John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. He and his three sisters were raised by their parents in this small town in the Salinas Valley, a locale that figures prominently in much of the novelist’s work. Though he attended Stanford University intermittently from 1919 to 1925, he never graduated. In 1925 he left California for New York, where he worked for a time on the New York American. Eventually fired from his newspaper position and discouraged by his inability to sell any of his stories, Steinbeck returned to California and took up odd jobs while continuing to write fiction. After being rejected by seven publishers, Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold, was finally accepted in 1929. It was not a best seller, nor was his second, To a God Unknown (1933), but in the latter Steinbeck began writing about the area in which he had spent his boyhood. He continued that practice in his third novel, Tortilla Flat, which proved immensely popular and established him as a new voice in American fiction.
For the rest of the 1930s, Steinbeck focused his literary talents on the region around the Salinas Valley. A fortuitous combination of events assured Steinbeck’s success. The tragedy of the Great Depression gave him opportunity to unite the kind of vivid description that characterizes regional fiction with a sound understanding of universal human issues. In Dubious Battle, a novel about strike organizers among the fruit pickers in the valley, won the California Literature Gold Medal. Of Mice and Men continued his string of successes; Steinbeck turned the novella into a play, which won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. His greatest single achievement came when The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1939 he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
During these pre-war years Steinbeck spent much of his time in California and wrote nonfiction as well as novels. When World War II erupted, he turned his talents to aiding the United States cause through some propagandistic writings and produced The Moon Is Down, a novel about the war in occupied Norway.
Steinbeck continued writing novels after the war; most were well received by the general public. In 1948 he was selected for membership in the most prestigious literary circle in the country, the American Academy of Arts and Letters. East of Eden (1952) was turned into a 1955 movie starring the most popular actor of the time, James Dean. Steinbeck himself wrote several screenplays and in 1962 published Travels with Charley in Search of America, a travelogue of his trip across the country with his dog, Charley. In that same year, he was selected as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the highest international honor bestowed on living writers. He died in New York City on December 20, 1968.
Steinbeck is one of the few twentieth-century writers to achieve both popular success and critical acclaim. The measure of his stature in academic circles is illustrated by the substantial body of criticism available on his works: more than a dozen books, hundreds of articles, and a scholarly journal are devoted to studies of his writings. Many critics consider him one of the truly great writers of the century.