John Steinbeck presented by Della Mae Wood

On October 21, 2014, Della Mae Wood inspired us to read — or read again — this American master who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962. Enjoy her written summary below!

Once a young man with an intense love of language and a strong sense of social justice put out a stack of yellow writing pads, a box of sharpened pencils, hitched up his chair to his writing desk and set down the words “Once upon a time…”

In 1962 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

John Steinbeck was recognized by the Swedish Academy “for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by sympathetic humour and a keen social perception.”

He was born in Salinas, California, a small town of about 2500 people on February 27, 1902 and grew up in that fertile agricultural valley twenty-five miles from the Pacific coast where his family had a summer home. Both areas provided the setting for much of his fiction. Around his junior year in high school he decided to be a writer. He developed a passion for language. In an introduction to one of his works Robert DeMott said: “Steinbeck wrote books methodically the way other people build houses — word by word, sentence by sentence. His act of writing was a way of fulfilling his dream of finding a home in the architectural spaces created by his imagination.”

John Steinbeck had a compelling need to write. In a letter to his editor, Pascal Corvivi, (June 20, 1960) he wrote, “I nearly always write — just as I nearly always breathe.” He cared about language and he cared about people. He had special qualities that make his work distinctive: a feeling for humanity, an empathetic imagination, keen powers of observation and a dedication to writing well. His work spanned a variety of literary genres, from novels to plays to journalism, including a stint as a foreign correspondent during World War II and the war in Vietnam.

For nearly twenty years he wrote with little commercial success, but his determination to be a writer never diminished. While caring for his dying parents he wrote as a diversion from their conditions a whimsical story about the kind of Mexican-American paisanos he knew from childhood and from working with, between attending semesters at Stanford University. It was published in 1935 as Tortilla Flat. It won the annual gold medal of the Commonwealth Club of California for novel of the year and became his first commercial success. Now he had a large reading public, and it reaffirmed his personal confidence in his writing skills. Other writing followed leading to the epic work principally associated with Steinbeck’s name, The Grapes of Wrath, followed by the great novels East of Eden and The Winter of Our Discontent.

John Steinbeck died December 20, 1968. When Elaine Steinbeck was clearing out her husband’s writing studio she found something he had written only a few months before his death. It read: “I look forward to Sag Harbor… and do you know journalism, even my version of it, gives me the crazy desire to go to my little house on the point, to sharpen 50 pencils, and put out a yellow pad… then to hitch up my chair to my writing board and set down the words — ‘Once upon a time…’ “

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