John Steinbeck was born in Salinas in 1902 to a middle-class family living a few blocks from Salinas’ bustling Main Street. His father, John Ernst Sr., worked as a manager in the local flour mill. Later, he owned a feed store and was later appointed Monterey County Treasurer. Steinbeck’s mother, born Olive Hamilton, was a former school teacher who enforced high academic standards for her children and encouraged a love of literature. John Steinbeck had three sisters: two older sisters Esther and Beth, and a younger sister Mary, whom Steinbeck was close to throughout their childhood together.
Schooling for Steinbeck showed an early love of storytelling and writing. In high school, a favorite teacher of Steinbeck, read his stories aloud to the class as positive examples, both embarrassing him due to his shyness and encouraging him to continue. He carried this love of writing to college, attending Stanford University’s growing selection of creative writing and English courses. However, the details of taking a full roster of requirements for graduation did not appeal to Steinbeck, so he left the University in 1925 without a degree, having taken the courses that interested him over six years.
Steinbeck’s early work and writing as an independent adult were varied and difficult. He worked at odd jobs, including construction work, journalism, as a winter caretaker for a Tahoe estate, and finally in a Tahoe fish hatchery. Throughout this assortment of jobs, Steinbeck tried to write in his free time. The job as a winter caretaker for a Tahoe vacation estate afforded him the most time to write; he finished his first novel-length manuscript, isolated in his cabin after long winters. This became The Cup of Gold (1929). While working at the hatchery the following summer, Steinbeck met Carol Henning, who would become his first wife. The couple married on January 14, 1930, in a courthouse ceremony.
Together, they lived as long as they could in Los Angeles until the money ran out, forcing them to move to the Steinbeck family vacation cottage in Pacific Grove. There, Carol worked a series of odd jobs herself, putting her skills as a secretary to good use, while Steinbeck wrote as much as he could. During this early period of his writing career, Steinbeck wrote The Pastures of Heaven, stories that became part of The Red Pony, The Long Valley, and To a God Unknown. However, his first commercial success came with the publication of Tortilla Flat. This was Steinbeck’s first book published with his new publisher and editor, Pascal Covici. He would remain Steinbeck’s friend and editor until his death in 1964.
After this turning point in Steinbeck’s career, he started work on some of the best-known pieces, including In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and the crowning achievement, The Grapes of Wrath. At its publication in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath was a controversial book. Steinbeck felt that it plagued the rest of his career: everyone from his literary agents to the reading public was waiting for another Grapes of Wrath. Unfortunately, after fame and fortune came to his life, Steinbeck’s marriage to Carol wavered and fell apart. They divorced in 1943, freeing Steinbeck to marry Gwyndolyn “Gwyn” Conger, whom he had met several years before.
With the dawning of the 1940’s, Steinbeck turned to the growing war effort, producing propaganda pieces supporting the American war effort. The Moon is Down rose to a level of prominence in Europe it never achieved in the United States. For occupied Europe, it became a well-loved work, passed clandestinely from reader to reader even when it could earn them a prison or death sentence. In 1943, Steinbeck experienced war for himself as a war correspondent, writing for the New York Herald Tribune and syndicated in every state except Oklahoma. Upon returning from the war, Steinbeck felt the need for something different. During the war, his injuries and experiences put him in a dark mood that lasted for many months afterward.
Finally moving out of his dark mood, Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row, a book that, in a 1953 essay, Steinbeck says that the soldiers asked for: something funny and not about the war, as they were sick of war. In this post-war period, Steinbeck also returned to pre-war material from his 1940 trip to Baja California, where he and Ed Ricketts went on a trip to collect marine specimens. The Pearl was the result of this tour of his recent past, a novella together with a film by Mexican director Emiliano Fernandez. He also wrote The Wayward Bus, which has its roots in Steinbeck’s time in Mexico.
However, two tragedies struck quickly in 1948: Ed Ricketts died from injuries sustained in a car accident with an oncoming train, and Gwyn asked for a divorce. Later that year, Steinbeck returned to the cottage in Pacific Grove, where he spent much of his time in the 1930s. The following year, he received a visit from actress Ann Southern, who brought along her friend, Elaine Scott. She would become Steinbeck’s third and last wife; the couple married less than a week after Elaine secured her divorce from actor Zachary Scott in December 1950. Then, in early 1951, Steinbeck turned to the “big novel” of his career, East of Eden, drawing on his own family history intertwined with the fictional Trask family. They play out a retelling of the Cain and Abel story. The novel took nearly a year to complete and was published in 1952.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Steinbeck and Elaine traveled widely. Steinbeck finally achieved his goal of supporting their travels through journalism, written about the places they visited. The trip that stood out most for Steinbeck was a ten-month stay in Somerset, England, where Steinbeck worked on a modernized version of the King Arthur stories he loved from his childhood. It stood incomplete for the rest of Steinbeck’s life, though published posthumously in 1976. After months abroad for many years, Steinbeck turned back to his own country, writing about the United States in Travels With Charley and expressing his concern over moral decay in America in The Winter of our Discontent. Later, in America and Americans, Steinbeck returned to the issue of Americans, their culture, and what America was like in the mid-1960s. Although critical of excesses and moral laziness, Steinbeck was clearly sympathetic to Americans as a people and wrote about his belief in the potential Americans have for greatness.
In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his body of work. 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. In 1964, Steinbeck was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson, with whom the writer was personally acquainted.
Steinbeck’s health continued to decline throughout the mid-sixties, and he eventually died at his home in New York City on December 20, 1968.
The National Steinbeck Center, a museum and cultural center in downtown Salinas, pays tribute to his life and lasting impact on American letters and American identity. The Steinbeck Museum explores his ecological vision, his commitment to social engagement, and his many stories about the working class—all of which ensure his work is deeply relevant today. Steinbeck’s books have been published in more than 45 languages, and he is, truly, a citizen of Salinas as well as a citizen of the world.
Exciting changes are coming for the 2022-23 school year! We will not be following our regular program, we will be restructuring SYA for the 2023-24 school year but for now you can still use the previous curriculum. Please let us know if you require access to that curriculum. Even though there will be no Day of Writing this year, we will be holding a “Celebration of Young Authors” voluntary essay contest for students. For this process, you will choose the four (4) best essays for submission. All students whose essays are submitted and their teachers are invited to attend an awards event on March 22, 2023. Awards and Scholarships will be presented at the event. Submissions are due February 24, 2023. If you are interested in participating this year, please fill out this Google Form: https://forms.gle/mQJ5xSB4PTEhmqCz7
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The Steinbeck Collection at the National Steinbeck Center started with a small donation of Steinbeck first-edition books in the 1960s. From humble origins and with the careful collecting and stewardship across decades by people dedicated to Steinbeck’s legacy, the Collection has grown to include approximately 40,000 items, ranging from manuscripts to newspaper clippings, and films to artwork.
The mission that drives the collection, preservation, and sharing of the items in the Steinbeck Collection is to document and share Steinbeck’s legacy. To that end, the collection includes items as varied as John Steinbeck’s life and experiences as a student, war correspondent, novelist, State Department emissary, and Nobel Laureate.
The highlights of the Collection are further described below. For more information about other parts of the Collection, such as foreign editions of Steinbeck’s works, critical analysis and review of Steinbeck’s life and writing, art, or film, please contact the Archivist at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please contact Guest Services for Archive Showings or Docent-led Tours at 831.775.4721
In an effort to support our amazing educators, we have officially launched the National Steinbeck Center’s Educational Resources web page, where you will find interactive lesson plans from our award-winning Red Pony curriculum, fun activities, interactive content and more that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your home.
National Steinbeck Center Annual Academic Conference:
John Steinbeck and East of Eden
The National Steinbeck Center is one of the largest literary museums dedicated to appreciating the life and works of John Steinbeck. Inspired by Steinbeck’s keen observations on the human condition, the National Steinbeck Center is a locale for global dialogue with scholars and students on social issues represented in his novels against the backdrop of the Salinas Valley. As we approach the 70th anniversary of his seminal novel East of Eden, we will be hosting an academic conference to share various perspectives and research analyzing the novel’s place in today’s world. Our goal is to bring the academic community and future scholars together for an intellectual conversation which we hope to continue every year.
This conference will feature short lectures and panel discussions from literary scholars and graduate students. The panels will cover the relation of Steinbeck’s work to the 21st century, agriculture, and the legacy of East of Eden. The short lectures will similarly analyze topics ranging from ethnic identity to the characterization of women presented in Steinbeck’s works, with a specific focus on East of Eden. We invite you to experience and join these illuminating conversations on one of the most important authors of the 20th century.
Where: National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St, Salinas, CA 93901
When: Thursday, September 29, 2022 9:00am-5:00pm
Optional breakfast will be served at 8:00 am
In-person Attendance: $100 General Admission, $25 Student Admission (ID Verification will be required)
(includes catered breakfast and lunch):
Virtual Attendance: $50 General Admission, $10 Student Admission
We recommend conference attendees stay at the Best Western Plus Salinas Valley Inn & Suites.
One option for travel to Salinas is via Amtrak train, which comes and goes through the SNS Train Station, a short 5-minute car ride to the National Steinbeck Center.
We recommend that those traveling by plane book their flight reservations with the San Jose International Airport (SJC), 62 miles (about 1 hr. 15 min drive) or the Monterey Regional Airport (MRY), 15 miles (about a 30 min drive) to the National Steinbeck Center.
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