Today is the birthday of John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California (1902). His early books didn’t sell well at all, and he supported himself as a manual laborer. His first success came with the 1935 novel Tortilla Flat, which was the story of King Arthur and the Round Table told through the lives of pleasure-loving Mexican Americans. He was paid several thousand dollars for the movie rights; the film was released in 1942 and starred Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr. Steinbeck’s book Of Mice and Men (1937) was very popular, but it was also considered vulgar and unpatriotic, and Steinbeck was accused of having an “anti-business attitude.”
In the late 1930s, he was sent by a newspaper to report on the situation of migrant farmers, so he got an old bakery truck and drove around California’s Central Valley. He found people starving, thousands of them crowded in miserable shelters, sick with typhus and the flu. He wrote everything down in his journal, and in less than six months, he had a 200,000-word manuscript. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) won the Pulitzer Prize, but the author was roundly condemned in some quarters for his anti-capitalist, pro-New Deal, pro-worker stance.
During World War II, Steinbeck wrote some government propaganda, and although he returned to social commentary in his post-war fiction, his books of the 1950s were more sentimental than his pre-war works. In the 1960s, he served as an advisor to Lyndon Johnson, whose Vietnam policies Steinbeck supported. Many accused him of betraying his leftist roots.