John Steinbeck Biography
His Last Two Decades
The 1950s brought a series of projects, including some novels, and a third and happier marriage. In 1950, Steinbeck married for the last time to Elaine Scott, the ex-wife of actor Randolph Scott. In the same year, he finished a screenplay for the film Viva Zapata! and published the novel/play Burning Bright, which was produced on Broadway. The following year, Steinbeck began work on a 600-page novel, East of Eden. East of Eden is similar to Of Mice and Men in that it revisits the biblical story of Cain and Abel. East of Eden is the tale of two families through several generations and is set in Salinas Valley. A story of good and evil, it was produced as a film in 1952 and later as a miniseries for television.
During this period, Steinbeck also revised Cannery Row and republished it under the title Sweet Thursday (1954). Rogers and Hammerstein later used his story for their musical Pipe Dream. Besides returning to his biblical themes, Steinbeck also returned to another childhood influence: the King Arthur stories. He began a book (that would be published posthumously) based on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, renaming it The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. This book was rapidly followed in 1957 with The Short Reign of Pippin IV, a fantasy about medieval France but, like many of Steinbeck's later works, it received poor reviews.
By this time, several of Steinbeck's works had received poor critical appraisals, and he became discouraged and suffered what may have been a slight stroke. Still, during this time, he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent, which is set on the east coast and whose main character is the descendent of a Puritan heritage. Ethan Allen Hawley, the main character, sees the moral corruption that has become America. Deciding to join in the immorality, he finds — too late — that his son has been influenced by his example. Regarded as a criticism of middle class American values in modern society, the book was scorned by critics and readers alike who were not in the mood for Steinbeck's criticism. Characteristically, as it was being published, Steinbeck set off in a small truck with his black poodle, Charley, "in search of America."
That same year, 1961, Steinbeck was invited as a guest to attend the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. The following year, the Swedish Academy awarded Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature, the highest honor a writer can receive. The prize was presented for the body of his work, but it met with outcries from critics who felt Steinbeck had limited talent and was a writer of propaganda. Steinbeck took the opportunity in his acceptance speech to strike out at those critics, saying "Literature is not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood, singing their litanies in empty churches. Nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, these tinhorn mendicants of low-caloric despair." Having received the Nobel Prize, however, was a mixed blessing: Although it gave Steinbeck a place of great honor in the literary world, it also put terrible pressure on his future writing.
Following Kennedy's assassination, Steinbeck became a friend of Lyndon Johnson. During the Viet Nam War, Steinbeck reported for Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, from the jungles of southeast Asia. His war dispatches were very militant, and he was deeply moved by the deaths of young American soldiers. (Both of his sons were in the army, and one was serving in Viet Nam.) Often a guest at the White House, Steinbeck supported American involvement in Viet Nam, and he lost friends who supported the anti-war movement. These years led to his last publications — testimonies to his thoughts and feelings about America.
Steinbeck's last two books were nonfiction. Travels with Charley in Search of America was an account of his trip from Maine to California. This journey was a pilgrimage of sorts in search of America, and he named his truck Rocinante, after the horse that carried the idealistic Don Quixote. Steinbeck's love for America is evident throughout this book, and he felt he had found the modern American character. His last book, America and the Americans, was about his faith that the country would come together despite the pains it suffered in the 1960s.
Steinbeck died on December 20, 1968, at his apartment in New York City. He was 66 years old. His wife took him home to Salinas, and he was buried not far from the many towns and ranches that sprang from his imagination and grace the pages of his books. A controversial writer during much of his life, Steinbeck is often remembered with the phrase used in the awarding of his Nobel Prize: "… he holds his position as an independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad."