John Steinbeck Biography


Early Years

John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr., was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, to a father, John Ernst Steinbeck, who had settled in California shortly after the Civil War, and a mother, Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, who was a public schoolteacher. Steinbeck grew up in the beautiful, fertile Salinas Valley, and most of his memorable novels and short stories would be set in California. Situated between the Santa Lucia range and the Gabilan Mountains, this valley in west central California is bordered on the north by Monterey Bay and on the south by San Luis Obispo. During his early years, Steinbeck's mother read to him from books such as Treasure Island and Robin Hood. Young John grew up hearing the rhythms of the Bible and listening to the magical stories of the Round Table from Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. He would return again and again to those early influences for symbols and themes.

During these early years, John's home was comfortable, and his father often drove the boy and his two sisters around the valley where they saw the workers and field hands in their poor shacks. This early impression of the workers' lifestyles was added to later memories when Steinbeck spent time with these workers as an adult. As a youngster, he also explored the caves and swimming holes around Salinas and watched the changes of seasons. His abiding love of nature and his thoughts about man's relationship to his environment are present in most of his works.

In high school, Steinbeck did well in English and edited the school yearbook. He worked at various jobs and one in particular — as a ranch hand on some of the local ranches — later led him to images used in Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck graduated from high school and went on to Stanford University. Even though he remained at Stanford until 1925, he never graduated. While in college, he continued to write creatively, and he worked for a time on neighboring farms, especially Spreckels Sugar Ranch. The agricultural industry at this time relied on cheap, transient labor. It was during this time that Steinbeck met many of the types of people described with compassion in his later writing.

Early Career and Writing

Leaving Stanford, Steinbeck moved to New York and worked for five years at various jobs, writing and drifting. Eventually he returned to California, and his first book, Cup of Gold, appeared in 1929, two months before the stock market crash. This novel sold 1,500 copies, and its publication began a decade of recognition and material prosperity for Steinbeck.

In 1930, Steinbeck married Carol Henning whom he had met while working and writing at Lake Tahoe. He and Carol moved to Los Angeles, where Steinbeck continued his writing while Carol did a great deal of editing. Steinbeck also met marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who was a fascinating and talkative companion. Ricketts inspired the character for Doc in Cannery Row (1945) and many of Ricketts' views about biology influenced Steinbeck's literary themes. Ricketts later collaborated on the writing of The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, published in 1941.

During the decade of the 1930s — a time of national depression, bread lines, and bloody labor-management conflicts — Steinbeck knew a definitive cross-section of society and shared the problems and stresses of the times. In 1932, he received $400 dollars for the first of his California novels, The Pastures of Heaven. He followed this novel with To a God Unknown in 1933, but neither novel did well. During this difficult time, his mother suffered a stroke, adding to his discouragement. But also during this period, Steinbeck conceived the idea for The Red Pony and won the O. Henry Prize in 1934 for his story, "Murder." Two of Steinbeck's Pony stories were published in the North American Review, and he was beginning to enjoy some prominence. This was tempered in 1934, however, by the death of his mother.

Ironically, Steinbeck's breakthrough novel, Tortilla Flat, had garnered him five rejection slips by the time it was accepted in 1935 by New York publisher Pascal Covici. This book, about a group of California free spirits, called paisanos, has often been compared to the Arthurian stories because of the loyalty of its group of characters. The novel was an immediate popular success and won the Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco as the year's best novel by a Californian. Just before its publication, however, Steinbeck's father died, missing the positive critical success of his son's writing. Steinbeck received $3,000 or $4,000 for the Hollywood film rights.

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