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John Ernst Steinbeck
1902 - 1968
 


John Ernst Steinbeck, American author and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1962, was a leading exponent of the proletarian novel and a prominent spokesman for the victims of the Great Depression.
 

 

John Steinbeck was born on Feb. 27, 1902, in Salinas, Calif., the son of a small-town politician and school-teacher. He worked as a laboratory assistant and farm labourer to support himself through 6 years of study at Stanford University, where he took only those courses that interested him, without seeking a degree. In 1925 he travelled to New York (by way of the Panama Canal) on a freighter, collecting impressions for his first novel. Cup of Gold (1929) was an unsuccessful attempt at psychological romance involving the pirate Henry Morgan.

Undiscouraged, Steinbeck returned to California to begin work as a writer of serious fiction. A collection of short stories, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), vividly detailed rural life among the "unfinished children of nature" in his native California valley. His second novel, To a God Unknown (1933), his strongest statement about man's relationship to the land, reveals a strain of neo-primitive mysticism later to permeate even his most objectively deterministic writings. With Tortilla Flat (1935) Steinbeck received critical and popular acclaim, and there are many critics who consider this humorous and idyllic tale of the Monterey paisanos Steinbeck's most artistically satisfying work.

Steinbeck next dealt with the problems of labour unionism in In Dubious Battle (1936), an effective story of a strike by local grape pickers. Of Mice and Men (1937), first conceived as a play, is a tightly constructed novella about an unusual friendship between two migratory workers. Although the book is powerfully written and often moving, its theme lacks the psychological penetration and moral vision necessary to sustain its tragic intention.

Steinbeck's series of articles for the San Francisco Chronicle on the plight of migratory farm labo-rers provided material for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), his major novel and the finest proletarian fiction of the decade. The struggle of a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers, forced to turn over their land to the banks and journey across the vast plains to the promised land of California - only to be met with derision when they arrive - is a successful example of social protest in fiction, as well as a convincing tribute to man's will to survive. The Grapes of Wrath combines techniques of naturalistic documentation and symbolic stylization, its episodic structure being admirably held together by the unifying device of U.S. Highway 66 and by lyrical inter-chapters which possess a Whitmanesque expansiveness. The novel's weaknesses lie in occasional lapses into sentimentality and melodramatic oversimplification, Steinbeck's tendency to depict human relationships in biological rather than psychological terms, and the general absence of philosophical vision and intellectual content. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.

During World War II Steinbeck served as a foreign correspondent; from this experience came such non-fiction as Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942); his dispatches of 1943, collected as Once There Was a War (1958); and A Russian Journal (1948) with photographs by Robert Capa. More interesting non-fiction of this period is The Sea of Cortez, co-authored with marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts. This account of the two explorers' research into sea life provides an important key to many of the themes and attitudes prevalent in Steinbeck's novels.

Steinbeck's fiction during the 1940s includes The Moon Is Down (1942), a tale of the Norwegian resistance to Nazi occupation; Cannery Row (1944), a return to the milieu of Tortilla Flat; The Wayward Bus (1947); and The Pearl, a popular allegorical novella written in a mannered pseudobiblical style about a poor Mexican fisherman who discovers a valuable pearl which brings ill fortune to his family.

In the 1950s Steinbeck's artistic decline was evident with a series of novels characterized by their sentimentality, pretentiousness, and lack of substance. The author received modest critical praise in 1961 for his more ambitious novel The Winter of Our Discontent, a study of the moral disintegration of a man of high ideals. In 1962 Travels with Charley, a pleasantly humorous account of his travels through America with his pet poodle, was well received. Following the popular success of the latter work, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Steinbeck's finest novels are a curious blend of scientific determinism, romantic mysticism, and a rudimentary, often allegorical, type of symbolism. His work remains popular in both the United States and Europe, chiefly for its social consciousness and compassion and the narrative qualities exhibited in the early novels. Although he refused to settle into political conservatism in his later years, his all-embracing affirmation of American values and acceptance of all national policies, including the Vietnam War, lost him the respect of many liberal intellectuals who had once admired his social commitments. He died on Dec. 28, 1968, in New York City.
 


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John Steinbeck, American author and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1962, was a leading writer of novels about the working class and was a major spokesman for the victims of the Great Depression (a downturn in the American system of producing, distributing, and using goods and services in the 1930s, and during which time millions of people lost their jobs).


Early life

John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, the only son of John Ernst Steinbeck Sr. and Olive Hamilton. His father was a bookkeeper and accountant who served for many years as the treasurer of Monterey County, California. Steinbeck received his love of literature from his mother, who was interested in the arts. His favourite book, and a main influence on his writing, was Sir Thomas Malory's (c. 1408–1471) Le Morte d'Arthur, a collection of the legends of King Arthur. Steinbeck decided while in high school that he wanted to be a writer. He also enjoyed playing sports and worked during the summer on various ranches.

Steinbeck worked as a laboratory assistant and farm labourer to support himself through six years of study at Stanford University, where he took only those courses that interested him without seeking a degree. In 1925 he travelled to New York (by way of the Panama Canal) on a freighter (boat that carries inventory). After arriving in New York, he worked as a reporter and as part of a construction crew building Madison Square Garden. During this time he was also collecting impressions for his first novel. Cup of Gold (1929) was an unsuccessful attempt at romance involving the pirate Henry Morgan.


Begins writing seriously

Undiscouraged, Steinbeck returned to California to begin work as a writer of serious fiction. A collection of short stories, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), contained vivid descriptions of rural (farm) life among the "unfinished children of nature" in his native California valley. His second novel, To a God Unknown (1933), was his strongest statement about man's relationship to the land. With Tortilla Flat (1935) Steinbeck received critical and popular success; there are many critics who consider it his most artistically satisfying work.

Steinbeck next dealt with the problems of labour unions in In Dubious Battle (1936), an effective story of a strike (when workers all decide to stop working as a form of protest against unfair treatment) by local grape pickers. Of Mice and Men (1937), first conceived as a play, is a tightly constructed novella (short novel) about an unusual friendship between two migrant workers (labourers who travel to wherever there is available work, usually on farms). Although the book is powerfully written and often moving, some critics feel that it lacks a moral vision.

Steinbeck's series of articles for the San Francisco Chronicle on the problems of migrant farm laborers provided material for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), his major novel and the finest working-class novel of the 1930s. The Grapes of Wrath relates the struggle of a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers forced to turn over their land to the banks. The family then journeys across the vast plains to the promised land of California—only to be met with scorn when they arrive. It is a successful example of social protest in fiction, as well as a convincing tribute to man's will to survive. The Grapes of Wrath received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.


Other subjects

During World War II (1939–45), which the United States entered to help other nations battle Germany, Italy, and Japan, Steinbeck served as a foreign correspondent. From this experience came such non-fiction as Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942); Once There Was a War (1958), a collection of Steinbeck's dispatches from 1943; and A Russian Journal (1948), with photographs by Robert Capa. More interesting non-fiction of this period is The Sea of Cortez, co-authored with scientist Edward F. Ricketts. This account of the two explorers' research into sea life provides an important key to many of the themes and attitudes featured in Steinbeck's novels.

Steinbeck's fiction during the 1940s includes The Moon Is Down (1942), a tale of the Norwegian resistance to occupation by the Nazis (German ruling party that scorned democracy and considered all non-German people, especially Jews, inferior); Cannery Row (1944), a return to the setting of Tortilla Flat; The Wayward Bus (1947); and The Pearl, a popular novella about a poor Mexican fisherman who discovers a valuable pearl that brings bad luck to his family.


Later decline

In the 1950s Steinbeck's artistic decline was evident with a series of novels that were overly sentimental, stuffy, and lacking in substance. The author received modest critical praise in 1961 for his more ambitious novel The Winter of Our Discontent, a study of the moral disintegration (falling apart) of a man of high ideals. In 1962 Travels with Charley, a pleasantly humorous account of his travels through America with his pet poodle, was well received. Following the popular success of the latter work, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Steinbeck's work remains popular in both the United States and Europe, chiefly for its social consciousness and concern and for the narrative qualities displayed in the early novels. Although he refused to settle into political conservatism (preferring to maintain traditions and resist change) in his later years, his all-embracing support of American values and acceptance of all national policies, including the Vietnam War (1955–75; conflict in which the United States fought against Communist North Vietnam when they invaded Democratic South Vietnam), lost him the respect of many liberal (preferring social change) intellectuals who had once admired his social commitments. He died on December 20, 1968, in New York City.
 


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Steinbeck's place in American literature is assured by his late 1930s novels about the plight of the working class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Growing up in agrarian Salinas, California, Steinbeck felt both empathy for the weak and scorn for the middle-class complacency of his hometown. At fourteen, he decided to write romances, but after a long apprenticeship, he found his voice in more realistic stories about ordinary people trying to achieve dignity in a repressive society. His short stories of the early 1930s, collected in The Long Valley (1938), tell of the misplaced, the lonely, and the misunderstood, their frustration conveyed in prose that, like Hemingway's, is terse and suggestive.

That compact style also served humorously to expose the stifling norms of the middle class. The rollicking Tortilla Flat (1935), his first commercial success, relates the misadventures of a group of drunken, finagling paisanos whose uninhibited zest for life and loyalty to one another are contrasted favorably with bourgeois sensibilities, a theme and tone he later adopted when he wrote about Monterey's Cannery Row (1945). Steinbeck's symbolic realism and sociopolitical convictions achieve their fullest expression, however, in his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. This saga of the Joad family--"tractored out" of Oklahoma, exiled to California, and oppressed as migrant laborers--focused national attention on the plight of the homeless. The popularity of the book and of John Ford's classic film version brought Steinbeck the fame that, in fact, he scarcely relished.

To escape publicity, Steinbeck turned to seemingly unrelated projects. In 1941 he and marine biologist Edward Ricketts published Sea of Cortez, an account of their expedition cataloging marine life and a philosophical record of their ecological perspective. Steinbeck's decision to become a serious student of science was characteristic of his career. He was among the first major twentieth-century writers to view his characters with scientific detachment, focusing on what is, not on what could or should be. Steinbeck and Ricketts called this "non-teleological" or "is" thinking. Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez and Cannery Row give full expression to this ecological and holistic awareness.

Steinbeck's shift from politics to biology was but an occasion of his constant experimentation with genres. In the 1940s and 1950s he composed screenplays, a musical, journalistic pieces, travel narratives, fables, an epic, and play/novelettes--his term to describe short fiction that could be performed directly from the text. Perhaps because of this diversity, his later work is uneven. Although some of his journalistic pieces reflect the clarity and sympathy of his earlier work, others are unmistakably slight. That same unevenness is reflected in his experiments with fabulist fiction. Whereas the symbolic play/novelette Burning Bright (1950) was a critical failure, the tight fable The Pearl (1947) occupies a high place in his canon. Undoubtedly his most impressive fictional experiment after Grapes, however, is East of Eden. In this epic novel, he intertwined realistic family history with a symbolic rendering of the Cain and Abel story. Technically flawed and again uneven, the novel is nevertheless riveting. Its importance lies in Steinbeck's efforts to come to terms with individual ethical responsibility rather than social dynamics.

At the end of his career, Steinbeck recorded with increasing dismay the problems of a materialistic culture. After publishing an incisive critique of America's moral decline, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Taken together, his works are remarkable in their diversity and their power to articulate the dreams and frustrations of average Americans within quintessentially American landscapes.
 


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American novelist, story writer, playwright, and essayist. John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He is best remembered for THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1939), a novel widely considered to be a 20th-century classic. The impact of the book has been compared to that of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Steinbeck's epic about the migration of the Joad family, driven from its bit of land in Oklahoma to California, provoked a wide debate about the hard lot of migrant labourers, and helped to put an agricultural reform into effect.

"Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up in the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments." (from The Grapes of Wrath)

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California. His native region of Monterey Bay was later the setting for most of his fiction. "We were poor people with a hell of a lot of land which made us think we were rich people," the author once recalled. Steinbeck's father was a county treasurer. From his mother, a teacher, Steinbeck learned to love books. Among his early favourites were Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Le Morte d'Arthur.

Steinbeck attended the local high school and worked on farms and ranches during his vacations. To finance his education, he held many jobs and sometimes dropped out of college for whole quarters. Between 1920 and 1926, he studied marine biology at Stanford University, but did not take a degree-he always planned to be a writer. Several of his early poems and short stories appeared in university publications. After spending a short time as a laborer on the construction of Madison Square Garden in New York City and reporter for the American, Steinbeck returned to California. While writing, Steinbeck took odd jobs. He was apprenticehood-carrier, apprentice painter, caretaker of an estate, surveyor, and fruit-picker. During a period, when he was as a watchman of a house in the High Sierra, Steinbeck wrote his first book, CUP OF GOLD (1929). It failed to earn back the $250 the publisher had given him in an advance.

In Pacific Grove in the early 1930s, Steinbeck met Edward Ricketts. He was a marine biologist, whose views on the interdependence of all life deeply influenced Steinbeck's thinking. THE SEA OF CORTEZ (1941) resulted from an expedition in the Gulf of California he made with Ricketts.

PASTURES OF HEAVEN (1932) and THE LONG VALLEY (1938) were short story collections, in which the Salinas valley played similar mythical role as the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County in Faulkner's works, based largely on his hometown of Oxford, in Lafayette County, Mississippi. In the novel TO A GOD UNKNOWN (1933) Steinbeck mingled Ricketts' ideas with Jungian concepts and themes, which had been made familiar by the mythologist Joseph Campbell. The novel depicts a farmer, Joseph Wayne, who receives a blessing from his pioneer father, John Wayne, and goes to build himself a new farm in a distant valley. Joseph develops his own beliefs of death and life, and to bring an end to a drought, he sacrifices himself on a stone, becoming "earth and rain". Steinbeck did not want to explain his story too much and he knew beforehand that the book would not find readers.

Steinbeck's first three novels went unnoticed, but his humorous tale of pleasure-loving Mexican-Americans, TORTILLA FLAT (1935), brought him wider recognition. The theme of the book-the story of King Arthur and the forming of the Round Table- emained well hidden from the readers and critics as well. However, Steinbeck's financial situation improved significantly-he had earned $35 a week for a long time, but now he was paid thousands of dollars for the film rights to Tortilla Flat.

IN DUBIOUS BATTLE (1936) was a strike novel set in the California apple country. The strike of nine hundred migratory workers is led by Jim Nolan, devoted to his cause. Before his death Jim confesses: "I never had time to look at things, Mac, never. I never looked how leaves come out. I never looked at the way things happen." One of the characters, Doc Burton, a detached observer, Steinbeck partly derived from his friend Ed Ricketts. Later Steinbeck developed his observer's personality with changes in such works as CANNERY ROW (1945), which returned to the world of Tortilla Flat. The novel was an account of the adventures and misadventures of workers in a California cannery and their friends. Its sequel, SWEET THURSDAY, appeared in 1954.

The events of THE RED PONY (1937) take place on the Tiflin ranch in the Salinas Valley, California. The first two sections of the story sequence, "The Gift" and "The Great Mountains", were published in the North American Review in 1933, and the third section, "The Promise," did not appear in Harpers until 1937. With "The Leader of the People," the four sections are connected by common characters, settings, and themes. Through each story, the reader follows Jody's initiation into adult life, in which the pony of the title functions as a symbol of his innocence and maturation. A movie version, for which Steinbeck wrote the screenplay, was made in 1949. Among Steinbeck's other film scripts is The Pearl, the story for Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), and the script for Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! (1952), starring Marlon Brando.

OF MICE AND MEN (1937), a story of shattered dreams, became Steinbeck's first big success. Steinbeck adapted it also into a three-act play, which was produced in 1937. George Milton and Lennia Small, two itinerant ranchhands, dream of one day owning a small farm. George acts as a father figure to Lennie, who is large and simpleminded. Lennie loves all that is soft, but his immense physical strength is a source of troubles and George is needed to calm him. The two friends find work from a farm and start saving money for their future. Annoyed by the bullying foreman of the ranch, Lenny breaks the foreman's arm, but also wakes the interest of the ranch owner's flirtatious daughter-in-law. Lenny accidentally kills her and escapes into the hiding place, that he and George have agreed to use, if they get into difficulties. George hurries after Lenny and shoots him before he is captured by a vengeful mob but at the same time he loses his own hopes and dreams of better future. Before he dies, Lennie says: "Let's do it now. Le's get that place now."

For The Grapes of Wrath- the title originated from Julia Ward Howe's The Battle Hymn of the Republic (1861)-Steinbeck traveled around California migrant camps in 1936. When the book appeared, it was attacked by US Congressman Lyle Boren, who characterized it as "a lie, a black, infernal creation of twisted, distorted mind". Later, when Steinbeck received his Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy called it simply "an epic chronicle." The Exodus story of Okies on their way to an uncertain future in California, ends with a scene in which Rose of Sharon, who has just delivered a stillborn child, suckles a starving man with her breast. "Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. 'You got to,' she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. 'There!' she said. 'There.' Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously."

John Ford's film version from 1940, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, dismissed this ending-the final images optimistically celebrate President Roosevelt's New Deal. "We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out. They can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people," says Ma Joad. Steinbeck himself was skeptical of Hollywood's faithfulness to his material. However, after seeing the film he said: "Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly has a hard, truthful ring." Orson Welles did not like Ford's interpretation because he "made that into a story about mother love."

Fleeing publicity followed by the success of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck went to Mexico in 1940 to film the documentary Forgotten Village. During WW II, Steinbeck served as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune in Great Britain and the Mediterranean area. He wrote such government propaganda as the novel THE MOON IS DOWN (1942), about resistance movement in a small town occupied by the Nazis. Its film version, starring Henry Travers, Cedric Hardwicke, and Lee J. Cobb, was shot on the set of How Green Was My Valley (1941), which depicted a Welsh mining village. "Free men cannot start a war," Steinbeck wrote, "but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars." Steinbeck had visited Europe in 1937 after gaining success with Of Mice and Men, and met on a Swedish ship two Norwegians, with whom he had celebrated Norway's independence day. In 1943 Steinbeck moved to New York City, his home for the rest of his life. His summers the author spent at Sag Harbor. He also travelled much in Europe.

Steinbeck's twelve-year marriage to Carol Henning had ended in 1942. Next year he married the singer Gwyndolyn Conger; they had two sons, Thom and John. However, the marriage was unhappy and they were divorced in 1949. Steinbeck's postwar works include THE PEARL (1947), a symbolic tale of a Mexican Indian pearl diver Kino. He finds a valuable pearl which changes his life, but not in the way he did expect. Kino sees the pearl as his opportunity to better life. When the townsfolk of La Paz learn of Kino's treasury, he is soon surrounded by a greedy priest, doctor, and businessmen. Kino's family suffers series of disasters and finally he throws the pearl back into ocean. Thereafter his tragedy is legendary in the town. Thematically Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea from 1952 has much similarities with this work.

A RUSSIAN JOURNAL (1948) was an account of the author's journey to the Soviet Union with the photographer Robert Capa. Steinbeck's idea was to describe the country without prejudices, but he could not move freely, he could not speak Russian, and the Soviet hosts, perhaps by the order of Stalin himself, took care that there were more than enough vodka, champagne, caviar, chickens, honey, tomatoes, kebabs, and watermelons on their guest's table.

The director Elia Kazan met Steinbeck when the author had separated from Gwyn and was drinking heavily. "I don't think John Steinbeck should have been living in New York, I don't think he should have been writing plays," Kazan wrote in his autobiography A Life (1988). "He was a prose writer, at home in the west, with land, with horses, or on a boat; in this big city, he was a dupe." Their most famous film project, East of Eden, covered the last part of the book. James Dean made his debut in the film. Kazan originally wanted Marlon Brando to play the role of Cal. He sent Dean to see Steinbeck, who considered him a snotty kid, but said he was Cal "sure as hell". Dean received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, but Lee Rogow in the Saturday Review was not satisfied (March 19, 1955); "Kazan has apparently attempted to graft a Brando-type personality and set of mannerisms upon Dean, and the result is less than successful... this artful construction of a performance is not, to get Stanislavskian about it, building a character."

In 1950 Steinbeck married Elaine Scott, the ex-wife Randolph Scott, a Western star. Steinbeck's son John had problems in later years with drugs and alcohol; he died in 1991.

EAST OF EDEN (1952), the title referring to the fallen world, is long family novel, is set in rural California in the years around the turn of the century. In the center of the saga, based partly on the story of Cain and Abel, is two families of settlers, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, whose history reflect the formation of the United States, when "the Church and the whorehouse arrived in the Far West simultaneously..." The second half of the story focus on the lives of the twins, Aron and Caleb, and their conflict. Between them is Cathy, tiny, pretty, but an adulteress and murderess. "It doesn't matter that Cathy was what I have called a monster. Perhaps we can't understand Cathy, but on the other hand we are capable of many things in all directions, of great virtues and great sins. And who in his mind has not probed the black water?"

Steinbeck wrote thousands of letters, sometimes several a day. To Pascal Covici, his friend, he confessed that he wanted to write the work to his sons, the story of good and evil, love and hate, to demonstrate to them how they are inseparable. His writing process Steinbeck recorded minutely in JOURNAL OF A NOVEL (1969). "But tell me," he wrote to Covici, "have you ever been this closely associated with a book before? While it was being written."

In 1959 Stenbeck spent nearly a year at Discove Cottage in England, working with Morte d'Arthur, the first book he had read as a child. After returning to the United States, he travelled around his country with his poodle, Charley, and published in 1962 TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY IN SEARCH OF AMERICA. His son John wrote in his memoir that Steinbeck was too shy to talk to any of the people in the book. "He couldn't handle that amount of interaction. So, the book is actually a great novel."

THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT (1961), set in contemporary America, was Steinbeck's last major novel. The book was not well received, and critics considered him an exhausted. Not even the Nobel Prize changed opinions. The New York Times asked in an editoria, whether the prize committee might not have made a better choice. Steinbeck took this public humiliation hard. In later years he did much special reporting abroad, dividing his time between New York and California.

For a while, Steinbeck served as an advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose Vietnam policies he agreed with. At Camp the President asked Steinbeck to go to Vietnam to report on the war. Steinbeck wrote for the newspaper Newsday a series of articles, which divided his readers. The New York Post attacked him for betraying his liberal past.

John Steinbeck died of heart attack in New York on December 20, 1968. In the posthumously published THE ACTS OF KING ARTHUR AND HIS NOBLE KNIGHTS (1976), Steinbeck turned his back on contemporary subjects and brought to life the Arthurian world with its ancient codes of honour. Steinbeck had started the work with enthusiasm but never finished it.


 

 

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