John Steinbeck: The Making of a New Yorker

“ When I came the first time to New York in 1925 I had never been to a city in my life…”

Source: Steinbeck Now

John Steinbeck visited and lived in New York several times, living there permanently from the early 1950s until his death in 1968. It is where he wrote most of East of Eden, and unlike Hemingway, who hated the city, John became content and happy there.

In 1953 he wrote, for the New York Times, a lengthy article about his association with the city, writing:

“ When I came the first time to New York in 1925 I had never been to a city in my life…”

He was twenty-three years old when he sailed out of San Francisco with $100 in his pocket to get him started in New York.That $100 had dwindled to $3 by the time he got there due to being duped by a conman who used a pretty girl as bate. When he did see New York through the porthole of his old steamer he was horrified:

“ There was something monstrous about it — the tall buildings looming to the sky and the lights shining through the falling snow. I crept ashore — frightened and cold and with a touch of panic in my stomach. This Dick Whittington didn’t even have a cat.”

Steinbeck may not have had a cat, but he did have a sister in New York who had a good job, with a husband who also has a good job, and lived in a very small but nice apartment. His brother-in-law loaned him $30, apologised that, because their apartment was so small, they couldn’t put him up, and instead had booked him into, and paid for, a small hotel around the corner. Early the following day his brother-in-law took him to a construction site where he’d secured Steinbeck a job, wished him well and hurried off to work. When Steinbeck finished a hard day’s labouring:

“ I found a room three flights up in Fort Greene Place in Brooklyn. That is about as alone as you can get. The job was on Madison Square Garden, which was being finished in a hurry. There was time and a half and there was double time. I was big and strong. My job was wheeling cement — one of a long line — one barrow behind another, hour after hour. I wasn’t that big and strong. It nearly killed me and it probably saved my life. I was too tired to see what went on around me.

“ Most of the men in the line were Negroes — stringy men who didn’t look big and strong at all, but they dollied those 150-pound barrows along as though they were fluff. They talked as they went and sang as they went. They never seemed to get tired. It was ten, fifteen, and sometimes eighteen hours a day. There were no Sundays. That was double time, golden time, two dollars an hour. If anybody slipped out of the line, there were fifty men waiting to take his place.”

The job lasted about six weeks and Steinbeck witnessed a man fall from a scaffold from about ninety feet up, and “… he was red when he hit and then the blood in his face drew away like a curtain and he was blue and white under the working lights.” But the job was finished just in time for the six-day bike races.

Soon after a rich uncle of Steinbeck’s from Chicago was in New York and found his nephew a reporters job on the New York American, which paid $25 a week, which Steinbeck considered money for nothing as he hadn’t a clue how to be a reporter and invariably got lost, and seldom managed to get his copy in on time, if at all, and was no good at getting his foot in the door, and stealing a photo of a murder victim if he did manage to get inside the house of the victim’s parents.

He fell in love with a girl who was nice and got paid at least four times as much as he did which meant she always paid for dinner at small Italian restaurants and tried to get Steinbeck to find a good job, and give up the idea of becoming a writer which is what he now wanted to be. She gave up trying in the end and married a banker from the Mid West, leaving John a note saying there would be no more dinners in Italian restaurants.

John Steinbeck didn’t want to be in New York anymore, and with the help of a friend managed to get a working passage on a steamer back to California, where he became a writer, and a good one, and the money started coming in, and he built a house and bought a car and moved from cheap wine to less cheap wine.

Then he grew out of California, or as he puts it he no longer wanted to be a small frog in a small puddle and decided to move back to New York, and after a while it is:

“…too huge to notice him and suddenly the fact that it doesn’t notice him becomes the most delightful thing in the world. His self-consciousness evaporates. If he is dressed superbly well — there are half a million people dressed equally well. If he is in rags — there are a million ragged people…Whatever he does or says or wears or thinks he is not unique…”

Steinbeck goes on to write that New York is an ugly city, a dirty city, that it can destroy a man but it can never bore him.

Steinbeck, toward the end of his long, superb, heart felt piece, writes:

“ I live in a small house on the East Side in the Seventies. It has a pretty little south garden. My neighborhood is my village. I know all of the storekeepers and some of the neighbors. Sometimes I don’t go out of the village for weeks at a time. It has every quality of a village except nosiness. No one interferes in our business — no one by any chance visits us without first telephoning, certainly a most civilized practice. When we close the front door, the city and the world are shut out and we are more private than any country man below the Arctic Circle has ever been.”

Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel — The East of Eden Letters, is a good guide to his New York.

Read Part 9


Thomas Fensch (Editor) — Conversations with John Steinbeck (University Press of Mississippi, Jackson & London, 1988); John Steinbeck — Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (Viking Press & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1969–1990); Jay Parini — John Steinbeck: A Biography (Heinemann, London, 1994); Jackson J. Benson — The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (Penguin Books, New York & London, 1984–1990); John Steinbeck — Once There Was a War (Viking Press, New York, 1958 & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1977); John Steinbeck: America and Americans ( Edited by Susan Shillinglaw & Jackson J. Benson, Penguin Books, New York & London, 2003); John Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (Edited by Elaine Steinbeck & Robert Wallsten, Viking Press, New York, 1975, Penguin Books, USA & London, 1976, Penguin Classics, London, 2001); John Steinbeck: Travels with Charley (The Viking Press, New York, 1962 & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1980, 1997, & in Penguin Classics, 2000); The Fiction of John Steinbeck (The Viking & Penguin Books); John Steinbeck: A Russian Journal, with Photos by Robert Capa ( The Viking Press, New York, 1948 & Penguin Classic, New York & London, 1999 & 2000); John Steinbeck: Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (The Viking Press, New York, 1943 & Paragon House, New York, 1990); Carlos Baker: Ernest Hemingway — A Life Story (Wm. Collins Sons, London, 1969); Arthur Miller: Timebends — An Autobiography (Methuen, London, 1999);

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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