Encouraged, Steinbeck began his next project, a novel about a strike of agricultural workers organized by two communists. As predicted, this latest novel caused great fury because the labor movement at that time was causing distress to the large growers, who worried about strikes. Steinbeck titled the novel In Dubious Battle (1936), and it sold moderately well.
Of Mice and Men (1937), a popular and critical success, was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Following its publication, Steinbeck toured England, Ireland, Russia, and Sweden. He returned to the United States and produced a play version of the book with famous playwright George Kaufman. The play won the New York Drama Critic Circle's Award on the first ballot and also became a popular film. When the play opened on Broadway, Steinbeck was already working on what most critics consider to be his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.
The Grapes of Wrath came out of the time Steinbeck was working on Of Mice and Men, when he also accepted work writing for the San Francisco News. Steinbeck was assigned a story to cover migrant workers who swelled the California population at seasonal harvest times. Steinbeck decided to travel incognito and observe the living conditions and the violence of the migrant workers' lives. He published a series of articles in 1936 titled "The Harvest Gypsies." This experience moved his sense of compassion and stirred up his concern for social justice.
In preparation for writing a novel, Steinbeck went to Oklahoma, joined some migrants, and traveled with them to California. Once in California, he stayed with these migrants in "Hoovervilles," joining them in their search for work and observing firsthand their living conditions. A major publishing event of 1939, The Grapes of Wrath became a best seller and was the eighth ranking book of 1940 according to Publishers' Weekly. It was estimated that over half a million copies of the original printing were sold. The novel was translated into foreign editions and won an American Bookseller's award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for the best novel of the year. Steinbeck was also elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In a year of great motion pictures, the film version of The Grapes of Wrath competed with Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The strong movie censorship of the times, however, took a lot of the bite out of Steinbeck's criticism of social injustices.
The Grapes of Wrath was not without its critics, however. The tough language and graphic scenes were too realistic to some readers, and others felt that Steinbeck showed too much sympathy for communist views. The California agricultural community, particularly the California growers and large landowners, were unhappy with Steinbeck's criticism of a system that bankrupted many of the small farmers who lost their land and became unhappy paid help for large growers.
Thrown increasingly into the public spotlight, Steinbeck experienced difficulties in his marriage. In an attempt to patch things up, he and Carol set off on a marine biology expedition with Ed Ricketts during the public controversy over The Grapes of Wrath. They traveled through the Gulf of California, later documented in The Sea of Cortez. But his marriage ended in divorce in 1943.
The War Years and Beyond
During the 1940s, Steinbeck did a great deal of traveling and writing. His interests turned to the rise of fascism, and he wrote a promotional book for the Army Air Force called Bombs Away. Steinbeck also wrote a World War II novella, The Moon Is Down, in which he described a small Norwegian village invaded and occupied by a thinly disguised Nazi force. The King of Norway decorated Steinbeck in recognition of his book's contribution to the liberation effort. Steinbeck also scripted a war movie called Lifeboat in an attempt to raise American morale. During this period, he married again to Gwen Conger with whom he had two sons. In 1943, while a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, Steinbeck wrote a collection of human interest articles later published in 1958 under the title Once There Was a War.
After the war ended, Steinbeck devoted himself to a number of writing projects that left the war behind. In 1945, he wrote Cannery Row, another well-received California book that followed the humorous adventures of the down and out, living in Monterey. Cannery Row was the first of two books in this period to be influenced by his friendship with the marine biologist, Ed Ricketts.
In 1947, Steinbeck wrote The Pearl, an allegory about a poor fisherman who finds a pearl that changes his life; Steinbeck's experiences from the trip to the Gulf of California back in 1940 provided the kernel of the story's plot. The Pearl was also filmed, as was another book published the same year and titled The Wayward Bus. Even though The Wayward Bus received poor reviews, it sold well and was a humorous story about a bus full of interesting Steinbeck characters. In 1948, Steinbeck received a blow with the death of Ed Ricketts in a car accident. His marriage to Gwen ended as well, and the divorce settlement brought grave financial difficulties. He returned once again to Pacific Grove to heal and to write.
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