Steinbeck's Influences

Teachers | Stanford Friends | Cannery Row Contingent | Writers and Artists | Journalists | Social Activists | Marriage | Show Business and Hollywood | Politicians | Editors and Agents

Essay © 2016 by Jeanette Rumsby 


While Steinbeck was largely self-taught in biology and philosophy, his composition and creativity were highly influenced by a series of teachers whom he both feared and revered. Among them were two of his high school teachers, Miss Cupp and Miss Hawkins. Despite Steinbeck’s lack of academic effort and fortitude, Miss Cupp recognized his writerly talents and considered Steinbeck her best student, “reading his compositions to the class and holding them up as models” (Benson 22). While Steinbeck did not bask in the glory of being teacher’s pet, his experiences with Miss Cupp were the catalyst for his decision to become a writer. Oddly enough, however, Steinbeck did not claim Miss Cupp as his favorite and most inspirational high school teacher. Rather, he admired Miss Hawkins: a math teacher who possessed independence and youth. In short, he admired her -- and in return, she encouraged him to “chart his own course and persist with his ambition” (Benson 23). 

Edith Ronald MirrieleesAt Stanford, Steinbeck found himself under the tutelage of two other inspirational women. The first, Margery Bailey, was known for being both intimidating and opinionated. She taught a number of Steinbeck’s classes, and hosted small literature readings for the English department. However, because Bailey and Steinbeck were both assertive, they did not get along well. Though Bailey eventually admitted admiration for Steinbeck’s talent, and like Miss Cupp presented his work aloud to the rest of the class, she maintained her initial coldness with him throughout their acquaintance and even ignored a letter he sent upon the occasion of her retirement (after he had become a well-established writer) (Benson 55). In direct contrast with Bailey, we have Edith Ronald Mirrielees: “by personality and appearance she was almost the opposite of Margery Bailey, slender, frail and gentle, whereas Bailey was heavy-set, heavy-featured, and heavy-handed” (Benson 58). Mirrielees forced the verbosity out of Steinbeck’s work, and gave him lessons in logical and truthful writing that can be traced all the way through his later works. His philosophy of loneliness echoes her assertion that “writing can never be other than a lonely business” (Benson 59).

Stanford Friends

Carlton Sheffield

During his time at Stanford, Steinbeck developed a number of influential and life-long friendships. The most prominent of his Stanford connections was Carlton A. Sheffield, also known as Duke, Dook, Juk, or Jook. Steinbeck and Sheffield were college roommates, and had many things in common: “they were both English majors, both wanted to be writers, and both were nonconformists with a sense of humor” (Benson 49). They shared a love for jokes, games, pointless philosophical arguments, and wild, adventurous schemes. Steinbeck was protective of his work and stubbornly opposed to criticism, but Sheffield was one of very few friends who was not only allowed but encouraged to give feedback on Steinbeck’s early drafts (Benson 154). Steinbeck cared very much for Sheffield; not only did he write to Sheffield’s fiancé, Ruth Carpenter, threatening “I love this person so much that I would cut your charming throat should you interfere seriously with his happiness or manifest future,” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 13) but even wrote to Sheffield himself in 1933: “you are the only person in the world who believes I can do what I set out to do. Not even I believe that all the time. And so, in a kind of gratitude I address all my writing to you, whether or not you know it” (Benson 259). It is because of the intensity of their friendship that its end was so devastating. After gaining some popularity when Of Mice and Men was published, Steinbeck offered to finance Sheffield’s doctorate degree. This moment of generosity was received as scorn, and led to a separation that made both parties feel embarrassed, betrayed, and estranged from each others’ lifestyles. Their friendship was not repaired until early in the 1950s, when Steinbeck admitted, “I have millions of acquaintances and many professional friends but no one to talk basic things to and I’d like to get back to you” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 463). They exchanged letters for the rest of Steinbeck’s life.

In addition to his tumultuous friendship with Sheffield, Steinbeck relied on the company of George Mors, Webster “Toby” Street, and Carl Wilhelmson. As Steinbeck’s first college roommate, Mors had a front-row seat to Steinbeck’s stubbornness, indecision, and impulsivity. Mors was a dedicated engineering student without whom “Steinbeck probably would not have lasted as long as he did in his first tenure at the university” (Benson 36). Of course Mors was the lucky recipient of Steinbeck’s infamous note: “gone to China. See you again sometime” (Benson 43) (Steinbeck’s dream of escaping to China was short-lived; due to his lack of seafaring experience, no captain would take him aboard).  

Toby Street and Carl Wilhelmson were additional members of the Stanford English Club founded by the formidable Margery Bailey. Both were writers, though Steinbeck was most eager to collaborate with Street. In fact, the storyline of To a God Unknown is lifted directly from a play Street drafted for a writing class at Stanford (not plagiarized; Street gifted his manuscript to Steinbeck to see if he could make something of it) (Steinbeck and Wallsten 14). During the early stages of Steinbeck’s divorce from Carol (and marriage to Gwyn), Street became not only Steinbeck’s attorney but one of his closest friends, giving audience to Steinbeck’s marital concerns and anxieties.  

In Carl Wilhelmson Steinbeck saw a kindred spirit; a man interested in writing above all else, whose independence was, to use Steinbeck’s phraseology, “true,” in that it was purely derived from fascinating and unique life experiences (Benson 119). Steinbeck and Wilhelmson shared a San Francisco apartment during the early 1930s, where Steinbeck felt considerable agitation as a result of Wilhelmson’s loud typewriter bell and bleak attitude. However, despite their incompatibility as roommates, Steinbeck and Wilhelmson remained friends for a long time, and Wilhelmson served as the sounding board for Steinbeck’s concerns regarding his friendship with Sheffield.

The Cannery Row Contingent

Ed RickettsA discussion of Steinbeck’s influences would be incomplete without a mention  of Ed Ricketts. Entire books have been written endeavouring to unpack the vast inspiration these two men gleaned from each other (see Steinbeck and Ricketts by Richard Astro); it is animpossible task to do their relationship justice in a mere paragraph. Ricketts, born in Chicago in 1897, ran the Pacific Biological Laboratory in Cannery Row. The lab became the epicenter for parties, discussions, and philosophical gamboling. Simply put, Steinbeck and Ricketts used each other as sounding boards for obscure and fascinating philosophical ideas. They worked together to refine Steinbeck’s theory of the phalanx (a theory about group behavior that Steinbeck pondered while caring for his ailing mother), his theory of non-teleological thinking (a philosophy stemming from Ricketts’ idealization of “true” things), and they even co-authored a book. In 1940, Steinbeck, Ricketts, Steinbeck’s first wife Carol, and a crew of eclectic sailors left Monterey Bay on an expedition to the Sea of Cortez, where they collected and studied numerous types of marine life and speculated on their varying philosophies of life, human and animal. The book that resulted, Sea of Cortez, is a nearly 600-page conglomeration of journal, philosophy, and taxonomy that truly symbolizes the nature of their friendship. 

Ricketts’ influence on Steinbeck is perhaps best explained in Steinbeck’s own words, and Steinbeck gave us many to choose from; Ricketts is immortalized as the character “Doc” in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. While this fictitious characterization of Ricketts is certainly romanticized, it accurately conveys the ultimate respect and reverence Steinbeck held for his friend. Katharine A. Rodger explains: “Steinbeck’s Doc is both an accurate and an exaggerated portrait of Ed Ricketts. Doc’s interest in philosophy, music, and poetry derives directly from Ricketts’ own” (il). In both novels, Steinbeck shares true stories from Ricketts’ life and even includes direct references to the music and literature that Ricketts found so overwhelmingly inspiring. Through these works and others (Ricketts is considered possible inspiration for the characters of Jim Casey in Grapes of Wrath, Lee in East of Eden, Dr. Winter in The Moon is Down (Rodger xxv), and Doc Burton in In Dubious Battle), Steinbeck truly shared Ricketts’ overwhelming spirit with his readers. But these fictitious representations were not enough. After Ricketts’ untimely death in 1948, Steinbeck wrote a tribute called “About Ed Ricketts” that became the preface to a new edition of Sea of Cortez (this new edition, called The Log from the Sea of Cortez, did not list Ricketts as co-author). In this tribute, Steinbeck exhibits the pain he felt in Ricketts’ death, and honors their remarkable friendship:

Knowing Ed Ricketts was instant. After the first moment I knew him, and for the next eighteen years I knew him better than I knew anyone, and perhaps I did not know him at all. Maybe it was that way with all of his friends. He was different from anyone and yet so like that everyone found himself in Ed, and that might be one of the reasons his death had such an impact. It wasn't Ed who had died but a large and important part of oneself.” (America and Americans 184)

Fellow Writers and Artists 

Another member of the Cannery Row club was the young and yet undiscovered Joseph Campbell. It happened that Joseph Campbell, who would become renowned for numerous works on comparative mythology and religion, moved into the home next door to Ricketts’ house just as Steinbeck found himself slogging through To a God Unknown (a book that draws significant inspiration from the interplay of religion and myth). Campbell later explained that he and Steinbeck learned very much from each other (and Ricketts, of course). He felt “that some of the mythic images in [Steinbeck’s fiction] may have come out of their discussions,” (Benson 223) and he was almost certainly correct; Steinbeck often transcribed private discussions and conversations into his novels. Truly, those philosophical and drunken evenings must have left an impression on both writers, as after discussions of Carl Jung and group readings of Finnegan’s Wake, Campbell went on to write a seminal contribution to Joyce studies: A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake (published 1944). It is no small coincidence that Steinbeck, Ricketts, and Campbell all went on to be very successful in their writing, each drawing from ideas tossed around in laboratory parties that would thrill the likes of Doc, Mack, and the boys.

Though Steinbeck clashed with many famous authors of his time (he was known to randomly burst out in criticisms of Hemingway, and was decidedly rude to Faulkner (Benson 770)), he did find companionship in the occasional author and artist. One such friend was best-selling novelist and short story writer John O’Hara. Steinbeck staunchly defended O’Hara when his work received poor reviews, and enjoyed his company despite their personality differences (O’Hara was always tailored and neat, and sought the approval of peers like Hemingway and Faulkner) (Benson 699). Benson best described their friendship when he wrote: “Steinbeck spent time with people because they had humor, because they were interesting, or because they were comfortable and relaxing, not because of who or what they were. He came to know John O’Hara, not because he was a writer, but he was a friend of John O’Hara’s because he was a kind and interesting man” (798). And their friendship lasted through difficult times. When Steinbeck was hospitalized with a detached retina, O’Hara drove nearly an hour each day to the hospital in order to sit, talk, and read to Steinbeck. Steinbeck appreciated this gift of time so much he asked of O’Hara, “if I pretended great pain - couldn’t you come once again?” (Benson 926-7). Of course, O’Hara did, for many years. And he sat in the church an hour before Steinbeck’s funeral service began, praying (Benson 1037).

Edward AlbeeEdward Albee, a famous American playwright 26 years Steinbeck’s junior, was another cherished writer-friend whom Steinbeck admired for reasons beyond written work. In fact, due to the nature of their friendship, Albee was an honorary pallbearer at Steinbeck’s funeral. The two met in 1962 after Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf debuted, and Steinbeck ended up inviting Albee to accompany him and Elaine on a cultural exchange tour of the Soviet Union (Benson 925). While Albee was not as inspirational as some of Steinbeck’s friends, he shared with the Steinbecks the fear, pressure, and claustrophobia of traveling in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Sharing such an experience formed a strong friendship.

Bo BeskowThough Steinbeck resented some of his contemporaries due to their Hollywood glamour and good publicity, he relied heavily on correspondence with artists who shared his understanding of art as the product of loneliness. Bo Beskow, a Swedish portrait artist, muralist, and illustrator, was a witness to Steinbeck’s feelings during some of the most difficult times in his life. In a 1937 letter, after a visit to Sweden during which Beskow painted his first portrait of Steinbeck, Steinbeck wrote, “I’m sure that our meeting was not one of those things that happens and ends. We are positive of that now” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 142). Steinbeck was correct in this assertion. More than ten years later, Steinbeck returned to Sweden for a visit with Beskow and a second portrait. He confided in him about his marital concerns with Gwyn, and relied on him to fill the gap Ed Ricketts left when he passed. He wrote Beskow in 1948:

Well, I will be writing to you often now. There are times of verbosity and times of silence. I may try to fill up one lack with you and you must not mind that. Whenever I thought of a good thought or picture - I wondered what Ed would think of it and how he would criticize it? The need is there. Maybe you who have taken part of that will have to take all of it now, at least for a while. (Steinbeck and Wallsten 314)

In 1957, Beskow painted his third and final portrait of John Steinbeck.

Though they didn’t meet until later in life, the bond Steinbeck formed with medieval scholar and Malory expert Eugene Vinaver was one of the most inspirational of his life. With the help of Vinaver, professor of French language and literature at the University of Manchester, Steinbeck had the opportunity to explore numerous texts and archives dedicated to his oldest and strongest source of inspiration: Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. Elaine described Steinbeck and Vinaver’s first meeting as “absolute magic. They just adored each other” (Benson 817). Vinaver aided Steinbeck in his research for his final major writing project, an adaptation of Malory’s Arthurian legend that, unfortunately, Steinbeck never had the chance to finish. Steinbeck and Vinaver were in correspondence for many years, and Steinbeck truly cherished Vinaver’s advice, guidance, and understanding throughout a writing process that was so personal. Unfortunately, due to a mishandling of information regarding the publicity of a newly discovered Arthurian legend (neither Steinbeck nor Vinaver was to blame for the mishap), their friendship was tarnished, and Steinbeck lost the guidance of one whom he so admired, and, perhaps as a result, never finished his project. However, “when The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was published after John’s death, Vinaver went to the BBC to praise it” (Benson 977).

Another artist whom Steinbeck found particularly inspirational was author and screenwriter Budd Schulberg. Shortly after the Watts Riots in 1965, Schulberg entered the scene, determined to foster change. He created the Watts Writers’ Workshops with the intention of teaching creative writing to the agitated youth of Watts, CA. Steinbeck saw the value in this project and became involved, recommending the group for funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (Benson 987). Steinbeck, near the end of his life, confided to Schulberg that he clearly saw the contrast between himself, an aging successful writer, and the new, young writers of Watts: “I know they’re angry and feel on the bottom that they’ve got nothing because we took it all-- but I envy those young writers… that’s my trouble. I don't think I have anything to say anymore” (Benson 1029). Despite the moribund tone of this statement, it truly reflects Steinbeck’s belief in living your writing, and writing your life. His relationship with Schulberg helped him promote this ideology, even when he felt his own creative fount had dried up.


Steinbeck was highly interested in journalism, and took numerous opportunities to flex his editorial muscles during each war or political event he lived through. Most influential to him in his journalist efforts was Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent. During his time documenting the Second World War, Steinbeck would, like Pyle, “not try to compete for the hard news but would work to see things that had been overlooked or to see differently things that had already been reported. He would become a correspondent of perspective--not telling us new, but seeing it new. In his concern for the commonplace and in his preference for the ordinary soldier, he became in many ways a correspondent” (Benson 519-20). When Steinbeck found himself yet again playing the role of war correspondent in Vietnam in 1967, “he kept thinking of Ernie Pyle and Bob Capa” (Benson 1006).

Robert CapaRobert Capa, “one of the great photojournalists of the mid-twentieth century” (Benson 598), influenced Steinbeck in a way that rivaled even Ed Ricketts. It was with Capa that Steinbeck toured Russia, intent on discovering “the great other side” (A Russian Journal 4) of Russian life; in other words, to expose the common lives of the Russian people during a time of extreme political upset (this trip culminated in Steinbeck's A Russian Journal). While Steinbeck disagreed with some of Capa’s business techniques (for example, offering American trinkets in exchange for a photograph then forgetting to give said trinkets (Benson 606)), he truly admired him as a friend, colleague, and artist. In a tribute written after Capa’s death, Steinbeck wrote: “I worked and traveled with Capa a great deal. He may have had closer friends but he had none who loved him more” (America and Americans 217). Benson affirms this statement, claiming “Robert Capa was a wild, audacious, funny man, a perfect companion for Steinbeck” (598). It seems their shared experiences in Russia and mutual appreciation for individual integrity and truth in art truly heightened their respect for each other. Steinbeck said of Capa:

The greatness of Capa is twofold. We have his pictures, a true and vital record of our time - ugly and beautiful, set down by the mind of an artist. But Capa had another work which may be even more important. He gathered young men about him, encouraged, instructed, even fed and clothed them, but best he taught them respect for their art and integrity in its performance. He proved to them that a man can live by this medium and still be true to himself. And never once did he try to get them to take his kind of picture. Thus the effect of Capa will be found in all the men who worked with him. They will carry a little part of Capa all their lives and perhaps hand him on to their young men. (America and Americans 218)

Steinbeck had many close friends who shared this similar trait, this love of truth in art and expression--the list includes Ed Ricketts, Bo Beskow, and Budd Shulberg. But Steinbeck truly drew a heightened inspiration from Capa’s energy and commitment. According to Benson, “after he received the news [of Capa’s death] John simply went out and walked all over Paris for fourteen hours. During the last decade of his life, John suffered several losses of friends, but Capa’s death seemed to hit the hardest of all” (754).

Social Activists

Tom CollinsThe 1930s were a time of unrest both for Steinbeck and the United States economy. Until the publication (and surprising success) of Tortilla Flat in 1935, Steinbeck was searching for his audience and niche as a writer. However, made aware of the injustices done to migrants as a result of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, Steinbeck found himself immersed in a project that would test his abilities as a journalist and challenge his tenacity as an American man. He enjoyed the companionship and guidance of Tom Collins, manager of the Arvin camp for migrant laborers in Kern County. Collins was the inspiration for the Grapes of Wrath relief-camp manager Jim Rawley. Collins was a notoriously hard worker, which Steinbeck admired. As a team, they not only documented injustices but caused physical change in the migrant camps. Charles Wollenberg writes, “they witnessed the devastating effects of that winter’s floods on the Central Valley’s “Little Oklahomas”” (xiv). Collins later described how he and Steinbeck worked “for forty-eight hours, and without food or sleep,” helping “sick and half-starved people whose camps had been destroyed by the floods.” “We couldn’t speak to one another because we were too tired,” Collins remembered, “yet we worked together as cogs in an intricate piece of machinery” (Wollenberg xiv).

Collins and Steinbeck remained friends until Steinbeck’s life took a drastic turn following his separation from Carol. Collins, like so many of Steinbeck’s cherished friends, possessed the appreciation for the true and genuine. Benson suggests that the relationship between Collins and Steinbeck was not unlike that of Ricketts and Steinbeck. He writes of Collins and Ricketts, “both were very unusual, very talented men, and each had that inspired, idiosyncratic, highly individualistic approach to life that often marks the man of genius” (378). Such were the men Steinbeck chose to surround himself with. Such were the men who made him feel most inspired.

Though not necessarily a close friend, Steinbeck also found great inspiration in documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz. Steinbeck first met Lorentz in 1938 through mutual acquaintances studying and photographing Dust Bowl migrants. Exposure to Lorentz’s work on his Dust Bowl documentary (The Plow That Broke the Plains) was pivotal in Steinbeck’s decision to abandon his satirical initial draft of a Dust Bowl novel (L’Affaire Lettuceberg) and begin again, this time embarking on the more serious manuscript of The Grapes of Wrath.  As Benson explains, through interactions with Collins and Lorentz, Steinbeck learned that his initial satirical approach to the Dust Bowl tale was “a cheap treatment [that] would not do justice to the dignity of his subject. His use of the flood as the final setting in his finished novel, pitting the human spirit, in extremis, against the murderous indifference of society and nature, suggests just how deep a mark the experience had made on him” (377). Benson goes on to say, “Lorentz’s dramas gave Steinbeck a sense of style and tone by which he could approach his material--seriously, lyrically, documentarily--material he previously had wasted in a lightweight satire” (399). Though Steinbeck later denied Lorentz’s influence on his work, he clearly benefited from working with another visionary like himself, someone with a message, both political and artistic.


Steinbeck was married three times. Each marriage is palpable in his writing; while Steinbeck never claimed to be a “doting husband” (Shillinglaw 112), always putting his work before his wife (though often not consciously), he was vastly influenced by each woman's interests, temperament, and input. He met his first wife, Carol Henning, while he was serving as caretaker for a property in Lake Tahoe during the late 1920s. Shillinglaw describes Carol as “handsome, forthright, lively. She was also very, very funny and irreverent, a wicked woman with a bon mot--perhaps not quite Hemingway’s version of the New Woman, Brett Ashley, but close enough for John…. With Carol, a woman of quips and asides, curiosity and intelligence, he most certainly found words--they talked nonstop. Carol was a catalyst for John, essential to his creativity. That was true from their first meeting” (38). At this time in his life, Steinbeck craved participation, finding inspiration for his writing in discussion with his friends (Shillinglaw 77). Carol truly participated; she not only typed numerous manuscripts (including The Grapes of Wrath), but partook in every step of the creative process, often acting as “editor and sounding board” (Shillinglaw 82). This is of course most apparent in Steinbeck’s dedication to Grapes of Wrath, which reads: “To Carol, who willed this book. To Tom [Collins], who lived it.” It was Carol’s initial fascination with the Okies that led Steinbeck to investigate the Dust Bowl migration and its effects. Truly, Carol was responsible for helping Steinbeck complete the works that gave him a name: Tortilla Flat, Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men. Though their marriage ended violently in 1941 in light of Steinbeck's affair with Gwyn Conger, Carol and John maintained correspondence throughout their lives, and John was comfortable with the knowledge that, in Shillinglaw’s words, “[Carol] was still in his camp, in the way that counted most, his art” (260).

Steinbeck found Gwyn Conger, his second wife and the mother of his children, during a separation from Carol after a fight. Gwyn, a beautiful and seductive twenty-year old jazz singer from Los Angeles was seventeen years Steinbeck’s junior. Gwyn was a direct contrast to Carol’s nearly masculine strength. Gwyn revived Steinbeck’s sexuality and reminded him of his desire for domesticity, something Carol tried but failed to provide. However, problems in their relationship began early on; because of the innately competitive nature of his marriage with Carol, Steinbeck “insisted that [Gwyn] give up her career entirely and stay at home, perhaps clues to… his intent to establish a different pattern for his relationship with Gwyn” (Benson 494). The 1940s marked a difficult decade in Steinbeck’s career. He and Gwyn married, had two sons, then divorced in 1948. Steinbeck wrote to Bo Beskow, “after over four years of bitter unhappiness Gwyn has decided she wants a divorce, so that is that. It is an old story of female frustration. She wants something I can’t give her, so she must go on looking. And maybe she will never find out that no one can give it to her” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 319). Steinbeck suffered very much after receiving Gwyn’s request for a divorce, though he went on to tell Beskow that Gwyn “killed [his] love of her with little cruelties” (319). These “little cruelties” included years of unfaithfulness and manipulation (Benson 619) that slowly ate away at the passionate love Steinbeck felt for her. However, this passion was not as apparent in Steinbeck’s work as his love for Carol. Steinbeck’s writing during his marriage to Gwyn was highly experimental, and is, with the exception of Cannery Row, often overlooked by modern audiences.

Elaine SteinbeckWith his third and final wife, Elaine Scott, Steinbeck finally found peace. In a 1950 letter to Bo Beskow, Steinbeck explained, “My Elaine is a wonderful girl. I can write with her sitting in the room with me and that’s the best that can be said about her calmness and benignity. It is the first peace I have had with a woman” (Benson 659). With Elaine, Steinbeck pursued his most passionate goals: the writing of East of Eden, which he referred to as “the only book he had ever written” (Journal of a Novel 5), and his unfinished project inspired by medieval literature. Elaine accompanied him to England, where they lived in Somerset while Steinbeck worked on his Arthurian research. She supported the cross-country journey that resulted in his travel journal Travels with Charley in Search of America, a necessary proclamation of masculinity during a time when Steinbeck felt truly weakened by age and illness. She helped him find comfort on the East Coast in the purchase of the Sag Harbor home. But perhaps most importantly, she guided him through some of the most difficult times of his life: his divorce and dealings with Gwyn, the raising of his children, his journalistic efforts during the Vietnam War, and finally the slow decline of his health. Benson suggested, Nearly all their friends have made a point of remarking that without Elaine, or with a wife less spirited and capable, he would not have been able to find the peace to live with himself during what turned out to be a process of constant deterioration” (1027). In Elaine, Steinbeck rejoiced to find the sense of comfort, stability, and strength that he searched for in his previous two marriages.

Show Business and Hollywood

As is often the case with writers who have earned critical acclaim, Steinbeck’s circle of friends and influences grew to include a number of famous men and women. While Steinbeck never truly felt at home with many of his upper-class, tinsel-town acquaintances, there were some with whom he developed a strong connection. One in particular was Frank Loesser, an American composer eight years Steinbeck’s junior. Loesser is most famous for writing the music and lyrics to Guys and Dolls. Susan Shillinglaw writes, “whenever John was in Hollywood, Frank and Lynn [Loesser] joined in the fun, and the foursome behaved ‘like a bunch of youngsters,’... going to seedy bars, singing in taxis, concocting off-beat schemes” (Shillinglaw 213). But beyond being a “kindred spirit” (Benson 502) and source of great absurdity and amusement throughout the war years, Frank Loesser was a reliable and comforting friend to Steinbeck in his final days. Benson wrote of Loesser’s impact on Steinbeck during his hospice:

Frank Loesser, who had always been a special friend, was a frequent visitor. He talked while he walked, and he walked all the time, with his hands stuffed into his back pockets, and told his stories all over the room. For John, to be with Frank was like a tonic, a sudden injection of life and laughter, and on one occasion, John was in his dressing gown sitting in the living room, when Frank went in to see him. At once they were in a world of their own, and it was as if nothing had changed. (1034)

George S. KauffmanOne of Steinbeck’s initial forays into show business was through George S. Kaufman, renowned playwright and director most famous for his work on Loesser’s Tony Award winning “Guys and Dolls.” Kaufman, by way of his wife (East Coast representative of Samuel Goldwyn Pictures), found Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men well suited to the stage and guided Steinbeck through a number of edits to adapt it to a performance piece (Benson 351). When the play opened in 1937, Steinbeck wrote to Kaufman: “to say thank you is ridiculous for you can’t thank a man for good work any more than you can thank him for being himself. But one can be very glad he is himself and that is what we are--very glad you are George Kaufman” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 144). Unfortunately, despite his gratitude, Steinbeck did not attend any of the New York performances of his successful new show--a slight that Kaufman felt personally and deeply as time passed, especially considering that throughout the production process he found Steinbeck somewhat disengaged (Benson 363). Years later, however, in 1947, Steinbeck acknowledged the minimal amount of work he put into the production of Of Mice and Men, and gave full credit for its success to George S. Kaufman (Benson 594).

Another famous performer and unlikely friend of Steinbeck’s was Charlie Chaplin, the famous mustachioed mime of the silent film era. In fact, Benson attributes Steinbeck’s enthusiasm and eagerness for film adaptations of his novels to Chaplin’s influence (383). They made each other’s acquaintance when Chaplin stopped by Steinbeck’s home to introduce himself; he was fascinated by Steinbeck’s work. Benson goes on to say that of the many actors and “Hollywood people” Steinbeck came to know during the late thirties and early forties, “Chaplin was one of the very few with whom, for a time, [Steinbeck] had any kind of close relationship” (384).

Elia KazanBut perhaps Steinbeck’s most important Hollywood friend was director Elia Kazan. Steinbeck and Kazan worked on a number of projects together, including the film adaptation of Steinbeck’s East of Eden and the film Viva Zapata!, for which Steinbeck wrote an original screenplay. During the filming of “Zapata” (their first project together), Steinbeck wrote, “I think he will understand well what I am talking about--more than any other American director and surely better than any Mexican director” (Benson 626). Benson wrote of their personal relationship:

During the aftermath of John’s separation from Gwyn, when Steinbeck was suffering intense pain, Kazan had spent many a night, all night, with him at the Bedford Hotel, helping him live through what had seemed to be the breakup of his whole world and the loss of the great love of his life. Since then, they had become, in Kazan’s words, “like brothers--he was always my friend, no matter what, and I was always his friend, no matter what.” While Steinbeck was often silent with people, even people he knew well, he could talk freely to Kazan… They were very frank with each other. “He’d tell me everything about his life,” Kazan recalls, “his troubles and anxieties. He was not what he appeared to be, a great strong guy, but he was also a strong man—both.” (722)


Unsurprisingly, since so many of his texts feature strong political undertones, Steinbeck admired and made the acquaintance of a number of influential politicians. However, the politician Steinbeck admired most was Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson was a Democrat who ran for president in 1952, ‘56, and ‘60 (he was defeated by Eisenhower in ‘52 and ‘56, and by Kennedy in the primaries in ‘60). Steinbeck supported Stevenson during each of his runs, and the two became close friends. In a foreword to a published booklet of Stevenson’s campaign speeches, Steinbeck wrote, “I think Stevenson is more durable, socially, politically and morally… As a writer I love the clear, clean writing of Stevenson. As a man I like his intelligent, humorous, logical, civilized mind” (America and Americans 222). According to Benson, “in addition to being [Steinbeck’s] friend, Stevenson became the representation for him of American politics brought to its highest level… Stevenson came to stand for the possibility of a national policy that was rational and compassionate” (971). Steinbeck’s hope for the future of America weakened when Stevenson passed away in 1965, and apart from his admiration of Kennedy during a too-brief term, Steinbeck never came to trust, respect, and support another politician so resolutely.

However, immediately after the assassination of President Kennedy, Steinbeck wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy to express his condolences. This letter initiated a correspondence between the two that led to Mrs. Kennedy’s request that Steinbeck write her husband’s biography. He didn’t; though he toyed with the idea of memorializing Kennedy using an Arthurian legend device. Despite spending significant time planning, he did not write the book. Rather, he explained to Mrs. Kennedy, “and you are quite right when you say a book is only a book and he was a man and he is dead. The book could only be of value if it helped to keep the essential and contributing part of him alive, and such a thing will have to wait until the agony and poison drains away and only the surviving permanence remains” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 799). Though her period of correspondence with Steinbeck was brief, Mrs. Kennedy later wrote to Elaine, “you will never know what it meant to me to talk with your husband in those days--I read his letters now--and I am as moved as I was then--All his wisdom, his compassion, his far-seeing view of things--I can’t remember the sort of book we were discussing, but I am glad it wasn’t written. His letters say more than a whole book could--I will treasure them all my life” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 801).

Of course, after Kennedy’s assassination Lyndon B. Johnson became President of the United States. As such, it fell to him to present Steinbeck with the Medal of Freedom that Kennedy had intended for Steinbeck. This presentation initiated a lasting friendship and loyalty between the two men, and rekindled an old friendship between Ladybird Johnson and Elaine (both attended the University of Texas (Benson 948)). Though Steinbeck was not an original supporter of Johnson’s (as he was staunchly dedicated to Stevenson), he later wrote to an advisor of Johnson’s, “Elaine and I do not give our allegiance readily, but once given, we do not withdraw it” (Barden xv). It was this mutual loyalty and respect that led Johnson to ask Steinbeck to go to Vietnam. While Steinbeck did not want to go as Johnson’s personal correspondent, he was happy to go as an independent journalist (Barden xvii). Steinbeck witnessed and experienced violent combat and hardship, and his observations in Vietnam solidified his distaste for the war. However, his loyalty to his party, his children (both sons fought in Vietnam), and his president led him to keep his wartime experiences and opinions quiet for the remainder of his life (Barden xvi).

Editors and Agents

While Steinbeck repeatedly proclaimed that writing was a lonely and personal process, he relied very heavily on the support of his editors, publishers, and agents. One of the first to publish Steinbeck’s work and pledge his loyalty to the author was Robert O. Ballou of Cape and Smith. Ballou worked tirelessly for Steinbeck, and when Cape and Smith went bankrupt, Ballou carried Steinbeck along to a new publishing company (Benson 253). Unfortunately, the new company went bankrupt as well. Again, Ballou tried to keep Steinbeck in print, this time starting his own company. But Ballou was never able to stay afloat. As Benson explained, “Ballou should be given credit for standing by Steinbeck at a critical time, and the irony of his loyalty was that it didn’t last quite long enough. If he had been able to stay with Steinbeck for one more book, he might well have recovered his losses and gone on to share in Steinbeck’s success. Nevertheless, he was one of the few who backed Steinbeck during the bad times” (259).

Pascal CoviciFollowing Robert O. Ballou as publisher was Pascal Covici of Covici-Friede, who sought out Steinbeck as a client after staying up all night reading Cup of Gold and Pastures of Heaven. Covici was not only a reliable publisher and editor but also a steadfast and supportive friend, helping Steinbeck through what he described as the “dark time” (Benson 630) following his split from Gwyn, and acting as the recipient for what Steinbeck considered the book he had “practiced for” (Journal of a Novel 124), East of Eden. Covici at one point gave Steinbeck a large bound notebook (until this point Steinbeck wrote exclusively in ledger books), and Steinbeck accepted this gift by beginning his work nearly every morning with a handwritten letter to Covici on the left side of the notebook (Benson 671). These letters are compiled in Steinbeck’s posthumous Journal of a Novel, and provide fascinating insight into Steinbeck’s writing process, expectations, and life. Steinbeck wrote two beautiful dedications to Covici; the first is also the dedication to East of Eden:

Dear Pat,

You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?”

I asked what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”

“What for?”

“To put things in.”

“What things?”

“Whatever you have,” you said.

Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts--the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of the creation. And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.

And still the box is not full.


The second was a speech given at Covici’s funeral in 1964:

Pat Covici was much more than my friend. He was my editor. Only a writer can understand how a great editor is father, mother, teacher, personal devil and personal god. For thirty years Pat was my collaborator and my conscience. He demanded more of me than I had and thereby caused me to be more than I should have been without him. (Benson 961)

Elizabeth OtisPerhaps the most constant and reliable presence throughout Steinbeck’s life was that of his literary agents, Mavis McIntosh and Elizabeth Otis. Steinbeck began working with the two women, fresh out of college at the time, in 1930. With their influence, advice, and loyalty, Steinbeck wrote and published tirelessly. Elizabeth Otis, in particular, aided him through his most difficult and exciting editorial decisions. She is responsible for the spectacular finish to East of Eden, as after reading Steinbeck’s first draft she told him, “this is no way to end this great big book. It’s ridiculous. You certainly were in a hurry… Go home… and sit this out” (Benson 694). It is impossible to do justice to their relationship, but of course Steinbeck himself sums it up well in a 1955 letter: “I love you very dearly and have never been able to demonstrate it--perhaps due to a curious embarrassed stiffness on the part of each of us. Also, I remember everything--EVERYTHING and I am thankful for all of it and all of you. And now I will draw back into the little house of shyness in which we both live” (Benson 779). If further proof is needed to demonstrate the depth and extent of their relationship, it can be found in the last letter he ever wrote; addressed to Elizabeth and tucked under his blotter, never sent, it read: “I have owed you this letter for a very long time--but my fingers have avoided this pencil as though it were an old and poisoned tool” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 861). Elizabeth Otis stood with Elaine at Steinbeck’s bedside the evening he died, just as she stood with him in 1930 when he needed assistance coming out of his house of shyness.

Works Cited

Barden, Thomas E. Introduction. Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War, by John Steinbeck. U of Virginia P, 2012, pp. xi-xxiii. Print.

Benson, Jackson J. John Steinbeck, Writer. Penguin Books, 1990. Print.

Rodger, Katharine A. Renaissance Man of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts. U of Alabama P, 2002, pp xi-liv. Print.

Shillinglaw, Susan. Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage. U of Nevada P, 2013.

Steinbeck, John. America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction. Ed. Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson. 2002. Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

A Russian Journal. 1948. Penguin Classics, 2000. Print.

— Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. 1969. Penguin Books, 1990. Print.

— Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Ed. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. 1975. Penguin Books, 1989. Print.

Wollenberg, Charles. Introduction. The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. 1936. Heyday, 1988. Print.