Biography of John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. He spent most of his life in Monterey County, which is the setting for much of his fiction. He attended Stanford University intermittently between 1920 and 1926. Steinbeck did not graduate from Stanford, but instead chose to support himself by doing manual labor while writing in his spare time. His experiences among the working class of California lends authenticity to his depiction of the lives of laborers, who are the central characters in many of his most celebrated novels.

Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929. It was followed by The Pastures of Heaven and, in 1933, To a God Unknown. However, his first three novels were unsuccessful both critically and commercially. Steinbeck had his first success with Tortilla Flat (1935), an affectionate and gently humorous story about Mexican-Americans. Meanwhile, his subsequent novel, In Dubious Battle (1936) is renowned for its markedly grim outlook. This novel is a classic account of a strike by agricultural laborers and the pair of Marxist labor organizers who engineer it, and is the first Steinbeck novel to display the striking social commentary that characterizes his most notable works. Steinbeck received even greater acclaim for the novella Of Mice and Men (1937), a tragic story about a strange and complex bond between two migrant laborers. His crowning achievement, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), won Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. It was also adapted into a classic film directed by John Ford, which the American Film Institute has since called one of the greatest films of all time. Grapes of Wrath chronicles the migration of a dispossessed family from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California and critiques their subsequent exploitation by a ruthless system of agricultural economics.

After the best-selling success of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck went to Mexico to collect marine life with the freelance biologist Edward F. Ricketts. The two men collaborated on Sea of Cortez (1941), a study of the fauna of the Gulf of California. During World War II, Steinbeck wrote some effective pieces of government propaganda, among them The Moon Is Down (1942), a novel about Norwegians under the Nazis. He also served as a war correspondent. With the end of World War II and the move from the Great Depression to economic prosperity in America, Steinbeck's work softened somewhat. While they still contain the elements of social criticism that mark his earlier work, the three novels Steinbeck published immediately following the war, Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl, and The Bus (both 1947) are more sentimental and relaxed. Steinbeck also contributed to several screenplays. He wrote the original stories for a number of films, including Lifeboat (1944), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and A Medal for Benny. He also wrote the screenplay for Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata!, a biographical film about Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican peasant who was the leader of the revolution in the state of Morelos.

Steinbeck married Carol Henning in 1930 and they lived together in Pacific Grove, California. During this time, Steinbeck spent a great deal of time in Monterey with Ed Ricketts at his Cannery Row laboratory. This experience inspired his popular 1945 novel, Cannery Row. In 1943, Steinbeck married his second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger, with whom he had two children. 1948 was a particularly bad year for Steinbeck: Ricketts died, and Gwyndolyn left him. However, he found happiness once again in 1950 when he married Elaine Scott and moved to New York City. Two years later, he published the highly controversial East of Eden, the novel Steinbeck referred to as "the big one." It is set in California's Salinas Valley.

Steinbeck's later works were comparatively slight, but he did make several notable attempts to reassert his stature as a major novelist, writing Burning Bright (1950), East of Eden (1952), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). However, none of these works garnered the critical esteem of his earlier novels. Steinbeck's enduring legacy is still the naturalistic, proletarian-themed novels that he wrote during the Depression. Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962. He died in New York City in 1968.

In 2012, as is the custom, the Swedish Academy (who awards the Nobel Prize) released the official documentation of their deliberations for the 1962 Nobel Prize. The documents reveal that Steinbeck was not a clear choice, but rather, the Academy members were trying to "make the best of a bad situation." A New York Times article claims, "the decision came amid their general dissatisfaction with the candidates for the prize that year, according to documents recently released by the academy." Besides Steinbeck, the other writers that the Swedish Academy considered in 1962 were Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell, Karen Blixen, and Jean Anouilh. While the documents reveal that the committee was not excited about Steinbeck as a choice, they did not give this impression in their public statements about Steinbeck. After Steinbeck's win was announced, the Academy released a statement saying that he was among "the masters of modern American literature" because of "his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception."


Study Guides on Works by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row (1945) is one of John Steinbeck's most beloved novels. Its mixture of tones and themes, memorable characters, and ability to capture and convey the essence of a place in time has made it a favorite of both readers and critics alike.

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First appearing in printinHarper's Magazinein October 1937, "The Chrysanthemums" is considered by many to be the best story John Steinbeck ever wrote, and among the top short stories of the twentieth century. In 1938, "The Chrysanthemums" was...

John Steinbeck published his highly controversial novel East of Eden, the work that he referred to as "the big one", in 1952. A symbolic recreation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel set in California's Salinas Valley, Steinbeck wrote the...

John Steinbeck wrote The Pearl during the time in which he was at the height of his fame. He had completed The Grapes of Wrath, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was renowned and reviled as a subversive, unpatriotic man who...