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’s 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 1940s, 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.
Steinbeck Young Authors Program
The Award-winning Steinbeck Young Authors (SYA) program, which begins its 19th year in the fall of 2021, fosters a community-centric approach to reading and writing. It has educated and inspired over 60,000 students, serving over 6,000 elementary, middle, and high school students annually. Through comprehensive and engaging curriculums developed for teachers focused on John Steinbeck’s works, students become young, published authors.
The SYA program was recognized for outstanding dedication and extraordinary contributions toward the improvement of teaching English/Language Arts in California, thereby earning the National Steinbeck Center the 2019 Award of Merit from the California Association of Teachers of English.
This year the National Steinbeck Center received the Superintendent’s Awards for Excellence in Museum Education from the California Association of Museums (CAM) and the California Department of Education (CDE) for its vibrant contributions made to California’s K-12 educational system through the Steinbeck Young Authors Program.
The SYA program provides teachers with curriculum guides focused on John Steinbeck’s novellas, The Red Pony or The Pearl. These guides are aligned with Middle School Common Core State Standards and promote reading comprehension and fluency, responding to higher level questions about the text by practicing and utilizing critical thinking skills, and constructing a well-developed essay in which they can clearly convey their thoughts to the reader. As a result, teachers bring Steinbeck’s books to life for their students, cultivate their comprehension and writing skills, and build a foundation upon which our program stands.
After completing the curriculum, teachers nominate student finalists for the Day of Writing. During this day, volunteer writing coaches amass to encourage, inspire, and guide students in writing their final essays. The insightful and unique student essays published in The Steinbeck Young Authors Anthology remind us that there are never too many ways to hear a story, feel connected to a character, or grow from life lessons in literature.
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
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.
Call for Papers
In honor of the 70th Publishing Anniversary of East of Eden, The National Steinbeck Center is excited to launch the first annual academic conference dedicated to research on the Nobel Laureate.
John Steinbeck made an indelible impact on literature in the 20th century through his novels and short stories. After he won the Pulitzer Prize Fiction Award in 1940 for his controversial novel, The Grapes of Wrath, his literary skills continued to captivate the global audience. In 1948, he returned to his hometown of Salinas, California to begin intensive research for East of Eden, which he believed to be his Magnum Opus. In 1952, after “11 years of mental gestation (and) one year of
uninterrupted writing”, he published the novel, dedicating it to Thom and John, his young sons.
That same year, he was the sixth American to have ever won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The judges praised him for his “at one and the same time realistic and imaginative writings, distinguished as they are by the sympathetic humor and a social perception”
As we approach the 70th anniversary of one of his seminal texts, we invite scholars to share research on Steinbeck and join an intellectual conversation we hope to continue every year. We invite submissions which could be considered for one of the following panels, as well as short lectures in between panels.
Our panel discussions will be on the following topics:
The legacy of East of Eden
Steinbeck and Agriculture
Steinbeck in the 21st Century
Topics might include, but are not limited to:
We encourage submissions on any of these topics or something that is not on this list.
We will select panelists and short lecture presentations from our full pool of submissions, but if you have a preference between the two, please indicate it in your submission.
Short lectures are generally limited to 15 minutes, however shorter 10–minute presentations and longer 20–minute presentations will be considered dependent upon interest.
On modality: while the panel sessions and lectures will be held in-person at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, the opening remarks and three short lectures will be available for attendees online.
Please direct your 250–word proposal and a short professional bio to our conference team (email@example.com) with the words “CFP Submission” in the email subject.
Proposals should include your name, affiliation (if applicable), contact information (including phone number and email), an abstract of 250 words about a proposed topic, an image (if proposal is to be considered for the virtual panel), and a 100-word bio.
Please specify any A/V needs.
Please also specify whether you are able to travel to Salinas or whether you are submitting for the virtual short lecture only.
Deadline: Please email proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, May 6, 2022.
Stipends of $200 will be offered to panelists and speakers who attend in person, panelists on the virtual session will be offered stipends of $75.
The conference organizers and the National Steinbeck Center are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We welcome proposals from all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and physical ability.