John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was one of America’s greatest writers. He wrote several dozen novels, including a handful of America’s greatest classics: Cannery Row, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and Travels with Charley.
Married three times, father of two children, at times a heavy drinker, Steinbeck is principally known for the words that came out of his pencils and pens rather than for the adventures of his life. There were three periods in which his biographical story made him something more than a man alone in a room with the English language.
First, when he was moving towards the creation of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck spent time among the Okies in central California. “We sat in the ditches with the migrant workers, lived and ate with them. We heard a thousand miseries and a thousand jokes. We ate fried dough and sow belly, worked with the sick and the hungry, listened to complaints and little triumphs,” Steinbeck later wrote. The initial result was a series of six articles for the San Francisco News entitled The Harvest Gypsies. The later result was Steinbeck’s greatest book, one of the handful of greatest novels in American literature.
Second, from the moment he first read tales of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table when he was a boy, Steinbeck regarded the Arthurian tales as one of the greatest literary mines in the world. After the manuscript of Sir Thomas Malory’s original Le Morte Darthur was discovered at Winchester in 1934, Steinbeck determined to master the world of King Arthur and write a modern language adaptation of Malory’s great work. He visited England many times, sometimes for long periods, to travel through Arthur country, often with the aid of the great Arthur scholar Eugene Vinaver. Unfortunately, Steinbeck did not live to complete his magnum opus. The unfinished Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was published posthumously.
Finally, when he believed he had lost touch with America and his creative juices were drying up, Steinbeck purchased a camper pickup, named it Rocinante, and went off in 1960 in search of America. The poodle Charley was a last-minute addition to the great journey. They traveled 10,000 miles along the border tier states of America, with significant stops in Chicago, the plains of North Dakota, his native California, Texas, and Louisiana. Travels with Charley was published in 1962.
Steinbeck had a long and fascinating flirtation with the film industry. He spent considerable time in Mexico, writing and working on film projects. He traveled with his closest friend Ed Ricketts to the Gulf of California in 1940. He traveled to Europe as a World War II correspondent. In 1947 he visited the Soviet Union with the great photographer Robert Capa.
Steinbeck was a shy and at times irascible man who shunned interviews and avoided personal publicity. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for The Grapes of Wrath. In 1962 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Clay’s Personal Notes.
My Steinbeck is mostly about the books he wrote. He said writers are not very interesting people. He avoided and derailed interviews. He argued—rightly, I believe—that the work is the work: if you like it, read it, if you don’t, find something else to read, and there is nothing much you can learn by attending to the biography of the writer. He was married three times. Mostly he was a grumpy writer. When I decided to impersonate Steinbeck I read through all of his novels and many of his letters. I savedThe Grapes of Wrath until the end, because I had read it four or five times in the course of my life. One of my friends thinks that East of Eden is his best novel, indeed one of the best novels ever written. I liked it well enough, but when I returned to The Grapes of Wrath it was like a revelation: The Grapes of Wrath is one of the world’s great books, magnitudes better in my opinion than anything else Steinbeck ever wrote. I loveCannery Row (1945) and Of Mice and Men (1937), too, and of course Travels with Charley (1962), but The Grapes of Wrathrepresents a kind of perfect storm: the dust bowl and Great Depression—plus the plight of migrant workers who found their way to California—plus a road adventure.
Steinbeck believed that there are only a handful of basic plots—man vs. man, man vs. nature, etc.—and that they were mined from the deepest wellsprings of the human spirit, and first embodied in the Bible, the Homeric epics, 1000 Arabian Nights, and the Arthurian cycle.
In my performances I provide enough biographical material to give the audience a sense of who Steinbeck was and how he negotiated his life, but I principally focus on his writings, and his conceptions of art. No matter what else I do, I wind up recapping the main episodes of The Grapes of Wrath, and I invariably end with a commentary on what he saw and learned on the Travels with Charley journey in 1960.