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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Have you ever wondered where an author gets his ideas or inspiration?
In 1940, John Steinbeck and a good friend, Ed Ricketts, set out on a sailing trip that would later be described in Steinbeck's non-fiction work The Sea of Cortez. During the trip, Steinbeck heard a legend about the misfortunes of a poor fisherboy who had found a great pearl. Inspired by the legend, Steinbeck published The Pearl in a magazine in 1945 under the title "The Pearl of the World." The story was so successful that in 1947 it was published as a book and adapted as a film.
In his story, Steinbeck changed the young fisherboy of the legend into a man with a family. But the main idea remained the same-that a beautiful, valuable pearl brings only trouble and sadness, not peace or happiness, to a fisherman and his loved ones.
Steinbeck was an acute observer of human nature. He wrote about people he knew and about towns he had lived in. Prior to writing about these people, he would often live with them for a while and get to know their way of life. Most of his characters are down and out, isolated and oppressed. They give voice to the "struggle" theme of his novels-namely, the struggle between the poor and the wealthy, the weak and the strong, and between different types of civilization (for instance, European and Mexican).
His family was not rich, and Steinbeck would never forget his origins, even after he had become a celebrated writer. His father, a miller, had arrived in California shortly after the U.S. Civil War, and his mother was the daughter of immigrants from Ulster, Ireland. When Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, his parents settled in Salinas, a town in a fertile valley in western California, about 100 miles south of San Francisco.
Steinbeck's mother, a teacher in the Salinas school system, encouraged him to read at a very early age. Literature became his passion, and before he entered high school he was reading Jack London, the Bible, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native. To earn money during the summer, Steinbeck worked as a hired hand on local ranches. This brought him into contact with Mexican-Americans and migrant workers, who earned little but worked long hours under the hot California sun. He discovered the harsh reality that one could survive these conditions only as long as one's strength held out. He also learned that workers were often treated poorly and without respect, and that they had little means of defending themselves.
As student, Steinbeck wrote for the school newspaper and enjoyed sports. In 1920, he entered Stanford University as an English major, wanting to be a writer but not quite sure how to become one. One thing was certain: the fun of fraternity parties held no attraction for the brawny, work-hardened Steinbeck, whose jobs had shown him a seamier side of life. Before long he was publishing poetry and short stories in the Stanford literary magazine.
After five years at Stanford, Steinbeck had completed fewer than half the credits necessary to graduate. He had taken on jobs in order to pay his tuition, and his curiosity about the outside world had helped keep him from fulfilling the university's graduation requirements. He had, however, taken a number of science courses and had met a teacher, Edith Mirrieles, who recognized his talent and encouraged him to write.
In 1925, he left California for a literary career in New York, but disliked the city. The financial situation that had plagued him in California was still a problem. Instead of pursuing a writing career, he found himself working as a cement mixer, capitalizing on the muscles he'd developed on ranches. After this job, he became a journalist with the New York American, a daily newspaper. These were the Roaring Twenties, and while some literary people were taking off on luxury cruises, Steinbeck was writing about the city's tenement dwellers, including newly arrived immigrants. He despised the cutthroat world of New York journalism at the time and hated running all over the city to cover what he considered unimportant events. He stuck it out for a while, though, because it gave him time to do creative writing. However, all of his stories were rejected. In 1927, having had enough of the city, he worked his way back to California as a deckhand on a freighter headed through the Panama Canal.
For the next two years, Steinbeck secluded himself in the mountains of California, writing and supporting himself with odd jobs. Finally, in 1929, his first novel, Cup of Gold, was published; it was an adventure novel about the life of the seventeenth-century English pirate, Sir Henry Morgan. Two months later, however, the stock market crashed and the country soon fell into the devastating Great Depression. For his two years' work, Steinbeck received a mere $250 advance from the publisher, and only about 1,500 copies were sold.