John Steinbeck Biography


John Steinbeck was the type of author who liked to know his material firsthand. He was not content to narrate a story which had no basis in fact. Thus, many of his works take place in California, where he lived, and they deal with subjects which he thoroughly understood. Within his novels are characters who seem to breathe the very reality of life itself. When not writing about his native California and its citizens, he would use people whom he had become intimate with in other ways (see discussion of The Grapes of Wrath below). The Pearl was based on real characters whom Steinbeck became acquainted with during one of his prolonged travels, as also noted below. Consequently, one of the finest attributes of The Pearl is the feeling that the author knows his material and his characters in great depth and with perfect accuracy. The scenes in this novel, from its opening with the primitive pearl fishers to the corruptness of the town, are narrated with the skill of a person who has witnessed the events.

Steinbeck's father settled in California shortly after the American Civil War. John Steinbeck was born in Salinas on February 27,1902. His mother was a schoolteacher in the public school system of Salinas. Steinbeck grew up in this beautiful, fertile California valley, where he found the material for most of his novels. His imagination was kindled by writing at a very early age partly because his mother, the schoolteacher, read to him from the famous literature of the world.

During his formative years, he played various sports in high school, worked at many different jobs, and wandered around the countryside observing the phenomena of nature. He entered Stanford University in 1920, and even though he remained until 1925, he never graduated. In fact, he earned very few college credits. He did, however, contribute some poems and short stories to the Stanford literary magazine.

During his years at Stanford and immediately after his departure, Steinbeck worked at a variety of jobs. He went to New York in 1925, but found it unsuitable to his temperament. He returned to California and between odd jobs, he began writing his novels. His first novel, Cup of Gold, appeared in 1929.

In two respects, 1930 was a notable year for Steinbeck. He married Carol Henning and the newlyweds settled in staid Pacific Grove, which he sometimes satirized in his writings. There, Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts, whose friendship strongly influenced Steinbeck's work. Ricketts was the owner of a biological supply laboratory on Monterey's Cannery Row, and Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row is dedicated to "Ed Ricketts, who knows why or should." In relationship to The Pearl, Ricketts' influence was tremendous. In the late thirties, Steinbeck and Ricketts became partners and engaged in a lengthy exploration of marine life along the shores of the Gulf of the California Baja, the setting of The Pearl. It was here that Steinbeck met the type of Indians who became the characters in The Pearl, and it was here that he first heard the story of the "pearl of great price." In another book, written as a description of this trip, The Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck describes the simple humanity of these native people in their struggle against nature and in their attempt to give a sense of dignity to their lives as they are being constantly cheated by forces in society which they cannot comprehend. As a result of his trip with Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck writes of these people in The Pearl with complete conviction.

By 1935, with the publication of Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck was now being recognized as an important American writer. Tortilla Flat was awarded the Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco as the year's best novel by a Californian, even though critics missed the point of the droll humor about the unemployed drifters of Monterey. Steinbeck received between three and four thousand dollars for the Hollywood film rights.

During 1935, Steinbeck tried writing in Mexico but he returned to Los Gatos, California. In Dubious Battle (1936), concerned with a strike, aroused the critics' fury as Steinbeck had predicted. With a demand for his controversial work, he placed short stories in Esquire and Harper's and wrote a series of articles for the San Francisco News concerning life in California's migrant labor camps, material he used later for The Grapes of Wrath.

Of Mice and Men (1937), a popular and a critical success, was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and shortly afterward Steinbeck was selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year. After touring England and Ireland, Russia and Sweden, he produced a play version of the book with the famous playwright, George Kaufman. Steinbeck became a celebrity when the play enjoyed a long run, won the New York Drama Critics' Circle award on the first ballot and later became a popular film.

Unsurprisingly, however, the night that Of Mice and Men opened on Broadway, Steinbeck was living in a migrant camp. In preparation for writing his novels, Steinbeck would often live, work, and be with the people about whom he was to write. Thus, in preparation for writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck went to Oklahoma, joined some migrants and rode with them to California. Once in California, he stayed with the migrants, living with them in "Hoovervilles," joining them in their search for work, and attempting as nearly as possible to come to terms with their essential characteristics. Leaving them, he made several trips to various camps to observe firsthand the living and working conditions of migrants. He wrote some short pieces in which he described the plight of these people and pleaded for a more tolerant approach in dealing with them. These articles, however, were not very effective. It was only when he molded his new experiences into the form of a novel that positive effects were achieved.

The appearance of The Grapes of Wrath was the major publishing event of 1939. Publishers Weekly listed the novel as the best seller of 1939 and the eighth ranking book of 1940. It was estimated that over half a million copies of the original printing were sold. In addition to several American editions, there have been numerous foreign editions and translations. The novel later became a highly significant social protest film. Also in 1940, Steinbeck was elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters and won the Pulitzer Prize for having written the best novel of the year, as well as the American Booksellers' award.

In 1939 and 1940, Steinbeck set off with Ed Ricketts for expeditions to the Gulf of California, later documented in The Sea of Cortez. He also went to Mexico to film The Forgotten Village, a semidocumentary about introducing medicine into a suspicious community.

During 1942, Steinbeck's wife sued for divorce and that same year, the Army Air Force requested a promotional book, Bombs Away, to popularize the flight training program and to allay parental fears about flying. Steinbeck gave the royalties to the Air Forces Aid Society.

Steinbeck's World War II works included the play-novella, The Moon Is Down, for which he was decorated by the king of Norway in recognition of the book's contribution to the liberation effort. His film scenario Lifeboat is sometimes thought to be his most significant war writing. His human-interest articles, written while he was a special war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune from June to December, 1943, appeared as a collection, Once There Was a War, in 1958. Evidently, Steinbeck had considered writing a novel about the war but in The Wide World of John Steinbeck, Peter Lisca comments that Steinbeck was "too disheartened by what he had seen of the war to prolong the experience in any way and he decided not to publish it."

After the war, Steinbeck devoted himself almost wholly to writing novels (East of Eden was made into a movie in 1956, starring the popular late actor James Dean and also Julie Harris, and in 1981, it was made into a critically acclaimed eight hour mini-series for television). Steinbeck's last major novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, appeared in 1961 and won high critical acclaim for its author. In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the highest honor a writer can receive. Of his many works, The Pearl has always been a favorite with readers of all ages. Steinbeck died in 1969.