John Steinbeck was the son of Olive Hamilton, a school teacher, and John Ernst Steinbeck, a flour-mill manager and Monterey County Treasurer. Like other families in California’s Salinas Valley, the Steinbecks thought themselves rich because they had land; unfortunately, they could hardly afford to buy food. There were four children, but John Ernst Steinbeck, born in 1902, was the only boy. As a youth he spent much of his time exploring the valley that would become the backdrop to his fiction.
After graduating from Salinas High School in 1919, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University and attended intermittently until 1925. He worked to pay his tuition and was forced to take time off to earn money for the next term. This proved invaluable; he worked for surveyors in the Big Sur area and on a ranch in King City. This latter location became the setting for Of Mice and Men (1937). Oftentimes he worked for the Spreckels Sugar Company, thereby receiving firsthand experience of contemporary labor issues.
The most important learning experience, however, was a summer class in biology in 1923 at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. Steinbeck’s exposure to biology led him to develop general theories about the interrelationship of all life. Edward F. Ricketts, a marine biologist whom he met in 1930, was among the chief influences on Steinbeck’s thinking. Steinbeck adopted Ricketts’s idea that people could only be fully human once conscious of “man’s” place within the entirety of creation. Humans were but one animal in life’s web. From there, Ricketts and Steinbeck diverged as the latter mixed socialism with biological theory to enhance his literary vision: humans should act in concert with others to live happily and for the good of all creation. Essentially, Steinbeck’s theory was a biological twist to the growing movement of 1930s “Proletarian Realism.”
Keeping with his theory, Steinbeck fictionalized human society by observing its groupings rather than by selecting an individual. Observations of group behavior showed how humans could intelligently guide their own adaptation and natural selection. Typically, his characters begin in harmony with nature but then evil, in the form of corrupt politics or greed, upsets their order. Salvation is possible when the individual sees the rationality of cooperation and agrees to act, or adapt, to being part of a group, or phalanx. Failing to work together leads to tragedy. This theory would see Steinbeck through his greatest writing, including his immensely popular novel, Of Mice and Men, and his best-known novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. Shortly thereafter, his inspirational friend Ricketts died in a train accident. In 1947 Steinbeck’s parable The Pearl was published. Though not targeted specifically for young adult readers, the story is typically studied and discussed by students.
Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He died of heart failure in 1968.