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Biography of John Steinbeck (1902-1968)

John Steinbeck John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902, and spent most of his life in Monterey County, the setting of 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 through manual labor while writing. His experiences among the working classes in California lent authenticity to his depiction of the lives of the workers, who remain the central characters of his most important novels.

Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929, and 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. Nevertheless, his subsequent novel, In Dubious Battle (1936) was notable 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 encompass 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 the strange, complex bond between two migrant laborers. His crowning achievement, The Grapes of Wrath, won Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. It was also adapted into a classic film directed by John Ford that was named one of the American Film Institute's one hundred greatest films. The novel describes 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, and 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 Steinbeck's work softened somewhat. While still containing the elements of social criticism that marked his earlier work, the three novels Steinbeck published immediately following the war, Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl, and The Bus (both 1947) were more sentimental and relaxed. Steinbeck also contributed to several screenplays. He wrote the original stories for several films, including Lifeboat (1944), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and A Medal for Benny, and wrote the screenplay for Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata!, a biographical film about Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican peasant who rose to the presidency.

Steinbeck married Carol Henning in 1930 and lived with her in Pacific Grove, California. He spent much of his time in Monterey with his friend, Ricketts, at his Cannery Row laboratory, an experience which 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 in his 1950 marriage to Elaine Scott, with whom he lived in New York City. Two years later, he published the highly controversial East of Eden, the novel he called "the big one," set in the California Salinas Valley.

Steinbeck's later writings were comparatively slight works, but he did make several notable attempts to reassert his stature as a major novelist: Burning Bright (1950), East of Eden (1952), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). However, none of these works equaled the critical reputation of his earlier novels. Steinbeck's reputation is dependent primarily on the naturalistic, proletarian-themed novels that he wrote during the Depression. It is in these works that Steinbeck is most effective at building rich, symbolic structures and conveying the archetypal qualities of his characters. Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, and died in New York City in 1968.

In 2012, as is customary with the Swedish Academy (who awards the Nobel Prize), they released documents of their deliberations for the 1962 Nobel Prize awards. 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 reporting on the documents writes that "the decision came amid their general dissatisfaction with the candidates for the prize that year, according to documents recently released by the academy." The other writers that were considered in 1962 were John Steinbeck, 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 after they chose Steinbeck for the award. When they awarded him with the Nobel Prize they wrote 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