By Dr Oliver Tearle
John Steinbeck (1902-68) is one of the major writers of American literature. His novels and short stories, which include Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and East of Eden, are some of the most remarkable works of twentieth-century fiction. But what are some of the most intriguing and curious facts about John Steinbeck, about his life, work, and legacy?
Here are five of our favourites. If you enjoy these Steinbeck facts, check out our bumper collection of famous author facts.
1. An early draft of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men was eaten by his dog.
It was Max, one of several dogs Steinbeck owned during his life, who devoured the novel’s draft and so became, in effect, the book’s first critic. This is probably Steinbeck’s most famous novel, and draws on his own experiences as a ‘bindlestiff’ (or migratory worker) in the US in the 1920s.
The novel’s title famously comes from the Robert Burns poem ‘To a Mouse’: ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley’ (or ‘go often awry’). The original title of the novella was ‘Something That Happened’. (We have more interesting facts about Of Mice and Men here.)
This novella, which is perhaps the best route into understanding the work of Steinbeck, is set in the 1930s and focuses on migrant ranch workers. The novella focuses on two men, Lennie and George.
2. In the 1980s, a rumour arose that Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath had been translated into Japanese as ‘The Angry Raisins’.
This rumour was, however, false. It is a good example of how people love a good ‘lost in translation’ story, and it has been debunked numerous times.
He was known to use up to 60 pencils in a day, preferring the pencil to a typewriter or pen. Hemingway was also a fan of graphite rather than ink, though ‘Papa’ apparently also enjoyed sharpening pencils while he was working on a novel, to help him think!
(We have more great facts about Hemingway here.)
4. Steinbeck wrote a book about King Arthur.
It’s an unlikely topic for the author of Depression-era novels, but Steinbeck’s sortie into Arthurian fantasy was penned late in his career. Like T. H. White (who wrote the sequence The Once and Future King, beginning with The Sword in the Stone) and Tennyson (who wrote a long verse-novel, Idylls of the King, in the nineteenth century), Steinbeck drew on Sir Thomas Malory’s vast fifteenth-century prose epic, Le Morte d’Arthur, for his source material.
Steinbeck’s Arthurian fantasy was The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. Begun in 1956, the book was left unfinished upon Steinbeck’s death in 1968, and was not published until 1976.
5. He wrote one of the finest love letters in all of literature – a letter about falling in love.
In this letter of 1958, Steinbeck responds to a letter his son Thom had written to him. Thom had told his father that he had fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan (at this time, Thom was away at boarding school). Steinbeck’s tone is supportive and honest throughout, taking his son’s feelings into account but also offering advice on ‘what to do about it’ – surely what every teenager in the first pangs of a love affair wants to know. ‘The object of love is the best and most beautiful,’ he tells Thom. ‘Try to live up to it.’
He ends the letter by assuring his son, ‘And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.’ You can read the letter in full here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.