John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. His best books concern his idyllic youth and turbulent young adulthood in California.
Born just after the closing of the frontier, Steinbeck matured as an artist during the dark days of the Great Depression. Steinbeck often asserted, however, that he enjoyed a happy childhood. His father made enough money to indulge him in a small way, even to buy him a red pony, the germ of his most famous book for younger readers. His mother encouraged him to read and to write, providing him with the classics of English and American literature, such as the Arthurian tales of Sir Thomas Malory. A popular and successful student and athlete in high school, he was elected president of his senior class.
After graduation in 1919 Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University. He soon suffered academic difficulties and dropped out of college several times to work on ranches in the Salinas Valley and to observe “real life.” His interests were varied, but he settled on novel-writing as his ambition, despite his family’s insistence that he prepare for a more ordinary career.
Leaving Stanford without a degree in 1925, Steinbeck moved to New York for several months, where he worked as a laborer, a newspaper reporter, and a freelance writer. Disillusioned in each of these fruitless pursuits, Steinbeck returned to California, where he took a job as winter caretaker of a lodge at Lake Tahoe while finishing his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929). In 1930 he married Carol Henning and moved with her to Los Angeles and later to Pacific Grove, a seaside resort near Monterey, where they lived in his parents’ summer house.
A friend, Edward F. Ricketts, a marine biologist trained at the University of Chicago, encouraged Steinbeck to treat his material more objectively. Under Ricketts’s influence, Steinbeck modified his earlier commitment to satire, allegory, and romanticism and turned to realistic accounts of the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck’s next two novels were virtually ignored by the public and the critics. Steinbeck’s short fiction, however, began to receive recognition; his story “The Murder” was selected as an O. Henry Prize story in 1934.
Tortilla Flat, a tale of Monterey’s Mexican quarter, established Steinbeck as a popular and critical success in 1935. The novel’s sales provided Steinbeck with money to pay his debts, to travel to Mexico, and to continue writing seriously. His next novel, In Dubious Battle, established him as a serious literary artist and began the period of his greatest success, both critical and popular. This harshly realistic novel about a Communist-led workers’ strike in California was influenced by the realistic impulse of American literature in the 1930s. Succeeding publications quickly confirmed this development in his fiction.
Before 1940 Steinbeck had published two shorter novels, The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men; a story collection, The Long Valley (1938); and his epic of the “Okie” migration to California, The Grapes of Wrath. His own stage adaptation of Of Mice and Men won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1938, and The Grapes of Wrath received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. Steinbeck had become one of the most popular and respected writers in the country, a spokesman for an entire culture.
In 1941 the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed the direction of American culture and of Steinbeck’s literary development. Steinbeck’s career stalled for many reasons. He abandoned the California subjects and realistic style of his finest novels, and despite serving for a few months as a front-line correspondent, he was unable to come to terms with a world at war. Personal upheavals paralleled literary ones. Steinbeck divorced his first wife and married a young Hollywood actress; she probably influenced his decision to move from California to New York, where Steinbeck began to write with an eye on Broadway and Hollywood.
He tried several times to write his way back to the artistic success of his earlier years, but commercial success kept getting in the way. With East of Eden (1952), Steinbeck’s major postwar novel, the author attempted another California epic to match the grandeur of The Grapes of Wrath. Although the book became a blockbuster best seller, it was an artistic and critical failure. Steinbeck himself seemed to recognize his own decline, and in his last years he virtually abandoned fiction for journalism.
Despite the popularity of nonfiction works such as Travels with Charley in Search of America and the receipt of awards such as the Nobel Prize for literature and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the older Steinbeck was only the shell of the great writer of the 1930s. He died in New York City on December 20, 1968.