeck in Pacific Grove over Memorial Day weekend. She brought along a friend, Elaine Scott, who would become Steinbeck’s third and final wife. Less than a week after Elaine’s divorce from the actor Zachary Scott became final, the couple married on December 28, 1950. Later they moved into 206 East 72nd Street in New York City, Steinbeck’s home for the next 13 years.

Early in 1951, Steinbeck began again to compose the novel he had planned for years. Steinbeck intended East of Eden to be the “big work” of his career. As he explained to Pascal Covici in the diary he wrote concurrently with the novel (later published as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters), Steinbeck addressed East of Eden to his sons:

I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them…I want them to know how it was, I want to tell them directly, and perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people… And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all—the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness… I shall tell them this story against the background of the county I grew up in.

Set largely in the Salinas Valley, East of Eden is, in part, based on Steinbeck’s maternal family history. Stories of the Hamilton family are paired with the a “symbolic story” of the Trask family, a rewriting of the Cain and Abel biblical story. In this epic novel of intertwined stories, Steinbeck captures his own history as well as the history of the Salinas Valley—and he also grapples with the pain and consequences of his divorce from his second wife, Gwyn. Gwyn is Cathy/Kate in the novel, a manipulative woman who destroys many around her. The novel took nearly a year to complete, and was finally published in 1952. Shortly after, Elia Kazan directed the film version of the final part of the novel, which starred James Dean in his debut performance.

Steinbeck traveled widely with his third wife, Elaine, and he supported himself writing journalism about his travels.

In the late 1950s he turned to one of his life-long ambitions, to write a translation of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur for twentieth century readers. To facilitate his research, Steinbeck spent ten months in Somerset, England with Elaine, gathering material and working on the translation. The work was never completed in Steinbeck’s lifetime.

When he returned to America from England in late 1959, he was distressed by what he felt were America’s moral lapses. Out of that distress (the quiz show scandal was breaking news), he wrote a novel about a man’s own moral quandary, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961).

Publication of that novel earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he was awarded for his body of work in 1962. His is “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and social perception,” said Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Anders Osterling in his presentation speech.

That year also saw publication of one of his most endearing books, Travels with Charley (1962). “I’m going to learn about my own country,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend, before he began his trip around America. He felt that he had lost touch with his own country:

I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory at best is a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years.

Travels with Charley chronicles this trip of roughly 10,000 miles across the United States, from Maine to California, to Texas and into the racial tension of the south—the most searing moments in the book. The often elegiac tone of the work marks shift from Steinbeck’s previous work, and some critics were disappointed. However, in writing about America from a distinctly observational but highly sympathetic standpoint, Steinbeck returns to familiar ground.

In 1964, Steinbeck was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson, with whom the writer was personally acquainted.

His final book of the 1960s was America and Americans (1966), a book of essays about the American character and the common good. Topics considered include ethnicity, race, and the environment it is a text relevant to the twenty-first century.

Steinbeck was, throughout his career, curious and engaged, a writer to the end. Perhaps due to his friendship with Johnson, or perhaps because one of his sons—eventually both sons–were serving overseas, Steinbeck wanted to go overseas to witness the realities of the Vietnam War. In 1967, he traveled to Vietnam to report on the war for Newsday, a series called “Letters to Alicia.” He visited combat zones, including remote area where his younger son.was posted. Steinbeck, manned a machine-gun watch position while his son and other members of the platoon slept. During his weeks in Vietnam, Steinbeck grew disenchanted with the war and the inaccurate reports given to the American people. As his wife Elaine said, Steinbeck changed his mind about the wisdom of the Vietnam war, but he did not live long enough to write more about that war.

Throughout the mid-Sixties, Steinbeck’s health continued to decline. He suffered increasingly frequent episodes resembling mini-strokes, and eventually died at his home in New York City on December 20, 1968.


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Winner of the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century. Novelist, story writer, playwright and essayist, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 and is perhaps best remembered for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a novel widely considered to be a 20th-century classic. His other best known books include Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), Cannery Row (1945) and East of Eden (1952).

Born in Salinas, California, John Steinbeck came from a family of moderate means. He worked his way through college at Stanford University but never graduated. In 1925 he went to New York, where he tried for a few years to establish himself as a free-lance writer, but he failed and returned to California. After publishing some novels and short stories, Steinbeck first became widely known with Tortilla Flat (1935), a series of humorous stories about Monterey paisanos. [The first part of the material in this summary is from the Nobel Prize website, from Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969.]


Steinbeck's novels can all be classified as social novels dealing with the economic problems of rural labour, but there is also a streak of worship of the soil in his books, which does not always agree with his matter-of-fact sociological approach. After the rough and earthy humour of Tortilla Flat, he moved on to more serious fiction, often aggressive in its social criticism, to In Dubious Battle (1936), which deals with the strikes of the migratory fruit pickers on California plantations. This was followed by Of Mice and Men (1937), the story of the imbecile giant Lennie, and a series of admirable short stories collected in the volume The Long Valley (1938).

In 1939 he published what is considered his best work, The Grapes of Wrath, the story of Oklahoma tenant farmers who, unable to earn a living from the land, moved to California where they became migratory workers.

Among his later works should be mentioned East of Eden (1952), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), and Travels with Charley (1962), a travelogue in which Steinbeck wrote about his impressions during a three-month tour in a truck that led him through forty American states. He died in New York City in 1968.

His father, John Steinbeck Sr., served as Monterey County treasurer. John's mother, Olive Hamilton, a former school teacher, shared Steinbeck's passion of reading and writing. [This material is from Wikipedia.] Steinbeck lived in a small rural town that was essentially a frontier settlement, set amid some of the world's most fertile land. He spent his summers working on nearby ranches and later with migrant workers on Spreckels ranch. He became aware of the harsher aspects of migrant life and the darker side of human nature, which material expressed in such works as Of Mice and Men. He also explored his surroundings, walking across local forests, fields, and farms

The novel Tortilla Flat (1935) portrays the adventures of a group of classless and usually homeless young men in Monterey after World War I, just before U.S. prohibition. The characters, who are portrayed in ironic comparison to mythic knights on a quest, reject nearly all the standard mores of American society in enjoyment of a dissolute life centered around wine, lust, camaraderie and petty theft. The book was made into the 1942 film Tortilla Flat, starring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr and John Garfield, a friend of Steinbeck's.

Of Mice and Men was rapidly adapted into a 1939 Hollywood film starring Lon Chaney, Jr. and Burgess Meredith. Steinbeck followed this wave of success with The Grapes of Wrath (1939), based on newspaper articles he had written in San Francisco. The novel would be considered by many to be his finest work. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, even as it was made into a notable film directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the part.

During World War II, Steinbeck accompanied the commando raids of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s Beach Jumpers program, which launched small-unit diversion operations against German-held islands in the Mediterranean. Steinbeck returned from the war with a number of wounds from shrapnel and some psychological trauma. He treated himself, as ever, by writing. He wrote Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) and he also wrote Cannery Row (1945). Steinbeck traveled to Mexico, would be inspired by the story of Emiliano Zapata, and subsequently wrote a film script (Viva Zapata!) directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn. Soon after 1950, he began work on East of Eden (1952), which he considered his best work. Following the success of Viva Zapata!, Steinbeck collaborated with Kazan on East of Eden, James Dean's film debut. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 and died in New York City in 1968.


Take a look back at John Steinbeck’s sojourn in Laguna Beach.

By Joe Yogerst

Between the world wars, Laguna Beach evolved into a small but thriving West Coast version of Paris—a gathering place for artists, writers and actors searching for both a literal and metaphorical place in the sun.

One of them was author John Steinbeck. Virtually unknown at that point in his career, and only recently married to his first wife, Carol Henning, the 30-year-old writer arrived in Laguna Beach in February 1933 after short stints in other Southern California cities.

“Steinbeck and Carol were living in Pacific Grove, in Steinbeck’s parents’ [summer] cottage,” says Lisa C. Josephs, archivist at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. “The couple didn’t like it because it was cold, the community was rather conservative, and Steinbeck’s parents felt they could visit any time they liked, since no rent was being paid.”

It was not the ideal situation for newlyweds or a struggling but ambitious young writer, but they lived in the Pacific Grove cottage off and on, between time spent in other locales. Seeking a warmer, sunnier location that wasn’t within easy driving distance of the parents, they ventured south in late 1929—shortly after the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression.

Steinbeck spent time in Laguna Beach in the 1930s, while still relatively unknown as a writer. | Photo by The National Steinbeck Center, Salinas, CA

Their first stop was Eagle Rock, where they moved in with longtime Steinbeck friend Carlton “Dook” Sheffield, a professor at Occidental College. While in the LA area, Steinbeck and Henning married in January 1930, but returned north before coming back to Eagle Rock in 1932. Carol, who was also a writer and artist, rendered sketches of their carefree days drinking Dook’s homemade beer, jumping on the living room furniture, and nude sunbathing in the backyard. The Steinbecks eventually rented their own place in nearby Montrose and John finished writing “To a God Unknown,” his second novel, around this time.

With the Depression in full swing, none of John’s writing projects were panning out moneywise and Carol was unable to land a job. In dire financial straits, but reluctant to return to Northern California, the couple looked around for another, less expensive place in the Southland.

“Apparently we are heading for the rocks,” Steinbeck lamented in a letter to his publisher. “… The rent is up pretty soon and then we shall move. I don’t know where. It doesn’t matter. … We’ll get in the car and drive until we can’t buy gasoline any more.”

According to Steinbeck biographer Jackson J. Benson, that’s exactly what they did, packing their meager belongings into John’s jalopy and cruising south on Coast Highway. With the car overheating, on the brink of breaking down, Benson suggests in “John Steinbeck, Writer,” that they must have felt like the migrants who traveled west from the Dust Bowl along Highway 66. The experience no doubt helped inspire “The Grapes of Wrath” a few years later.

The Steinbecks decided to try Laguna Beach, which in those days was apparently less expensive than living in the LA foothills. “They were broke,” Josephs says, “[but they found] a little shack in Laguna Beach with a tar paper roof that was only a few dollars a week to rent.”

Their digs were at 504 Park Avenue near downtown Laguna Beach, according to the city’s historic resource index, which also suggests that Steinbeck stayed in Laguna back in 1931 as well. The wood-shingle house is still there, at the corner of Third Street, flanked by neatly trimmed trees, bougainvillea and potted succulents. It was constructed for volunteer firefighter George Garbrino, who rented part of the home to Steinbeck, according to the city index. Although much altered over the years, it’s a classic California design from that era and very much the sort of place where you might expect to find a classic California writer from that era, even one that was flat broke.

John and Carol were only in Laguna Beach briefly, until March 1933, and what they did during their days here largely remains a mystery.

“There is plenty of speculation—and wishful thinking,” says Johanna Ellis, who serves on the Laguna Beach Historical Society’s board of directors. “But we have not been able to verify all the details.”

One of the enduring myths is that Steinbeck wrote “Tortilla Flat”—his breakout bestseller published in 1935—at the Park Avenue house. While it seems impossible to prove that theory, one thing is known about Steinbeck’s time in Laguna. “Carol finished retyping ‘To a God Unknown,’ ” Josephs says, “and a friend bought them a manuscript cover and paid postage to send it off—otherwise Steinbeck was going to use pieces of tar paper from the roof to wrap it up.”

Other than that, not much is known of their days in this coastal town. Josephs notes that the Steinbecks were in Laguna Beach so briefly that, “I don’t know if they got their feet under them enough to seriously set about a job search—or possibly they weren’t interested.”

When John and Carol moved out of the house on Park Avenue in early spring 1933, it wasn’t for lack of money. Steinbeck’s mother had just had a stroke and the couple returned to Salinas to help with her care.

Even though it appears “Tortilla Flat” wasn’t penned in Laguna Beach, it’s possible that Steinbeck’s sojourn in Southern California is reflected in the camaraderie and joie de vivre displayed by its main characters during economic hard times, which provided an escape for readers who were dealing with hard times during the Depression.

“Escape from grinding poverty, escape from worrying about how to pay the rent, escape from worrying about how to find a job,” writes Thomas Fensch, author of “Essential Elements of Steinbeck.” These are themes the writer knew well from his own life.

While it’s a stretch to suggest that a talent as great as Steinbeck might have never been discovered, one could postulate that some of his greatest works may have never come to pass without his poor, nearly starving artist days in Eagle Rock, Montrose and even Laguna Beach.


Watch the video: Tortilla Flat 1942 Official Trailer - Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr Movie HD (January 2022).