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While the powerlessness of the laboring class is a recurring theme in Steinbeck's work of the late 1930s, he narrowed his focus when composing Of Mice and Men (1937), creating an intimate portrait of two men facing a world marked by petty tyranny, misunderstanding, jealousy, and callousness. But though the scope is narrow, the theme is universal; a friendship and a shared dream that makes an individual's existence meaningful.
John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California, in 1902, grew up in a fertile agricultural valley, about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast. Both the valley and the coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold(1929). After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California books, The Pastures of Heaven(1932) andTo a God Unknown(1933), and worked on short stories later collected inThe Long Valley(1938). Popular success and financial security came only withTortilla Flat(1935), stories about Monterey s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle(1936), Of Mice and Men(1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath(1939).The Grapes of Wrathwon both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker withThe Forgotten Village(1941) and a serious student of marine biology withSea of Cortez(1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-noveletteThe Moon is Down(1942).Cannery Row(1945), The Wayward Bus(1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright(1950), andThe Log from the Sea of Cortez(1951) preceded publication of the monumentalEast of Eden(1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family s history. The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books includeSweet Thursday(1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication(1957), Once There Was a War(1958), The Winter of Our Discontent(1961), Travels with Charley in Search of America(1962), America and Americans(1966), and the posthumously publishedJournal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters(1969), Viva Zapata!(1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights(1976), andWorking Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath(1989). Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, and, in 1964, he was presented with the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Steinbeck died in New York in 1968. Today, more than thirty years after his death, he remains one of America's greatest writers and cultural figures.Susan Shillinglaw is a professor of English San Jose State University. She is the author of On Reading the Grapes of Wrath and Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage.