Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold, published in 1929, is loosely based on the life and death of privateer Henry Morgan. It centers on Morgan's assault and sacking of the city of Panama, sometimes referred to as the 'Cup of Gold', and on the women, fairer than the sun, who were said to be found there.
After Cup of Gold, between 1930 and 1933 Steinbeck produced three shorter works. The Pastures of Heaven, published in 1932, consists of twelve interconnected stories about a valley near Monterey, which was discovered by a Spanish corporal while chasing runaway Indian slaves. In 1933 Steinbeck published The Red Pony, a 100-page, four-chapter story weaving in memories of Steinbeck's childhood. To a God Unknown, named after a Vedic hymn, follows the life of a homesteader and his family in California, depicting a character with a primal and pagan worship of the land he works. Although he still had not achieved the status of a well-known writer, he never doubted that he would achieve greatness.
Steinbeck achieved his first critical success with Tortilla Flat (1935), a novel set in post-war Monterey, California, that won the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal. It portrays the adventures of a group of classless and usually homeless young men in Monterey after World War I, just before U.S. prohibition. They are portrayed in ironic comparison to mythic knights on a quest and reject nearly all the standard mores of American society in enjoyment of a dissolute life centered around wine, lust, camaraderie and petty theft. In presenting the 1962 Nobel Prize to Steinbeck, the Swedish Academy cited "spicy and comic tales about a gang of paisanos, asocial individuals who, in their wild revels, are almost caricatures of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. It has been said that in the United States this book came as a welcome antidote to the gloom of the then prevailing depression." Tortilla Flat was adapted as a 1942 film of the same name, starring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr and John Garfield, a friend of Steinbeck's. With some of the proceeds he built a summer ranch-home in Los Gatos.
Steinbeck began to write a series of "California novels" and Dust Bowl fiction, set among common people during the Great Depression. These included In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. He also wrote an article series called The Harvest Gypsies for the San Francisco News about the plight of the migrant worker,
Of Mice and Men was a drama about the dreams of a pair of migrant agricultural laborers in California. It was critically acclaimed and Steinbeck's 1962 Nobel Prize citation called it a "little masterpiece". Its stage production was a hit, starring Wallace Ford as George and starring Broderick Crawford as George's companion - the mentally childlike but physically powerful itinerant farmhand Lennie. Steinbeck refused to travel from his home in California to attend any performance of the play during its New York run, telling director George S. Kaufman that the play as it existed in his own mind was "perfect" and that anything presented on stage would only be a disappointment. Steinbeck would write two more stage plays (The Moon Is Down and Burning Bright).
Of Mice and Men was also adapted as a 1939 Hollywood film, with Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lennie (he had filled the role in the Los Angeles stage production) and Burgess Meredith as George. Meredith and Steinbeck became close friends for the next two decades. Another film based on the novella was made in 1992 starring Gary Sinise as George and John Malkovich as Lennie.
Steinbeck followed this wave of success with The Grapes of Wrath (1939), based on newspaper articles about migrant agricultural workers that he had written in San Francisco. It is commonly considered his greatest work. According to The New York Times, it was the best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940. In that month it won the National Book Award, favorite fiction book of 1939, voted by members of the American Booksellers Association. Later that year it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and it was adapted as a film directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad; Fonda was nominated for the best actor Academy Award.
Grapes was controversial. Steinbeck's New Deal political views, negative portrayal of aspects of capitalism, and sympathy for the plight of workers, led to a backlash against the author, especially close to home. Claiming the book was both obscene and misrepresented conditions in the county, the Kern County Board of Supervisors banned the book from the county's publicly funded schools and libraries in August 1939. This ban lasted until January 1941.
Of the controversy, Steinbeck wrote, "The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. The latest is a rumor started by them that the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them. I'm frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing. It is completely out of hand; I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy."
The film versions of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men (by two different movie studios) were in production simultaneously, allowing Steinbeck to spend a full day on the set of The Grapes of Wrath and the next day on the set of Of Mice and Men.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Ed Ricketts strongly influenced Steinbeck's writing. Steinbeck frequently took small trips with Ricketts along the California coast to give himself time off from his writing and to collect biological specimens, which Ricketts sold for a living. Their joint book about a collecting expedition to the Gulf of California in 1940, which was part travelogue and part natural history, published just as the U.S. entered World War II, never found an audience and did not sell well. However, in 1951, Steinbeck republished the narrative portion of the book as The Log from the Sea of Cortez, under his name only (though Ricketts had written some of it). This work remains in print today.
Although Carol accompanied Steinbeck on the trip, their marriage was beginning to suffer, and ended a year later, in 1941, even as Steinbeck worked on the manuscript for the book. In 1942, after his divorce from Carol he married Gwyndolyn "Gwyn" Conger. With his second wife Steinbeck had two sons—Thomas ("Thom") Myles Steinbeck (born 1944) and John Steinbeck IV (1946–1991).
Ricketts was Steinbeck's model for the character of "Doc" in Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954), "Friend Ed" in Burning Bright, and characters in In Dubious Battle (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Ecological themes recur in Steinbeck's novels of the period.
Steinbeck's close relations with Ricketts ended in 1941 when Steinbeck moved away from Pacific Grove and divorced his wife Carol. Ricketts' biographer Eric Enno Tamm notes that, except for East of Eden (1952), Steinbeck's writing declined after Ricketts' untimely death in 1948.
Steinbeck's novel The Moon Is Down (1942), about the Socrates-inspired spirit of resistance in an occupied village in Northern Europe, was made into a film almost immediately. It was presumed that the unnamed country of the novel was Norway and the occupiers the Nazis, and in 1945 Steinbeck received the Haakon VII Cross of freedom for his literary contributions to the Norwegian resistance movement.
In 1943, Steinbeck served as a World War II war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and worked with the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA). It was at that time he became friends with Will Lang, Jr. of Time/Life magazine. During the war, Steinbeck accompanied the commando raids of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s Beach Jumpers program, which launched small-unit diversion operations against German-held islands in the Mediterranean. At one point, he accompanied Fairbanks on an invasion of an island off the coast of Italy and helped capture Italian and German prisoners, using a Tommy Gun. Some of his writings from this period were incorporated in the documentary Once There Was a War (1958).
Steinbeck returned from the war with a number of wounds from shrapnel and some psychological trauma. He treated himself, as ever, by writing. He wrote Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), and the film A Medal for Benny (1945) with screenwriter Jack Wagner about paisanos from Tortilla Flat going to war. He later requested that his name be removed from the credits of Lifeboat because he believed the final version of the film had racist undertones. In 1944, suffering from homesickness for his Pacific Grove/Monterey life of the 1930s, he wrote Cannery Row (1945) which became so famous that Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, the location of the book, was eventually renamed Cannery Row in 1958.
After the end of the war, he wrote The Pearl (1947), already knowing it would be filmed. The story first appeared in the December 1945 issue of Woman's Home Companion magazine as "The Pearl of the World." It was illustrated by John Alan Maxwell. The novel is an imaginative telling of a story which Steinbeck had heard in La Paz in 1940, as related in The Log From the Sea of Cortez, which he described in Chapter 11 as being "so much like a parable that it almost can't be". Steinbeck traveled to Mexico for the filming with Wagner who helped with the script; on this trip he would be inspired by the story of Emiliano Zapata, and subsequently wrote a film script (Viva Zapata!) directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn.
In 1947, Steinbeck made the first of many trips to the Soviet Union, this one with photographer Robert Capa. They visited Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi and Stalingrad, some of the first Americans to visit many parts of the USSR since the communist revolution. Steinbeck's 1948 book about their experiences, A Russian Journal, was illustrated with Capa's photos. In 1948, the year the book was published, Steinbeck was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1952 Steinbeck's longest novel, East of Eden, was published. According to his third wife, Elaine, he considered it his magnum opus, his greatest novel.
In 1952, John Steinbeck appeared as the on-screen narrator of 20th Century Fox's film, O. Henry's Full House. Although Steinbeck later admitted he was uncomfortable before the camera, he provided interesting introductions to several filmed adaptations of short stories by the legendary writer O. Henry. About the same time, Steinbeck recorded readings of several of his short stories for Columbia Records; despite some stiffness, the recordings provide a record of Steinbeck's deep, resonant voice.
Following the success of Viva Zapata!, Steinbeck collaborated with Kazan on East of Eden, James Dean's film debut.
Travels with Charley (subtitle: In Search of America) is a travelogue of his 1960 road trip with his poodle Charley. Steinbeck bemoans his lost youth and roots, while dispensing both criticism and praise for America. According to Steinbeck's son Thom, Steinbeck went on the trip because he knew he was dying and wanted to see the country one last time.
Steinbeck's last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), examines moral decline in America. The protagonist Ethan grows discontented with his own moral decline and that of those around him. The book is very different in tone from Steinbeck's amoral and ecological stance in earlier works like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. It was not a critical success. Many reviewers recognized the importance of the novel but were disappointed that it was not another Grapes of Wrath. In the Nobel Prize presentation speech next year, however, the Swedish Academy cited it most favorably: "Here he attained the same standard which he set in The Grapes of Wrath. Again he holds his position as an independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad."
Apparently taken aback by the critical reception of this novel, and the critical outcry when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, Steinbeck published no more fiction in the next six years before his death.
In 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature for his "realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception." The selection was heavily criticized, and described as "one of the Academy's biggest mistakes" in one Swedish newspaper. The reaction of American literary critics was also harsh. The New York Times asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose "limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophising", noting that "[T]he international character of the award and the weight attached to it raise questions about the mechanics of selection and how close the Nobel committee is to the main currents of American writing.... [W]e think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer ... whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age". Steinbeck himself, when asked on the day of the announcement if he deserved the Nobel, replied: "Frankly, no." Biographer Jackson Benson notes, "[T]his honor was one of the few in the world that one could not buy nor gain by political maneuver. It was precisely because the committee made its judgment ... on its own criteria, rather than plugging into 'the main currents of American writing' as defined by the critical establishment, that the award had value." In his acceptance speech later in the year in Stockholm, he said:
the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.—Steinbeck Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
In 2012, (50 years later), the Nobel Prize opened its archives and it was revealed that Steinbeck was a "compromise choice" among a shortlist consisting of Steinbeck, British authors Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell, French dramatist Jean Anouilh and Danish author Karen Blixen. The declassified documents showed that he was chosen as the best of a bad lot, "There aren't any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation," wrote committee member Henry Olsson. Although the committee believed Steinbeck's best work was behind him by 1962, committee member Anders Österling believed the release of his new novel The Winter of Our Discontent in 1961 showed that "after some signs of slowing down in recent years, [Steinbeck has] regained his position as a social truth-teller [and is an] authentic realist fully equal to his predecessors Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway."
Although modest about his own talent as a writer, Steinbeck talked openly of his own admiration of certain writers. In 1953, he wrote that he considered cartoonist Al Capp, creator of the satirical Li'l Abner, "possibly the best writer in the world today." At his own first Nobel Prize press conference he was asked his favorite authors and works and replied: "Hemingway's short stories and nearly everything Faulkner wrote."
In September 1964, Steinbeck was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1967, at the behest of Newsday magazine, Steinbeck went to Vietnam to report on the war there. Thinking of the Vietnam War as a heroic venture, he was considered a hawk for his position on that war. His sons both served in Vietnam prior to his death, and Steinbeck visited one son in the battlefield (at one point being allowed to man a machine-gun watch position at night at a firebase, while his son and other members of his platoon slept).