John Steinbeck – A Brief Biography (1902-1968)
John Steinbeck. McFadden Publications, Inc.; no photographer credited, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
John Steinbeck was an American writer who is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential writers of 20th-century American literature.
Often described as a giant of American letters, Steinbeck came to be known for his poignant stories, often driven by social issues and realistic writing, which earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.
John Steinbeck was born on 27th February 1902 in the city of Salinas, California, to John Ernst Steinbeck and Olive Hamilton. Steinbeck’s mother was a school teacher and his father was the treasurer of Monterey County.
Steinbeck got his passion for reading and writing from his mother. The Steinbeck family lived in a little rural valley, something of a frontier settlement, in fertile soil. The place was about 25 miles from the Pacific Coast. Both the Pacific Coast and the valley in which he grew up would go on to serve as primary settings for some of his greatest works.
The Steinbeck family belonged to the Episcopal Church. As a young man, Steinbeck liked taking long walks in the fields, forests, and farms of the surrounding area.
Growing up in the valley, he worked on nearby ranches during the summers for some money. He also worked along with migrant workers on some sugar beet farms. His time as a laborer on these farms would inspire the themes of some of his greatest works. It was while working on these farms that he witnessed and experienced the harshest and most cruel aspects of migrant life and the dark and inhumane side of human beings.
He used these observations to drive his major works such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden.
At times, he also worked in the laboratory of the Spreckles Sugar Company, where he would often find time to write.
After graduating from Salinas High School in 1919, he enrolled at Stanford University near the city of Palo Alto in California. By this time, Steinbeck had already decided that he wanted to become a writer.
In 1925, Steinbeck, aged 23, dropped out of Stanford University without a degree and made his way to New York City with the hope of beginning his writing career.
Brief Stay in New York and Life After Marriage
Upon arriving in New York City, John Steinbeck took up several odd jobs while trying to establish himself as a writer.
However, things were not so easy and he found it difficult to kick off his writing career as several publishers refused to publish his writings.
After three years of struggling in New York, Steinbeck, somewhat disheartened, left New York and went back to California to work as a caretaker and tour guide at Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada.
It was here that he met his future wife Carol Henning. They married in January 1930 in Los Angeles, just at the onset of the Great Depression that plagued the world for the next decade.
Living in Los Angeles with his wife, Steinbeck began a new venture with his friends of manufacturing plaster mannequins. However, this venture proved short-lived as they ran out of capital within six months due to a slow and crumbling market.
The failure of this venture forced Steinbeck and his wife to move to the coastal city of Pacific Grove in Monterey County, where they lived in his father’s cottage on the Monterey Peninsula.
His parents were supportive of his decision to become a writer, and they provided him with a house to live in, paper to write on, and loans to sustain himself so that he could dedicate all his time and energy to writing and not have to look for work to support himself.
As the depression grew worse, affecting every demographic, Steinbeck, in an attempt to become self-sufficient, purchased a small boat to catch crabs and fish from the sea to eat and began cultivating fresh vegetables in his own garden.
However, things only got worse for Steinbeck and his wife as these sources of food proved uncertain, and they began accepting welfare to survive. On certain occasions, things got so bad that they even resorted to stealing bacon and other food items from the local market.
In 1929, Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold, was published when he was 27 years old. Cup of Gold is a work of historical fiction loosely based on the life and death of 17th-century Welsh privateer and later Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, Sir Henry Morgan.
The work revolves around Morgan’s assault and sacking of Panama City, which was referred to as the Cup of Gold, and a woman there who was believed to be brighter and fairer than the sun.
The novel did not make much of an impact either critically or commercially.
John Steinbeck went on to write three short works, The Pastures of Heaven (published in 1932), The Red Pony (published in 1933), and To a God Unknown (also published in 1933).
Steinbeck used different narrative styles and themes in each of these three works.
The Pastures of Heaven is a short story cycle consisting of twelve interconnected stories about the Corral de Tierra Valley in Monterey County, which was discovered by a Spanish Corporal while chasing runaway Indian slaves. A recurring theme in the book is the pain caused when people try to please or help others.
The Red Pony, on the other hand, is an episodic novella existing of four chapters, three of which were published in magazines between 1933 and 1936. The book as a whole was published only in 1937. It follows the life of a boy named Jody Tiflin on his father’s ranch in California.
And To a God Unknown explores the relationship of man to his land, following the life of a man named Joseph Wayne, who moves to California to establish a homestead. Steinbeck began working on this novel sometime around 1928 and only finished it by 1933. He would later admit that this novel was his most difficult one to write.
However, none of the above works helped to establish Steinbeck as a writer and literary success still eluded him.
In 1935, when John Steinbeck was 33 years old, his fifth work, Tortilla Flat, was published with great critical and commercial success.
The novel is set in Monterey, California, and follows the life of a group of young men referred to as paisanos enjoying life by devoting themselves to camaraderie, lust, petty theft, and wine in the days after the end of the First World War. The characters are portrayed comically and ironically as the Knights of King Arthur on a quest, who go about rejecting all standard norms of American society.
The novel proved to be a great success, making it Steinbeck’s first proper critical and commercial success, one that would establish him as a writer on the American literary scene. He was finally getting the attention and reputation that had escaped him for so long.
The novel became so popular that it was eventually adapted into a film in 1942, starring Hedy Lamarr, Spencer Tracy, and John Garfield.
For the first time in his writing career, Steinbeck was somewhat financially secure.
Of Mice and Men
After the tremendous success of Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck decided to change direction and focus his writing on addressing and highlighting the lives and plight of the common people of California during the years of the Great Depression, especially those of migrant workers.
One of his most famous works addressing this theme is Of Mice and Men, a novella published in 1937 that follows the experiences of two displaced migrant ranch workers named George Milton and Lennie Small. Set during the Great Depression, the two workers move from place to place in California in search of jobs.
The story was inspired by Steinbeck’s own experiences and observations as a teenager while working alongside migrant farm workers. It is a poignant and tragic story that highlights the harsh conditions and realities of the migrant farm workers in California.
Of Mice and Men was a great critical success and it is often regarded as one of Steinbeck’s most important and influential works.
The novella was adapted into a stage play and a 1939 film starring Oliver Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie. In 1992, the novella was once again adapted into a film starring Gary Sinise as George and John Malkovich as Lennie.
Since its publication in 1937, Of Mice and Men would go on to be taught in schools across America.
By 1939, John Steinbeck was enjoying a great wave of success that saw his reputation as a great writer build up steadily. Hollywood producers kept an eye on his works to adapt them into films and literary critics praised his writings. The resulting success gave him security as a writer.
The Grapes of Wrath
In 1939, Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, was published to great critical acclaim.
The novel is a work of realistic fiction set during the Great Depression, and it follows the life of the Joad family, a poor family of tenant farmers who were forced to leave Oklahoma due to economic and agricultural reasons and due to the draught. The Joads, finding themselves in dire and hopeless circumstances, set out for California along with thousands of other workers from Oklahoma in search of jobs, dignity, land, and a secure and stable future.
The novel is based on newspaper articles written by Steinbeck on migrant farm workers, especially the so-called Okies from Oklahoma.
The book was a critical and commercial success, becoming the best-selling book of 1939 and winning the 1939 National Book Award and the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1940, barely a year after its publication, it was adapted into a film directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda.
The Grapes of Wrath is widely regarded as Steinbeck’s greatest work, his masterpiece. At the time it was published, the novel provoked and attracted national controversy due to its content. It was banned, burnt, discussed, debated, lauded, and condemned. But most importantly, it was widely read across America, making it an instant phenomenon.
Many denounced the novel for its passionate depiction of the troubles and plight of poor farm workers, and it was accused of being full of inaccuracies and containing socialist and communist views. The novel was vigorously condemned by the Associated Farmers of California, who denied treating migrant workers in the manner depicted in the novel.
People also criticized Steinbeck for not having any real in-depth knowledge of the life of migrant workers on California ranches. His social and political views were criticized by his contemporaries as well. He was vilified and accused of being pro-communist.
However, despite all the controversies and criticism the book received, The Grapes of Wrath is often regarded as a great American novel, taught and studied in schools and colleges across America.
World War II Years
John Steinbeck remained highly prolific in his output throughout the 1940s, producing works such as The Moon is Down (published in 1942), Cannery Row (published in 1945), and The Pearl (published in 1947), as well as screenplays for films such as Lifeboat (released in 1944), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and A Medal for Benny (released in 1945).
In 1943, he worked as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, covering the Second World War. He was deeply involved in the front line action in Europe, accompanying the raids of Naval officer Douglas Fairbanks Jr.‘s Beach Jumpers program. The program launched small-unit diversions against islands in the Mediterranean that were occupied by the Germans.
Steinbeck’s writings on the war were later published as a collection of articles in 1958 titled, Once There Was a War, and turned into a documentary of the same name.
In 1947, Steinbeck visited the Soviet Union along with war photographer Robert Capa. The two traveled through the Soviet Union, visiting Moscow, Stalingrad, Kyiv, Batumi, and other places during the early years of the Cold War.
Steinbeck undertook the trip with the intention of witnessing and honestly reporting the attitudes and conditions of the lives of the common people under Soviet Rule, without any western propaganda and without comments or judgments.
Steinbeck and Capa became two of the first Americans to visit the Soviet Union and travel extensively through it since the Russian Revolution ended in 1923. Steinbeck noted that life in the Soviet Union, in its villages as well as the cities, was calm, peaceful, and quite similar to life in other European nations at the time. He even claimed that the average Russian was more scared of another war and not Joseph Stalin.
Steinbeck’s writings of his Soviet trip were published in 1948 under the title, A Russian Journal, illustrated with Capa’s photographs. This work is now regarded as an important historical document.
East of Eden
In 1952, the American Western Film Viva Zapata!, written by John Steinbeck, was released, starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn, and directed by Elia Kazan.
Steinbeck was inspired by the life of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata when he traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico, for the filming of one of the movies he had written. He used Edgcomb Pinchon‘s 1941 book Zapata the Unconquerable as a reference while writing the script of the film.
The film is a fictionalized account of Zapata’s life from his humble beginnings to one of the major revolutionary leaders of the decade-long Mexican Revolution, up until his death in 1919.
The same year that Viva Zapata! was released, Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, was published to great commercial success, becoming an instant bestseller in America.
East of Eden was Steinbeck’s longest and most ambitious novel, and he himself considered it to be his magnum opus and masterpiece. He firmly believed that it was the greatest novel he had ever written, and he was glad to see that it was received well by readers.
However, literary critics were not as kind to the novel as the readers were. Critics accused the novel of being unconvincing, and unrealistic, and its characters being somewhat unbelievable. The biblical allusions in the novel were criticized and Steinbeck’s portrayal of good and evil was found to be exaggerated and oversimplified. The novel’s themes, narrative style, and structure were also criticized, with many critics stating that the narrative was disorganized and inconsistent.
Interestingly enough, everything that the critics hated about the novel was exactly what readers in general loved about it.
To this very day, East of Eden is popular among readers and sells about 50,000 copies each year. Many readers consider it Steinbeck’s greatest and finest literary achievement.
The novel tells the story of two families, the Hamiltons, and the Trasks, and their interconnected stories. It is said that Steinbeck intended to address his young sons, Thom and John, with the novel, as he wanted to describe the Salinas Valley of his childhood to them.
In 1955, East of Eden was adapted into a film with Elia Kazan as the director and starring a young actor named James Dean.
In 1961, Steinbeck’s last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, was published. The novel examined the moral degradation in America.
In 1962, Steinbeck’s travelogue, Travels with Charley: In Search of America, was published. The book is about his 1960 trip across America with his dog Charley.
John Steinbeck would later claim that he wished to see the country on a personal level as he made his living writing about it. He traveled across the country in a camper he named after Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinante.
Steinbeck was 58 years old when he undertook the trip and was already suffering from a heart condition. In fact, his oldest son, Thom, claimed that the only reason he undertook such a trip was that he knew he was dying and wished to see his country one last time.
The book quickly climbed to the number one spot on the bestseller list in the nonfiction category.
However, Steinbeck’s star began to decline in the early 1960s and he was considered to be past his prime. His books struggled to command the same critical and commercial attention as before.
But in spite of that, John Steinbeck was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature for his realistic and imaginative writing that combined keen social perception and sympathetic humor. His selection as the winner was highly criticized and condemned by critics and attracted great controversy in literary circles, with many believing he did not deserve the award.
In 1967, shortly before his death, he went to Vietnam to report on the Vietnam War at the request of Newsday Magazine.
On 20th December 1968, John Steinbeck, aged 66, died of heart disease and congestive heart failure. An autopsy revealed a nearly complete occlusion of the main coronary arteries.
Steinbeck’s body was cremated and buried on 4th March 1969 at the Hamilton family gravesite at Salinas Cemetery with his parents and maternal grandparents and later his third wife, Elaine.
John Steinbeck is now widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of 20th-century American literature. His major works such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden have become a significant part of the American literary canon and are considered classics of American literature.
Several of Steinbeck’s books are required reading in schools and colleges across America, where they are read, studied, examined, and critically analyzed. Of Mice and Men is also one of the key writings in the United Kingdom used by the examining body AQA for its English literature General Certificate of Secondary education. The short novella is so popular in academic circles that it was found to be one of the most frequently read books in public high schools.
Apart from this, Steinbeck also left behind a legacy as one of the most controversial writers of his time, with his books being banned, burnt, and buried in certain places in America during the course of his long and distinguished career.
Steinbeck’s works are still widely sold and read to this very day. One can hardly dispute the fact that along with his older contemporaries, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, Steinbeck has left a lasting impact on American and world literature.