Early Years: Salinas to Stanford: 1902-1925
John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902 in Salinas, California, the third child of Olive Hamilton, former school teacher, and John Ernst Steinbeck, manager at Sperry Flour mill. He had two older sisters, Esther and Beth, and a younger sister, Mary. The Steinbecks’ Victorian home still stands in Salinas and today is a delicious luncheon spot.
In the early twentieth century, Salinas was a prosperous farming community, the county seat of Monterey County, and a trading and shipping center for the lower Salinas Valley. The geography and demographics of the valley, the “Salad Bowl of the Nation,” stamped the young boy’s sensibilities. And a strong sense of place is evident in his fiction as well. “I think I would like to write the story of this whole valley,” he wrote to a friend in 1933, “of all the little towns and all the farms and the ranches in the wilder hills. I can see how I would like to do it so that it would be the valley of the world.” In the 1930s he wrote short stories about this familiar landscape, and in 1952 published his epic novel about the Salinas Valley, East of Eden.
From his birth until he went to Stanford University in 1919, Steinbeck enjoyed a comfortable childhood and youth in Salinas, although the family experienced setbacks when he was a teenager. His father lost his job as manager of Sperry flour, then opened a feed and grain store that failed. Only when Steinbeck was in college did the family fortunes stabilize and Mr. Steinbeck became Monterey county treasurer.
When he was four, Steinbeck was given his own pony, Jill, an inspiration for his later series of stories, The Red Pony.
Young Steinbeck was also a reader. On his ninth birthday, his Aunt Mollie gave him a copy of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur: “When I first read it, I must have been already enamored of words because the old and obsolete words delighted me.” Steinbeck and his younger sister Mary would imagine the turrets of Camelot in the sandstone erosions in the Pastures of Heaven, a secluded valley a few miles from Salinas where Aunt Mollie lived. Some twenty years later, Steinbeck would adopt Arthurian tropes and chapter headings in his novel Tortilla Flat, and in the late 1950s travel to England and Wales to research Arthurian legends in preparation for a modernized text of the Arthurian tales. Though the work was never completed in Steinbeck’s lifetime, The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights was published posthumously in 1976.
In early adolescence, John Steinbeck showed a strong interest in writing. During high school, Steinbeck would work late into the night in his attic room in Salinas and sometimes he would invite friends to his room and read aloud to them: “I used to sit in that little room upstairs,” Steinbeck writes decades later, “and write little stories and little pieces and send them out to magazines under a false name and I never put a return address on them…I wonder what I was thinking of? I was scared to death to get a rejection slip, but more, to get an acceptance.” (Valjean 43). Steinbeck wrote for his high school newspaper. By age 14, he knew he wanted to be a writer and never abandoned that calling.
In 1919, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University, hoping to sharpen his writing skills. He took creative writing courses and relished courses in world history. In the summer of 1923, Steinbeck enrolled in a biology course at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove and there became familiar with the ideas of William Emerson Ritter, and found himself especially enamored with Ritter’s concept of the super-organism. (Astro 44) His interest in group behavior informs his fiction of the 1930s, and a growing interest in ecology is articulated most clearly in Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck’s 1941 collaboration with the marine biologist Ed Ricketts.
Though he attended college off and on for six years, he left Stanford in 1925 without receiving a degree.
Apprentice years: Cup of Gold (1929) through The Red Pony (1933-34)
leaving Stanford in 1925, Steinbeck briefly lived in New York City, attempting
to support himself as a manual laborer and journalist. “I had a thin, lonely,
hungry time of it” in New York,” he wrote in 1935. “And I remember too well the
cockroaches under my wash basin and the impossibility of getting a job. I was
scared thoroughly. And I can’t forget the scare.” Steinbeck returned to
California and settled in Lake Tahoe, where he finished his first novel, Cup
of Gold (1929), a critically and commercially unsuccessful tale based
on the life of the privateer Henry Morgan.
While working for Tahoe City fish hatchery shortly after finishing Cup of Gold, Steinbeck met Carol Henning, a native of San Jose. Carol was a perfect companion—smart, witty, engaging and outgoing. And she was devoted to his writing. He followed her to San Francisco and then the two moved to Los Angeles, where they married on January 14, 1930. After a few months in Eagle Rock, the couple moved to central California, living in the Steinbeck family summer cottage in Pacific Grove: “Financially we are in a mess,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend, “but ‘spiritually’ we ride the clouds.”
In the little Pacific Grove house, Steinbeck continued to write feverishly while Carol worked at various jobs. He wrote a friend who was also a struggling writer that both of them “take our efforts to write with great seriousness, hammering away for two years on a novel and such things…We have taken the ordinary number of beatings and I don’t think there is much strength in either of us, and still we go on butting our heads against the English Novel and nursing our bruises as though they were the wounds of honorable war.” At that time, Steinbeck was writing To a God Unknown, a book that had its genesis in a college writing assignment, a play written by a friend. When the friend abandoned the story line, Steinbeck took it up and wrote and rewrote for over four years, shifting the setting to the San Antonio Valley, near King City, where Steinbeck spent some time as a teenager. This powerful, evocative novel was eventually published in 1933.
March, 1932, Cape and Smith, later rebranded Jonathan Cape and Robert Ballou,
Inc., accepted Steinbeck’s manuscript of Pastures of Heaven, a
loosely connected collection of short stories set in the Salinas Valley.
The Red Pony stories as well as the short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938) demonstrate the writer's growing talent for depicting the region of his birth. All were written in 1933 and ‘34, a time of great pain (his parents were ill) and great creativity. Each of the four Red Pony stories takes place on a Salinas Valley ranch that was partly modeled on a friend’s Salinas ranch, partly on his grandparents’ ranch near King City. These lucid, evocative tales suggest the beauty of the Salinas Valley and tell the story of Jody Tifflin’s expanding awareness of life and death.
Success:Tortilla Flat (1935) through The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
In 1935, Steinbeck enjoyed his first critical and commercial success with the novellaTortilla Flat, a book that chronicles the adventures Monterey paisanos. The Arthurian tales were his model. In 1942, the novella was adapted as a film starring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr.
In the late 1930s, Steinbeck wrote three books on labor issues in California, In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939. The first began as a biography of a strike organizer; Steinbeck ended up writing a novel, however, a searing account of a strike in a California apple orchard. Workers and farmers are pitted against one another, with the communist organizers ruthlessly exploiting the conflict. Steinbeck’s empathy for the workers is palpable, for it is they who suffer most visibly in the strike.
Of Mice and Men is Steinbeck's first play-novelette, an experimental form he developed. (He wrote two others, The Moon is Down in 1942 and Burning Bright in 1950.) The text of Mice, he hoped, would also be the script for a play—an experiment that failed when it was performed in San Francisco shortly after the book was published A few months later, Of Mice and Men opened on Broadway, with a revised script by George Kaufman (with Steinbeck’s assistance).
The story is about a pair of migrant workers in California, George Milton and Lennie Small. The two friends depend on one another in a world where most working men are lonely, moving from job to job. Steinbeck called his book a little study in humility—it went on to become one of his most beloved books.
The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck’s signature novel, published in 1939. It’s roots are journalistic. In the fall of 1936, he was asked by the San Francisco News, a liberal publication, to investigate conditions in migrant labor camps near Bakersfield, California. Living conditions in roadside camps appalled him, and his series of newspaper articles “The Harvest Gypsies,” exposes migrant woe. He also describes life in a federal government camp, where workers were given decent housing and running water.
Both his wrath and his optimism are woven into The Grapes of Wrath, a book that he researched for nearly two years after his first investigative trip to the Central Valley. As he was composing the novel, Steinbeck wrote to his literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, in 1938: “I must go over into the interior valleys. There are about five thousand families starving to death over there...The states and counties will give them nothing because they are outsiders. But the crops of any part of this state could not be harvested without these outsiders. I'm pretty mad about it... Funny how mean and little books become in the face of such tragedies.” A fierce sense of outrage informs Steinbeck’s greatest novel, published in April, 1939.
The New York Times listed The Grapes of Wrath as the best-selling book of 1939, and by February 1940, 430,000 copies had been printed. That same month, the novel won The National Book Award, and later that year it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. While wildly successful, The Grapes of Wrath also proved to be Steinbeck's most controversial novel to date. His sympathy for the plight of migrant workers led to a backlash against him: in Oklahoma (the book made the state look poverty stricken), in California (the book made farmers and growers seem greedy and selfish) and in many other parts of the country (the gritty language of the Joads was shocking for many). In August of 1939 the Kern County Board of Supervisors banned the book from schools and libraries in 1939, a ban that lasted until 1941.
Throughout most of the 1930s, Steinbeck had shunned publicity, and the firestorm over The Grapes of Wrath swamped him. He fell ill and his marriage began to fall apart—Steinbeck wished only to retreat from the publicity and requests for money and aid. In March 1940 he and his close friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, sailed to the Gulf of California to collect marine specimens. Throughout the 1930s, Ricketts, who collected marine specimens for a living and sold them through his laboratory, Pacific Biological, was a major influence on Steinbeck's writing and thinking. According to Steinbeck's loving essay about his friend, “About Ed Ricketts,” the two met in a dentist's office and immediately struck up a friendship based on mutual admiration for each other. More likely they met at a party, and Steinbeck’s reference to the dentist’s office was an inside joke between the two—Ricketts had bad teeth. As “About Ed Ricketts” demonstrates, their bond was complex and deep from the time they met in 1930 until Ricketts’s death in 1948. (“About Ed Ricketts” is published as an afterword to the Penguin edition of Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951).)
Although Carol Steinbeck accompanied her husband, Ricketts, and crew to the Gulf of California, the Steinbecks’ marriage was ending. Carol and John divorced in 1943, and shortly thereafter Steinbeck married Gwedolyn “Gwyn” Conger, with whom he would have his only children, Thomas and John Steinbeck Jr.
War Years: 1943-1945
Steinbeck was a patriot, as were many Americans after Pearl Harbor. Denied a commission in the armed forces because of his suspected communist leanings—he was investigated by the FBI after the publication of Grapes—Steinbeck devoted himself to writing propaganda for the war effort. He followed a bomber team around American, recording their training regime in Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942). That same year he published another play-novelette, The Moon is Down, about an occupied village in Northern Europe. He imagined what it would be like to live in a town where freedoms disappeared—and to many Europeans, he seemed to have captured the terror of Nazi occupation. In some countries during WWII, a person could be shot for having a contraband copy of The Moon is Down.
He also wrote a film treatment called “Lifeboat,” about a stranded group in the Atlantic. Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat was released in 1944. Since substantial changes were made to his script, Steinbeck unsuccessfully petitioned to have his name removed from Hitchcock’s film.
Shortly after marrying Gwyn in 1943, Steinbeck was hired by
the New York Herald Tribune to report
on the war in Europe. He went first to England, then North Africa, and then joined
a commando unit led by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., their mission diversionary
tactics off the coast of Italy. Steinbeck threw himself into the war effort,
and his letters to Gwyn during this period reflect his patriotism as well as
fascination with ordinary lives: “I see these thousands of soldiers here and
they are going through the same thing. There's a kind of walk they have in
London, an apathetic shuffle. They're looking for something. They'll say it's a
girl—any girl, but it isn't that at all.”
In 1958 Steinbeck's war correspondence was published as Once There Was a War. Writing to a friend, Steinbeck had this to say about his war dispatches: “There are many things in them I didn't know I was writing—among others a hatred for war. Hell, I thought I was building the war up.”
The Post-war years: 1945-1951
have been working madly at a book and Gwyn has been working calmly at a baby,”
Steinbeck wrote to a friend in 1944, “and it looks as though it might be a
photo finish.” Cannery Row was published 1945 and Thomas Steinbeck in 1944.
Cannery Row is a complex book—in part gentle comedy about characters who live and work on Monterey’s Ocean View Avenue. In part it’s Steinbeck’s own post-war novel, suggesting his horror of death and loneliness. It’s also a tribute to his friend Ed Ricketts’s holistic vision, a vision that scrutinizes the movement of a hermit crab and also soars to visionary insight—the troubling episode of the drowned woman. While working on the novel, Steinbeck wrote to his college roommate Carlton Sheffield, “You'll find a lot of old things in it... Maybe we were sounder then. Certainly we were thinking more universally.” The novel became so famous that Ocean View Avenue in Monterey was renamed Cannery Row in 1958.
After the end of the war, Steinbeck published The Pearl , an elaboration on a story he had heard in La Paz during his trip with Ed Ricketts to the Gulf of California. While traveling to Mexico to help with the film adaptation of the novel, Steinbeck became inspired by the story of Emiliano Zapata, and subsequently wrote a screenplay based on his life. Viva Zapata was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn in 1952.
While living with Gwyn in New York, Steinbeck received devastating news from California. Ed Ricketts had been hit by a train while attempting to cross the tracks in Monterey. Steinbeck hurried west, but he arrived too late. Ricketts died from injuries sustained from the accident on May 11, 1948.
Ricketts's death devastated Steinbeck since the two men had shared a close working relationship as well as personal friendship. “We worked and thought together very closely for a number of years so that I grew to depend on his knowledge and on his patience in research,” Steinbeck writes in “About Ed Ricketts.” “And then I went away to another part of the country but it didn't make any difference. Once a week or once a month would come a fine long letter so much in the style of his speech that I could hear his voice over the neat page full of small elite type... It wasn't Ed who died but a large and important part of oneself.” (Shortly before Ricketts's death, Steinbeck and Ricketts had planned another collecting expedition together, this time to British Columbia. The resulting book was to be called The Outer Shores and would have focused on marine life near Alaska.
Immediately after returning to New York after Ricketts's funeral, Steinbeck faced another blow. After nearly six years of marriage, Gwyn Steinbeck asked for a divorce. The divorce, combined with the shock of Ricketts's death, sent Steinbeck into a long depression. In 1948 he returned to the cabin in Pacific Grove and threw himself into his work.
The 1950s and 1960s
1949, the actress Ann Sothern visited Steinbeck in Pacific Grove over Memorial
Day weekend. She brought along a friend, Elaine Scott, who would become
Steinbeck's third and final wife. Less than a week after Elaine's divorce from
the actor Zachary Scott became final, the couple married on December 28, 1950.
Later they moved into 206 East 72nd Street in New York City, Steinbeck's home
for the next 13 years.
Early in 1951, Steinbeck began again to compose the novel he had planned for years. Steinbeck
intended East of Eden to be the “big work” of his career. As he
explained to Pascal Covici in the diary he wrote concurrently with the novel
(later published as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters), Steinbeck
addressed East of Eden to his sons:
I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them...I want them to know how it was, I want to tell them directly, and perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people... And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all—the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness... I shall tell them this story against the background of the county I grew up in.
Set largely in the Salinas Valley, East of Eden is, in part, based on Steinbeck's maternal family history. Stories of the Hamilton family are paired with the a “symbolic story” of the Trask family, a rewriting of the Cain and Abel biblical story. In this epic novel of intertwined stories, Steinbeck captures his own history as well as the history of the Salinas Valley—and he also grapples with the pain and consequences of his divorce from his second wife, Gwyn. Gwyn is Cathy/Kate in the novel, a manipulative woman who destroys many around her. The novel took nearly a year to complete, and was finally published in 1952. Shortly after, Elia Kazan directed the film version of the final part of the novel, which starred James Dean in his debut performance.
Steinbeck traveled widely with his third wife, Elaine, and he supported himself writing journalism about his travels.
In the late 1950s he turned to one of his life-long ambitions, to write a translation of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur for twentieth century readers. To facilitate his research, Steinbeck spent ten months in Somerset, England with Elaine, gathering material and working on the translation. The work was never completed in Steinbeck's lifetime.
When he returned to America from England in late 1959, he was distressed by what he felt were America’s moral lapses. Out of that distress (the quiz show scandal was breaking news), he wrote a novel about a man’s own moral quandary, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961).
Publication of that novel earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he was awarded for his body of work in 1962. His is “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and social perception,” said Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Anders Osterling in his presentation speech.
That year also saw publication of one of his most endearing
books, Travels with Charley (1962). “I'm
going to learn about my own country,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend, before he
began his trip around America. He felt that he had lost touch with his own
I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory at best is a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years.
Travels with Charley chronicles this trip of roughly 10,000 miles across the United States, from Maine to California, to Texas and into the racial tension of the south—the most searing moments in the book. The often elegiac tone of the work marks shift from Steinbeck’s previous work, and some critics were disappointed. However, in writing about America from a distinctly observational but highly sympathetic standpoint, Steinbeck returns to familiar ground.
In 1964, Steinbeck was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson, with whom the writer was personally acquainted.
His final book of the 1960s was America and Americans (1966), a book of essays about the American character and the common good. Topics considered include ethnicity, race, and the environment; it is a text relevant to the twenty-first century.
Steinbeck was, throughout his career, curious and engaged, a writer to the end. Perhaps due to his friendship with Johnson, or perhaps because one of his sons—eventually both sons--were serving overseas, Steinbeck wanted to go overseas to witness the realities of the Vietnam War. In 1967, he traveled to Vietnam to report on the war for Newsday, a series called “Letters to Alicia.” He visited combat zones, including remote area where his younger son.was posted. Steinbeck, manned a machine-gun watch position while his son and other members of the platoon slept. During his weeks in Vietnam, Steinbeck grew disenchanted with the war and the inaccurate reports given to the American people. As his wife Elaine said, Steinbeck changed his mind about the wisdom of the Vietnam war, but he did not live long enough to write more about that war.
Throughout the mid-Sixties, Steinbeck’s health continued to decline. He suffered increasingly frequent episodes resembling mini-strokes, and eventually died at his home in New York City on December 20, 1968.