John Steinbeck Biography

Born: February 27, 1902
Salinas, California
Died: December 20, 1968
New York, New York

American writer

John Steinbeck, American author and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1962, was a leading writer of novels about the working class and was a major spokesman for the victims of the Great Depression (a downturn in the American system of producing, distributing, and using goods and services in the 1930s, and during which time millions of people lost their jobs).

Early life

John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, the only son of John Ernst Steinbeck Sr. and Olive Hamilton. His father was a bookkeeper and accountant who served for many years as the treasurer of Monterey County, California. Steinbeck received his love of literature from his mother, who was interested in the arts. His favorite book, and a main influence on his writing, was Sir Thomas Malory's (c. 1408–1471) Le Morte d'Arthur, a collection of the legends of King Arthur. Steinbeck decided while in high school that he wanted to be a writer. He also enjoyed playing sports and worked during the summer on various ranches.

Steinbeck worked as a laboratory assistant and farm laborer to support himself through six years of study at Stanford University, where he took only those courses that interested him without seeking a degree. In 1925 he traveled to New York (by way of the Panama Canal) on a freighter (boat that carries inventory). After arriving in New York, he worked as a reporter and as part of a construction crew building Madison Square Garden. During this time he was also collecting impressions for his first novel. Cup of Gold (1929) was an unsuccessful attempt at romance involving the pirate Henry Morgan.

Begins writing seriously

Undiscouraged, Steinbeck returned to California to begin work as a writer of serious fiction. A collection of short stories, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), contained vivid descriptions of rural (farm) life among the "unfinished children of nature" in his native California valley. His second novel, To a God Unknown (1933), was his strongest statement about man's relationship to the land. With Tortilla Flat (1935) Steinbeck received critical and popular success; there are many critics who consider it his most artistically satisfying work.

John Steinbeck.
John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck next dealt with the problems of labor unions in In Dubious Battle (1936), an effective story of a strike (when workers all decide to stop working as a form of protest against unfair treatment) by local grape pickers. Of Mice and Men (1937), first conceived as a play, is a tightly constructed novella (short novel) about an unusual friendship between two migrant workers (laborers who travel to wherever there is available work, usually on farms). Although the book is powerfully written and often moving, some critics feel that it lacks a moral vision.

Steinbeck's series of articles for the San Francisco Chronicle on the problems of migrant farm laborers provided material for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), his major novel and the finest working-class novel of the 1930s. The Grapes of Wrath relates the struggle of a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers forced to turn over their land to the banks. The family then journeys across the vast plains to the promised land of California—only to be met with scorn when they arrive. It is a successful example of social protest in fiction, as well as a convincing tribute to man's will to survive. The Grapes of Wrath received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.

Other subjects

During World War II (1939–45), which the United States entered to help other nations battle Germany, Italy, and Japan, Steinbeck served as a foreign correspondent. From this experience came such nonfiction as Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942); Once There Was a War (1958), a collection of Steinbeck's dispatches from 1943; and A Russian Journal (1948), with photographs by Robert Capa. More interesting nonfiction of this period is The Sea of Cortez, coauthored with scientist Edward F. Ricketts. This account of the two explorers' research into sea life provides an important key to many of the themes and attitudes featured in Steinbeck's novels.

Steinbeck's fiction during the 1940s includes The Moon Is Down (1942), a tale of the Norwegian resistance to occupation by the Nazis (German ruling party that scorned democracy and considered all non-German people, especially Jews, inferior); Cannery Row (1944), a return to the setting of Tortilla Flat; The Wayward Bus (1947); and The Pearl, a popular novella about a poor Mexican fisherman who discovers a valuable pearl that brings bad luck to his family.

Later decline

In the 1950s Steinbeck's artistic decline was evident with a series of novels that were overly sentimental, stuffy, and lacking in substance. The author received modest critical praise in 1961 for his more ambitious novel The Winter of Our Discontent, a study of the moral disintegration (falling apart) of a man of high ideals. In 1962 Travels with Charley, a pleasantly humorous account of his travels through America with his pet poodle, was well received. Following the popular success of the latter work, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Steinbeck's work remains popular in both the United States and Europe, chiefly for its social consciousness and concern and for the narrative qualities displayed in the early novels. Although he refused to settle into political conservatism (preferring to maintain traditions and resist change) in his later years, his all-embracing support of American values and acceptance of all national policies, including the Vietnam War (1955–75; conflict in which the United States fought against Communist North Vietnam when they invaded Democratic South Vietnam), lost him the respect of many liberal (preferring social change) intellectuals who had once admired his social commitments. He died on December 20, 1968, in New York City.

For More Information

Benson, Jackson J. John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography. New York; Penguin Books, 1990.

Lynch, Audry. Steinbeck Remembered. Santa Barbara: Fithian Press, 2000.

Moore, Harry T. The Novels of John Steinbeck: A First Critical Study. Chicago: Normandie House, 1939, revised edition 1977.

Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: H. Holt, 1995.

Steinbeck, John IV, and Nancy Steinbeck. The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2001.

User Contributions:

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Jan 28, 2010 @ 4:16 pm
u should also write about the famous peom that 8th grader are requires to learn which is the mice and men
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Feb 1, 2010 @ 12:12 pm
i found this biography about john stienbeck very helpful... i am doing a class project on john stienbeck and the great depression. i found the topic really boring untill i read the biography. Thank you for helping me and thank you for the information
- Gabbsterzz
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Jul 17, 2011 @ 3:15 pm
this biography doesn't really explain Steinbeck's life. I'm learning about Of Mice and Men, and I'm supposed to connect the plot with his life. What inspired him to write something like this? I think this biography would be a lot more helpful if it talked more about his life other than writing books~
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Aug 31, 2011 @ 8:08 am
I want info on Nobel Prize! Please I'd like to have this for my project.
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Sep 4, 2011 @ 5:17 pm
this is not helpful at all this was a wate of time
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Sep 6, 2011 @ 6:18 pm
Working on our current homework assignment for my English class was a breeze thanks to this article! Danke!
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Sep 7, 2011 @ 12:00 am
thanks for the article it was a really helpful guidline for me :D
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Dec 19, 2011 @ 10:10 am
Actually, John Steinbeck had a little brother but he died when the pet dog mauled him to death. Other than that, this biography is awefully incorrect. It does not mention at all that Steinbeck was admitted into a physictric ward 5 years before his death, and that many claim that his death was suicide. It should also be considered that John Steinbeck could have been an illegal immigrant from Spain.
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Feb 5, 2012 @ 1:01 am
@Woodrow How could Steinbeck possibly be an immigrant from Spain if he was born in the USA? Also, it's not meant to be exciting guys, it's a biography!
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May 10, 2012 @ 11:11 am
Not sure if it's omitted by purpose or out of ignorance, but it seems to always be left out that Steinbeck wrote his first novel, "Cup of Gold" while living as a care-taker for a cabin in South Lake Tahoe. Though the book was not critically acclaimed, it ads a certain facet to his storyline.
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Aug 6, 2012 @ 10:22 pm
This Biography of John Steinbeck was a great guideline for me, thanks very much.
annoying creature
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Sep 12, 2017 @ 5:17 pm
ok kind of kind of helpful but not really i was looking for info about his wife and children so you guys need to fix that and take About his life and not only his career
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Sep 17, 2017 @ 6:18 pm
more info on his childhood and home life please? and also the events surrounding his life while writing his books. Please I'm in Honors English and this gave me useless information

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