John Steinbeck Biography


Family and Education

John Steinbeck was a man of experience first and words second. He lived passionately and observed both shrewdly and humanely, focusing on human struggles with the forces of nature around him and the passions within him. Using as its backdrop the tremendous beauty and epic power of the California land he knew so well, Steinbeck's writing strove to make meaning out of the hardships he saw.

From his earliest memory, John Steinbeck wanted to be a serious writer. He was born on February 27, 1902, to a middle-class family in Salinas, California. His father, John Ernst, Sr., was a well-to-do miller and local politician, and his mother, Olivia Hamilton, taught school. Under his mother's influence, Steinbeck read widely and was influenced by many great authors: Eliot, Dostoevsky, Hardy, and most notably, Malory. Malory's Morte d'Arthur, given to Steinbeck on his ninth birthday, took him away from his own middle-class existence and showed him the power of the theme of good versus evil. While Malory had a great influence on Steinbeck's writing style, Steinbeck described the syntactical rhythms and sweeping epic scope of the King James Bible as having the most lasting impression on his work.

Never a scholar, Steinbeck spent a large part of his youth outdoors, working and playing in the Salinas Valley, midway up the California coast. This lush, fertile, and often harsh land would become the backdrop for his most enduring works. Although stifled by academic discipline, Steinbeck loved to write, publishing pieces in his high school paper, and later, in the student paper at Stanford University. Steinbeck's studies at the university often took a back seat to more active pursuits: he worked on ranches, in factories, did construction work, and was even a member of a road-building gang. Although he came from a strongly middle-class background, Steinbeck's experiences as a laborer provided him with the first-hand observations that would fuel so much of his writing. After five years of intermittent studies, he left Stanford without a degree.

Early Work

In 1925, Steinbeck traveled to New York in an attempt to make a living as a writer. The city was not welcoming, however, and when it was suggested that he try writing advertising copy to break into the industry, Steinbeck said farewell. He completed a set of short stories, which was rejected by publishers, and returned to California.

While working as a lodge caretaker in the Sierra Mountains, Steinbeck completed his first novel, a historical swashbuckler entitled Cup of Gold. However, success continued to elude the young writer. With monumental bad timing, his first novel was published in late 1929, just two months before the stock market crash changed the atmosphere of the entire country. According to Lewis Gannett, about 1,500 copies of the book were sold, but it was not taken seriously by the few critics who reviewed it.

Shortly after the publication of Cup of Gold, Steinbeck eloped with a local girl named Carol Henning, and with his father's help, they set up home in the small community of Pacific Grove. Here Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts, the man who was to have the greatest influence on both his life and his work. Ricketts, the proprietor of a marine specimen supply house on the outskirts of Pacific Grove, proved a perfect companion for Steinbeck: Both men loved to drink, think, and discuss life philosophies. Together they would develop a non-teological philosophy (focusing on the world as it is, not as it should or might be) that would figure prominently in the pragmatism of many of the main characters in The Grapes of Wrath. Ricketts would later be immortalized as "Doc" in Cannery Row.

Steinbeck's first, and arguably best, novel to be set in California was published in 1932. Unfortunately, the Depression was in full swing, and the first two publishing houses that handled The Pastures of Heaven went broke before the novel could be bound. In 1933, the author published To A God Unknown, an unsuccessful allegory, and sold the first two parts of his short story, "The Red Pony."

His first national recognition came when "The Murder" won the O. Henry Prize for short stories in 1934, and was cemented the following year with the strong commercial reception of Tortilla Flat. The publication of this light-hearted tale about vagabonds on the Monterey peninsula marked the beginning of his association with Pascal Covici, the man who was to publish the rest of Steinbeck's major works. The critical reviews were mixed, but the novel proved popular enough with the reading public that Steinbeck was able to sell the movie rights for $3,000, a sum of money greater than any he had received before.

After a trip to Mexico with Ed Ricketts and a change of residence to Los Gatos, a suburb of San Jose, Steinbeck settled down to write In Dubious Battle, a powerful study of a labor strike, which stirred up considerable critical controversy. The year 1936 proved to be a busy one for Steinbeck. Not only did he publish In Dubious Battle, he finished several short stories and was commissioned to write a series of articles for The San Francisco News about conditions in California migrant worker camps. These articles were published in October 1936, and later gathered together in a pamphlet entitled "Their Blood Was Strong." Steinbeck's experiences with these migrant workers would be the foundation on which he based The Grapes of Wrath.

Career Highlights

Steinbeck became a celebrity with the publication of Of Mice and Men in 1937. The novel was well received both critically and popularly. Chosen as a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, Of Mice and Men soon became a national bestseller. Steinbeck returned to New York in triumph and toured Europe. He eventually settled in the fashionable East Coast writers' colony of Buck's County, where he worked on the script of the play version of the novel with the famous playwright, George Kaufman. The play opened in late November 1937 to rave reviews, received the New York Drama Critic Circle's Award for Best Play, and enjoyed a long, successful run before being made into a theatrical film. Even Steinbeck's good fortune, however, could not save his publishing house from ruin. Pascal Covici would leave the financially defunct firm of Covici, Friede to become the executive editor of Viking Press, and Steinbeck would follow. In 1938, Viking published The Long Valley, a collection of Steinbeck's short stories.

Although enjoying huge success both financially and critically, Steinbeck remained a man of the people. He refused an offer from Life magazine to write about the migrant workers because he felt it would be wrong to make money off their misfortune. He continued to base his writing on actual experiences, living and working among the very folks he would use as material for his work. In fact, on the night that Of Mice and Men opened on Broadway, he was in a squatters camp with a group of migrants with whom he had traveled from Oklahoma.

The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 and immediately caused a literary furor, well documented by Warren French. The top selling novel of 1939, it won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Booksellers Award, merits which supported Steinbeck's election to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. A movie version of the novel was soon filmed and also received critical accolades. Although there are not specific financial records documenting the sale of the book, the numerous American printings and foreign translations would attest to a generous increase in Steinbeck's income. This likelihood is supported by the fact that his first wife, suing for divorce in 1942, received a $220,000 settlement.

In the years immediately following The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck, now somewhat of a literary celebrity, traveled and toiled primarily on war-related works. He and his best friend, Ed Ricketts, returned to Mexico twice. The first trip, in March 1940, is chronicled in The Sea of Cortez; the men returned the next month to film the semi-documentary film, The Forgotten Village. The work would occupy him for the remainder of the year. In 1942, he wrote an Army Air Force-commissioned book entitled Bombs Away, and donated the earnings of his play-novelette, The Moon Is Down, to the war effort.

Perhaps as an antidote to the suffering he had seen in the war, Steinbeck published Cannery Row in 1945, a light-hearted romanticizing of the pre-war antics of the vagabonds and idlers of Monterey's Cannery Row. He followed in 1947 with what many consider his finest short story, "The Pearl," and the novel The Wayward Bus. The year 1948 marked several important events in Steinbeck's life. He was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and divorced from his second wife, Gwyn Verdon. Perhaps the most traumatic event of the year was the loss of his closest friend, Ed Ricketts, in an automobile accident. In 1950, Steinbeck married Elaine Scott. His third marriage seemed to invigorate him, and he began work on a new novel, an ambitious epic of good and evil set in his own Salinas Valley. East of Eden was published in 1952 to lukewarm critical reception. Steinbeck's output during the 1950s slowed, consisting mainly of magazine pieces and an unsuccessful rehashing of Cannery Row entitled Sweet Thursday. In 1961, Steinbeck re-emerged with The Winter of Our Discontent, and in 1962, he was awarded the world's highest literary recognition, a Nobel Prize for literature. Not content to settle down comfortably, Steinbeck took to the road in late 1961, armed with a stack of maps and an elderly poodle named Charlie. His adventures across the country were recounted in one of his last works, Travels with Charlie. John Steinbeck died on December 20, 1968.