One of the most fascinating elements of writing is its simplicity. A pencil, paper, and a little creativity is all one needs to get started. However, some might prefer a few additional accommodations, such as background music or a comfortable chair. For John Steinbeck, a pipe packed with tobacco was a welcome complement to his creative process.
The author of The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, Steinbeck created essential works of American literature, likely puffing a pipe in the midst of penning these epic tales. However, Steinbeck's legacy is much greater than two novels. He tackled short stories, novellas, plays, screenplays, and even scientific journals. His work spans genres, crafting comedic scenes with the same deft hand that wrote some of the most poignant moments put into print. For readers everywhere, Steinbeck's personal life is vital knowledge for fully appreciating his novels, and it doesn't hurt to know a bit about his pipe-smoking tendencies too.
John Steinbeck was born on the 27th of February, 1902, in Salinas Valley, California. He spent his early life growing up near the California coastline in the area around Salinas and Monterey, California. His childhood home would inspire much of his work, with many of his novels taking place in Monterey and Salinas Valley. The stories he read during his formative years would also greatly influence his writing.
Steinbeck's mother, Olive, was a former school teacher and nursed his love for reading. He read many of the swashbuckling adventures that have captivated the imaginations of countless children over the years, such as Ivanhoe, Treasure Island, and Robin Hood. The heroic plotlines of novels like Cannery Row and the Arthurian-inspired Tortilla Flat can be traced directly to the art that Steinbeck consumed growing up.
In school, Steinbeck quickly gained a reputation as a stellar writer. The teachers who read his essays and creative works were constantly impressed, although Steinbeck never had high marks in school. Even other students took notice of Steinbeck's skills with the pen. One of Steinbeck's juniors said, "John was known as a writer even then. He would get you in a corner and spin a hell of a yarn... It just didn't surprise any of us when he became famous for his books" (Parini, 31).
After graduating high school, Steinbeck matriculated at Stanford University in 1919 at just 17 years of age. Steinbeck often told tales of his rambunctious youth during his college days, but many of his friends at the time painted a starkly different picture of Steinbeck, saying he was much more likely to lock himself in his dorm for the weekend than hit the town. Much like high school, Steinbeck suffered from academic malaise at Stanford and eventually returned home.
He read many of the swashbuckling adventures that have captivated the imaginations of countless children over the years
He spent some time traveling, living in both New York City and Lake Tahoe for some time. Steinbeck also built lifelong relationships during these years. His closest friend was Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist from Monterey who inspired characters in books like Sweet Tuesday and even co-authored a scientific journal with Steinbeck, "Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research." In 1930, Steinbeck met and married Carol Henning, his first wife, who edited and typed his early works.
It was during his young adulthood in California that Steinbeck began to work blue-collar jobs that involved hard manual labor. Working these jobs resulted in Steinbeck meeting many migrant workers, some of whom would become inspiration for characters in his novels. In an interview about Of Mice and Men, he spoke about how this time inspired one of the book's main characters, Lennie: "I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person ... I worked alongside him for many weeks" (Parini 43).
It's also important to note that during Steinbeck's young adulthood, he lived through the economic crucible of the Great Depression. He struggled to make ends meet, living in run-down apartments and subsisting on a diet of "sardines and buns and doughnuts and coffee" (Parini 103). Steinbeck spent his days working odd jobs or in warehouses performing back-breaking labor, impeding his ability to write. In order to improve his focus on his writing, his father gave him a stipend he subsisted on for several years as he wrote his first collections of short stories and novels, a lucky break for a burgeoning novelist.
Steinbeck's experiences during these years would become the framework for much of his writing. Although Steinbeck's middle-class upbringing, Stanford education, and writing stipend belie his rough-and-tumble image, there is no doubt that his time doing hard labor and fraternizing with his coworkers left an unwavering impression on him. Steinbeck's respect for those with lesser means lent a poignant authenticity to his work, one that American audiences would readily embrace.
He struggled to make ends meet, living in run-down apartments and subsisting on a diet of "sardines and buns and doughnuts and coffee"
Write What You Know
In 1929, Steinbeck's first novel was published, Cup of Gold, which was a fictionalized tale of real-life pirate Henry Morgan. Although it is an important moment whenever a writer is published for the first time, Cup of Gold was met with little critical acclaim and lukewarm sales. This poor reception became a theme for Steinbeck's early writings, with other works like The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To A God Unknown (1933) fielding similarly tepid reviews.
Unfortunately for Steinbeck, his mother and father became ill around this time, with his mother, Olive, suffering a debilitating stroke. Since Steinbeck's writing wasn't paying the bills, his parents becoming a financial burden was of paramount concern, and he and Carol had lengthy discussions about Steinbeck giving up writing to pursue a better-paying profession. However, these tumultuous times inspired Steinbeck to redouble his writing efforts, which resulted in a draft of his first successful publication, Tortilla Flat (1935).
Tortilla Flat is set in Monterey, California, particularly in the namesake shantytown that was perched on the hill above the city. The main characters are "paisanos," members of a latino culture specific to California, and are inspired by the many urban legends Steinbeck heard and firsthand interactions with the paisanos of Monterey. Therefore, Tortilla Flat is an early showcase of Steinbeck's substantial incorporation of personal experience to craft novels. The novel shines due to its detailed images of Monterey and the vivid depictions of the paisano characters, which engrossed audiences and critics alike when the book came out. Tortilla Flat's great sales and a subsequent movie deal lifted Steinbeck permanently out of poverty, allowing him to put all of his focus into his writing. However, the rest of the nation was still in the throes of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, which would form the groundwork for Steinbeck's upcoming works.
Depression and Dust
Steinbeck's next novel was In Dubious Battle (1936), which is about a fruit-workers strike set in Great Depression-era California. Unlike the lighthearted nature of Tortilla Flat, the book addresses the poverty and violence that most Americans faced during this time period. Although In Dubious Battle was not as successful as his previous novella, its subject matter set the stage for his future works. Steinbeck's next novella, Of Mice and Men (1937) would cement his status as an American literary legend. Audiences found the simple story of Lennie and George endearing and thought-provoking, and it soon reached the top of bestseller lists across the country. Furthermore, the novella may be the most enduring work in Steinbeck's catalog, as it is still a staple in high-school English classes throughout the United States.
Soon after, Steinbeck would adapt Of Mice and Men into a stageplay. It opened on Broadway to a warm reception and began a country-wide tour shortly thereafter. It marked the beginning of Steinbeck's artistic pursuits outside of poetry, short stories, and novels. Steinbeck would go on to write two more stageplays and movie scripts, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) and the Western starring Marlon Brando, Viva Zapata! (1952). Although he flirted with Broadway and Hollywood, long-form writing was always his finest work, which was proved again by his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
The seminal work of Dust Bowl fiction, The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family and their journey to California to search for a better life. Many of the anecdotes and plot points within the novel are inspired by Steinbeck's experiences reporting on migrant workers. During the 1930s, he worked for the San Francisco News as a reporter with a focus on the plights of migrant workers in California. He witnessed the awful working conditions, ramshackle housing, and rampant starvation that families of migrant workers contended with on a daily basis. Once again, Steinbeck's personal experiences imbued his work with an authentic perspective of the suffering of downtrodden Americans. The book struck a chord with the American public like few books ever have, selling enough copies that Steinbeck never had to worry about money for the rest of his life.
Despite Steinbeck's cemented financial security and literary legacy, his personal life suffered. He dealt with bouts of depression during and after writing The Grapes of Wrath, straining his relationship with his wife Carol. In 1941, the two would decide to get a divorce. Moreover, Steinbeck could not stand his own publicity, and the increased media attention increased his reclusive behavior. Many of his friendships faltered during this time, but he always maintained a close relationship with Ed Ricketts. A journey they took shortly after he finished The Grapes of Wrath was to the Gulf of California and recorded in Steinbeck's first non-fiction work, The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research(1941). The intimate work of non-fiction struggled to find an audience, which was due in part to its publication date, the 5th of December 1941. Two days later, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, and America's attention shifted from the Great Depression to World War Two. Steinbeck's writing followed suit.
As the world plunged into total war, propaganda became an essential tool used by every government in the conflict. Mass media was the perfect avenue to reach millions of citizens and inspire them with poignant messaging, and Steinbeck was one of the most influential artists in the United States at the time. It's no surprise that the US government quickly brought Steinbeck into the fold of their propaganda machine.
Famous playwright Robert E. Sherwood was the head of the Foreign Information Service (FIS), which was designed to counter Nazi propaganda. Steinbeck was brought into the FIS and was commissioned to write a novel to help the war effort. This resulted in The Moon is Down (1942), a story about a nameless town in Europe occupied by a fascist force. The novel and the accompanying stageplay proved to be incredibly popular, even though Steinbeck thought it was far from his best work. Steinbeck once again looked to personal experience for inspiration, deciding the only way to authentically write about the war was to see it for himself.
Audiences found the simple story of Lennie and George endearing and thought-provoking, and it soon reached the top of bestseller lists across the country
In 1943, Steinbeck became a war reporter. Much like when he wrote about migrant families in California, Steinbeck took a highly personal approach to reporting, "[Steinbeck] lived with the troops, ate meals with them, walked the streets among them, travelled on the same ships as they did, sat on the edges of their bunks, talked and (mostly) listened" (Parini 332). Steinbeck witnessed combat, as he was embedded with troops for a week during the invasion of Salerno, Sicily. He wrote a newspaper column about his experiences that was widely read across the United States, but soon left combat. When he returned home to the states, many of his friends said his time in combat "left him permanently affected" (Parini 335). Years later, Steinbeck returned to the beaches at Salerno, saying in a letter to his editor and close friend Pat Covici, "I never did write what I truly thought of the war ... It would have not been encouraging to those who had to fight it" (Parini 460). Steinbeck's next work would take place far away from the war, returning to the familiar setting of Monterey.
Published near the end of WWII, Cannery Row (1945) is a return to the Depression narratives and California setting that caused Steinbeck's initial ascendance to literary superstardom. However, it was not nearly as well received. Steinbeck's next novella, The Pearl (1947) would suffer similar lambasting from literary critics, who lamented that Steinbeck's writings since The Grapes of Wrath were not nearly as complex or socially impactful. In between these novels and novellas, Steinbeck was laying the foundation for an epic piece of fiction, one that would weave together social commentary, Biblical allegories, and his personal life: East of Eden (1952).
Life and Fiction
During the '40s, Steinbeck had an affair while his marriage with Carol was crumbling. Steinbeck was infatuated with a young singer, Gwyn Conger, and they married shortly after Steinbeck's divorce was finalized. Steinbeck's second marriage was, for the most part, an unhappy one. Although he and Gwyn had two children, Thom and John, they separated after just three short years.
The combination of Steinbeck's troubled life and the backlash to his recently published stories and plays contributed to his worsening mental health. Additionally, his best friend, Ed Ricketts, passed away soon after his second divorce. Steinbeck suffered from severe bouts of depression throughout his life, and, as his life seemingly collapsed around him, he went through a particularly dark period, "He stopped eating regularly and lost weight; he could not sleep; his writing dried up completely" (Parini 393). Steinbeck even questioned his ability to write during this period, even openly suggesting to his editor and friend, Pat Covici, that he was washed up in their personal correspondence. When it seemed possible that Steinbeck may never pick up a pencil again, he met his third wife, Elaine. They would remain married until Steinbeck passed, and though their relationship would face challenges, it was a joyous union. The fresh romance spurred Steinbeck on once again, and he finally sat down to write East of Eden (1952), the grand novel he had pondered for some time.
Other than his non-fiction works, East of Eden is the peak of Steinbeck's life and writing intertwining. The novel primarily focuses on two families, the Trasks and Hamiltons, who live in Salinas Valley, California, a familiar Steinbeck setting. The over-600-page novel winds through a familial history inspired by Steinbeck's ancestors; even the Hamilton surname is Steinbeck's mother's maiden name. The complex story of East of Eden is not only one of Steinbeck's most poignant allegorical tales, it represents him grappling with his own life. Steinbeck once said, "A novel may be said to be the man who writes it" (Parini 479). As much as East of Eden is a story of the Trasks and Hamiltons, it is also the story of John Steinbeck.
Steinbeck witnessed combat, as he was embedded with troops for a week during the invasion of Salerno, Sicily
East of Eden once again faced mixed reception, with some claiming it to be Steinbeck's magnum opus and others calling the novel a bloated mess. However, these criticisms were of less concern to Steinbeck than they would have been previously. Elaine said of her husband, "'His life was different after East of Eden.' The difference was that, after nearly a decade of dissolution, emotional and artistic, Steinbeck felt he was putting himself together again" (Parini 426).
From 1935 to 1952, Steinbeck wrote a major work about once a year. Ranging from nonfiction to stageplays and novels, Steinbeck's literary catalog presented a nearly unmatched combination of quality and quantity. However, after East of Eden the frequency of his publications began to slow, which was due in part to his declining health.
Steinbeck began to experience "episodes," which turned out to be small strokes. He would fall unconscious and lose sensation in his extremities, causing significant discomfort. The health issues would also catalyze his depression, which could affect him for months at a time. However, Steinbeck found a lot of joy, too, during these years, much of it from travel. He visited Paris, France; Somerset, England; took a trip around Europe with his two sons and Elaine; and even traveled to the Soviet Union as part of JFK's cultural exchange program. These trips always filled Steinbeck with energy and also inspired much of his writing. A road trip across the United States with his dog led to one of his most endearing works, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962), which is a nonfiction book about their cross-country experience. Although The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden will always be Steinbeck's most essential works, his later writings like Travels with Charley offer plenty to sink one's their literary teeth into.
Despite Steinbeck's writing slowing in his later years, his crowning achievement came during this time. In 1962, Steinbeck and Elaine were glued to their TV during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the midst of the tense broadcast, a news flash appeared on screen saying that John Steinbeck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The letter informing him of his victory had been sent to a different address, and Steinbeck learned of his Nobel at the same time as the rest of the world. In the midst of one of the largest political emergencies in the 20th Century, Steinbeck was met by 75 reporters eager to record his words about winning the prize, an excellent indicator of how popular Steinbeck was at the time.
Steinbeck suffered from severe bouts of depression throughout his life
Steinbeck's Nobel would cement him as not just a titan of American literature — he was permanently canonized as one of the greatest writers to put pencil to paper. Moreover, Nobel laureates seldom publish much original work after winning the prize, and Steinbeck was no exception. His most significant work afterward was his journalism during the Vietnam War, where he got close to combat much like during his time in Sicily in WWII. However, his hawkish support for the conflict resulted in many of his most ardent supporters souring on Steinbeck, with many dismissing his work as blatant propaganda. After reporting on Vietnam, Steinbeck returned to his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where his health continued to decline. Despite his worsening condition, Steinbeck was at peace, saying he "had a good span of life" (Parini 575). On December 20th, 1968, John Steinbeck passed away.
Steinbeck The Pipe Smoker
When Steinbeck was writing, he would frequently embrace a rigid routine. Commonly, he would rise early and not leave his room until he finished writing his allotted number of words, which was typically in the thousands. He always wrote with a pencil, and sharpened whole boxes of them before writing to avoid the distraction of a dull point. However, just as essential to his creative process was pipe smoking.
Near the end of his life, Steinbeck discussed his pipe smoking in an interview with the Paris review: "You know I always smoke a pipe when I work — at least I used to and now I have taken it up again. It is strange — as soon as a pipe begins to taste good, cigarettes become tasteless." One can picture Steinbeck taking a few puffs as he pondered his next sentence, piecing together his novels one bowl at a time. These pipes even creeped directly into his writing. In Tortilla Flat, he describes the main group of characters as paisanos, "a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods," with the skin color, "like that of a well-browned Meerschaum pipe" (Steinbeck, 2). This may not be the most elegant way to describe a racial group, but it certainly conjures up a visceral image in the mind of any pipe smoker.
A road trip across the United States with his dog led to one of his most endearing works
Moreover, we also know exactly what type of pipe Steinbeck liked to smoke. Thanks to the National Steinbeck Center, we have several images of Steinbeck's pipes. He preferred classic straight pipes, with his collection including Billiards, Apples, and a Lovat. Many of these pipes have British origins, from old-school marques like Dr. Max and Tally Ho. Additionally, these are seconds brands, and it seems that Steinbeck valued functional smoking over having a recognizable name, quite in line with the rugged characters in his novels. We also see among his collection a cracked shank and a well-used stem that looks like his dog may have gotten ahold of during one of their long trips. Despite his considerable wealth, Steinbeck bought cheap pipes and smoked them to the bone, an excellent example of his authentic, everyman persona.
However, among all of these pipes, one particularly stands out: the only bent pipe in the collection, a Zulu. This pipe is from the Edwin Wilke tobacconist, which had a brick-and-mortar store on Madison Avenue in New York City, less than a 30-minute walk from Steinbeck's Manhattan apartment. The pipes at Wilke's were "unpainted," meaning that they had no varnish, stain, or fills. It's easy to see these simple, rustic pipes appealing to Steinbeck when he walked into the store in search of tobacco after a long day of writing. Moreover, the most interesting part of this pipe is that "John Steinbeck" is carved into the underside. Although many pipe smokers might cringe at someone hastily writing their name on the pipe, I don't think we are in a position to question anything Steinbeck wrote.
He preferred classic straight pipes, with his collection including Billiards, Apples, and a Lovat
- John Steinbeck: A Biography by Jay Parini
- John Steinbeck on Work Habits, Bibloklept
- Edwin Wilke History, Edwin Wilke