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 that had no basis in fact. Thus many of his works take place in California and deal with subjects that he thoroughly understood. One of the finest attributes of The Red Pony is the feeling that the author knew his material and his characters in great depth. The scenes in this novel, such as the episode when a mare must be killed in order to save her colt, are narrated with the skill of a person who has witnessed such an act.

Steinbeck's father settled in California shortly after the American Civil War. John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902. His mother was a schoolteacher in the public school system in Salinas. Steinbeck grew up in this beautiful, fertile California valley where he found the materials 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. While in college, he attempted some creative writing that was submitted to magazines and was rejected. Not caring to complete the requirements for a degree and hoping to earn a living as an author, he left Stanford permanently in 1925 to live in New York. While he continued his writing and while he continually received rejection slips, he worked briefly for the New York American newspaper and as a laborer on the construction of Madison Square Garden before returning to California. His first novel, Cup of Gold, appeared in 1929, two months before the unprecedented and horrific stock market crash and only sold some fifteen hundred copies.

In two respects, 1930 was a notable year for Steinbeck: He married Carol Henning and the newlyweds settled in staid Pacific Grove, which he often satirized. There, Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts, whose friendship strongly influenced Steinbeck's work. Ricketts, the owner of a biological supply laboratory on Monterey's Cannery Row, became the hero of "The Snake," Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday, as well as a collaborator in writing The Sea of Cortez.

During the era of "The Hungry Thirties" — an era of 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. His father, like many men, miraculously helped the family to survive the Depression with a small house and twenty-five dollars a month. Steinbeck continued his writing and received four hundred dollars for the first of his California novels, The Pastures of Heaven (1932). In 1933, To a God Unknown, a complicated, unsuccessful allegory, failed to repay the publisher's two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar advance. Both publishers declared bankruptcy. That same year North American Review bought the first two parts of The Red Pony, and some short stories, including "Murder," which was selected as an 0. Henry Prize story for 1934 and brought Steinbeck his first national recognition.

Tortilla Flat (1935) was an immediate and popular success and won him the Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco for 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 three or four thousand dollars for the Hollywood film rights, which had a heartening effect upon a man accustomed to earning thirty-five dollars a week.

During 1935, he tried writing in Mexico, but returned to Los Gatos, California. In Dubious Battle (1936) dealt with a labor strike and 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 that he partly utilized 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, Ireland, Russia, and Sweden, he published a play version of the book with the famous playwright, George Kaufman. Steinbeck became a celebrity when the play enjoyed a long run, and he won the New York Drama Critics Circle's award on the first ballot.

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. 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 he 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 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 was later made into an important 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 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 semi-documentary about introducing medicine into a suspicious community.

During 1942, his wife sued for divorce and that same year the Army Air Force requested a promotional book, Bombs Away, to popularize its 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 include 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, and it seems that Steinbeck had considered 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 to novels (East of Eden, for example), travels, film scripts, and editorials. In 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the highest honor a writer can receive. He died December 20, 1968.