If you’ve attended high school, you’ve probably read at least one of Steinbeck’s books. His award-winning novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and others have solidified themselves as American classics. But while many are familiar with his work, many don’t know the man behind the words. Today we take a look at some fascinating facts about John Steinbeck to learn more about the prolific author’s life.
He suffered from many health issues throughout his life.
Steinbeck was no stranger to the emergency room. His hospital visits began at the age of 16 when he caught a case of pleural pneumonia that almost took his life. At age 17, he had appendicitis and had to have his appendix removed.
Things didn’t get much better for him as an adult. Steinbeck developed a severe kidney infection, a detached retina, varicose veins, and a shattered knee — all requiring surgical treatment. Later in life, he suffered a stroke and a heart attack, as well as a serious back injury for which he received complicated surgery to fix. Steinbeck’s work was famously inspired by his own life experiences, so it is no surprise that illness and injury are common motifs in his books.
His dog ate his Of Mice and Men manuscript.
In one of the few instances where the “My dog ate my homework!” excuse held any truth, Steinbeck’s dog, Toby, ate half of his first Of Mice and Men manuscript. It was his only manuscript at the time and the incident set the book’s publication back by a few months. In his book Conversations with John Steinbeck, the author recalls that though he was upset at first, he ultimately forgave the pup for his unfortunate choice of snacks. Steinbeck even jokes that Toby was acting as a literary critic, writing “I have promoted Toby-dog to be a lieutenant-colonel in charge of literature.”
He was obsessed with pencils.
While most writers would prefer to type hundreds-of-pages-long manuscripts, Steinbeck preferred doing things the old-fashioned way. He would only write with wooden pencils and was very particular in his use of them. He went through 60 pencils a day and would sharpen all of them at once before he began writing. Steinbeck writes in Journal of a Novel that he “detests short pencils” and would get rid of them as soon as they were too small for his liking. His favorite brand of pencils was Blackwing, and he writes that “the pure luxury” of using them “charges me with energy and invention.” Steinbeck’s almost childlike fascination with the instrument is endearing and fitting for a man as quirky as him.
He wasn’t always a writer.
Steinbeck worked several other jobs before ultimately becoming a prolific author. He started out as a freelance writer immediately after graduating from Stanford. When that wasn’t paying the bills, Steinbeck began working as a construction worker in New York while reporting for a newspaper on the side. He eventually moved back home to California where he was a caretaker and bus driver. It was there that he wrote his first novel, Cup of Gold, and settled on writing as his life’s career.
He was suspected to be a communist during the Red Scare.
Steinbeck’s scathing criticism of capitalism and American socioeconomic injustices in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, sparked rumors that he was a Soviet sympathizer during the Cold War. A year after the novel was published, Steinbeck was put under FBI observation for his suspected communist beliefs. His visit to the Soviet Union in 1947 with photographer, Robert Capa, served to strengthen these suspicions.
Steinbeck was deemed so suspicious by government officials that FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, waged a personal war against him. Hoover personally kept Steinbeck from joining the U.S. military and kept tabs on everything the author did throughout his life. Hoover’s vendetta against Steinbeck was so great that the author wrote a letter to the Attorney General, asking:
“Do you suppose you could ask Edgar’s boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I’m an enemy alien. It’s getting tiresome.”
Released FBI files reveal that Hoover’s efforts to prove Steinbeck’s Soviet loyalties were fruitless. Steinbeck never personally revealed whether or not he was a communist either. All we have of the author’s political leanings lie between the lines of his writings.
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