John Steinbeck died in New York City on December 20, 1968, of heart disease and congestive heart failure. He was 66, and had been a lifelong smoker. An autopsy showed nearly complete occlusion of the main coronary arteries.
In accordance with his wishes, his body was cremated, and interred on March 4, 1969 at the Hamilton family gravesite in Salinas, with those of his parents and maternal grandparents. His third wife, Elaine, was buried in the plot in 2004. He had earlier written to his doctor that he felt deeply "in his flesh" that he would not survive his physical death, and that the biological end of his life was the final end to it.
The day after Steinbeck's death in New York City, reviewer Charles Poore wrote in the New York Times: "John Steinbeck's first great book was his last great book. But Good Lord, what a book that was and is: The Grapes of Wrath." Poore noted a "preachiness" in Steinbeck's work, "as if half his literary inheritance came from the best of Mark Twain— and the other half from the worst of Cotton Mather." But he asserted that "Steinbeck didn't need the Nobel Prize— the Nobel judges needed him."
Steinbeck's incomplete novel based on the King Arthur legends of Malory and others, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, was published in 1976.
Many of Steinbeck's works are on required reading lists in American high schools. In the United Kingdom, Of Mice and Men is one of the key texts used by the examining body AQA for its English Literature GCSE. A study by the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature in the United States found that Of Mice and Men was one of the ten most frequently read books in public high schools.
At the same time, The Grapes of Wrath has been banned by school boards: in August 1939, Kern County Board of Supervisors banned the book from the county's publicly funded schools and libraries. It was burned in Salinas on two different occasions. In 2003, a school board in Mississippi banned it on the grounds of profanity. According to the American Library Association Steinbeck was one of the ten most frequently banned authors from 1990 to 2004, with Of Mice and Men ranking sixth out of 100 such books in the United States.
Opinions on Nobel Prize
The award of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature to Steinbeck was controversial in the United States. The award citation lauded Steinbeck "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception". Many critics of the award of the Nobel to Steinbeck complained that the author's best work were behind him. The New York Times ran an article by Arthur Mizener entitled “Does a Writer with a Moral Vision of the 1930s Deserve the Nobel Prize?” that claimed Steinbeck was undeserving of the prestigious prize as he was a “limited talent” whose works were “watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing". Many American critics now consider these attacks to be politically motivated.
The British newspaper The Guardian, in a 2013 article that revealed that Steinbeck had been a compromise choice for the Nobel Prize, called him a "Giant of American Letters." Despite ongoing attacks on his literary reputation, Steinbeck's works continue to sell well and he is widely taught in American and British schools as a bridge to more complex literature. Works such as Of Mice and Men are short and easy to read, and compassionately illustrate universal themes that are still relevant in the 21st century.
Steinbeck grew up in California's Salinas Valley, a culturally diverse place with a rich migratory and immigrant history. This upbringing imparted a regionalistic flavor to his writing, giving many of his works a distinct sense of place. Salinas, Monterey and parts of the San Joaquin Valley were the setting for many of his stories. The area is now sometimes referred to as "Steinbeck Country". Most of his early work dealt with subjects familiar to him from his formative years. An exception was his first novel, Cup of Gold, which concerns the pirate Henry Morgan, whose adventures had captured Steinbeck's imagination as a child.
In his subsequent novels, Steinbeck found a more authentic voice by drawing upon direct memories of his life in California. His childhood friend, Max Wagner, a brother of Jack Wagner and who later became a film actor, served as inspiration for The Red Pony. Later he used real American historical conditions and events in the first half of the 20th century, which he had experienced first-hand as a reporter. Steinbeck often populated his stories with struggling characters; his works examined the lives of the working class and migrant workers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.
His later work reflected his wide range of interests, including marine biology, politics, religion, history and mythology. One of his last published works was Travels with Charley, a travelogue of a road trip he took in 1960 to rediscover America.
Steinbeck's boyhood home, a turreted Victorian building in downtown Salinas, has been preserved and restored by the Valley Guild, a nonprofit organization. Fixed menu lunches are served Monday through Saturday, and the house is open for tours during the summer on Sunday afternoons.
The National Steinbeck Center, two blocks away at 1 Main Street is the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to a single author. Dana Gioia (chair of the National Endowment for the Arts) told an audience at the center, "This is really the best modern literary shrine in the country, and I've seen them all." Its "Steinbeckiana" includes "Rocinante," the camper-truck in which Steinbeck made the cross-country trip described in Travels with Charley.
His father's cottage on Eleventh Street in Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck wrote some of his earliest books, also survives.
In Monterey, Ed Ricketts' laboratory survives (though it is not yet open to the public) and at the corner which Steinbeck describes in Cannery Row, also the store which once belonged to Lee Chong, and the adjacent vacant lot frequented by the hobos of Cannery Row. The site of the Hovden Sardine Cannery next to Doc's laboratory is now occupied by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. However, the street that Steinbeck described as "Cannery Row" in the novel, once named Ocean View Avenue, was renamed Cannery Row in honor of the novel, in 1958. The town of Monterey has commemorated Steinbeck's work with an avenue of flags depicting characters from Cannery Row, historical plaques, and sculptured busts depicting Steinbeck and Ricketts.
On February 27, 1979 (the 77th anniversary of the writer's birth), the United States Postal Service issued a stamp featuring Steinbeck, starting the Postal Service’s Literary Arts series honoring American writers.
On December 5, 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted Steinbeck into the California Hall of Fame, located at the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts. His son, author Thomas Steinbeck, accepted the award on his behalf.
To commemorate the 112th anniversary of Mr. Steinbeck's birthday on February 27, 2014, Google displayed an interactive doodle utilizing animation which included illustrations portraying scenes and quotes from several novels by the author.