John Steinbeck was born on 27th February 1902 in Salinas, California to a well-established miller and local politician and his mother who was a schoolteacher.
Mainly encouraged by his mother, John Steinbeck always had the ambition to
be a writer. His mother influenced the young Steinbeck providing a good selection of books for him to read.
He loved the great outdoors and would rather walk in the countryside than
concentrate on his schoolwork.
He soon had articles published in his High School paper and later in the
Student paper at Stanford University. His studies often took a back seat to his work, which he took on in order to obtain an understanding of the common man. He worked on ranches, in factories, on
construction sites and was even part of a road building gang. After five years of interrupted study he left Stanford without a Degree.
He traveled to New York in 1925 to see if he could make a living as a
writer. His first novel was on a historical subject entitled ‘Cup of Gold’ and this was published in 1929 just two months before the stock market crash which was bad timing for the burgeoning author.
He eloped with a local girl named Carol Henning and with his father’s help
was able to set up home in the small community of Pacific Grove.
Here Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts who was to become a lifelong friend and great influence on his life and work. They would have lengthy discussions on the philosophies of life, which would enable him to produce future successful novels.
It wasn’t until 1934 that he achieved national recognition when his short
story ‘The Murder’ was published and received the O. Henry Prize. The novel was popular enough for him to sell the movie rights for $3,000, which was a good sum of money at that time. With further
inspiration from Ed Ricketts he wrote ‘In Dubious Battle’ a powerful study of a labor strike, which stirred up considerable controversy and was published in 1936.
He also finished several short stories and was commissioned to write a
series of articles for the San Francisco News about the conditions in California migrant worker camps.
These were later gathered together under the title ‘Their Blood was Strong’ and published in pamphlet form in 1936. This would form the foundation of his novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.
Steinbeck became an international celebrity with the publication of ‘Of Mice
and Men’ in 1937 which became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic.
Although enjoying huge success both financially and critically, Steinbeck
remained a man of the people. He continued to base his writing on actual experiences, often living and working among the very people he would write about.
‘Of Mice and Men’ opened on Broadway, but Steinbeck was not there to see it
as he was in a squatters’ camp with a group of migrants with whom he had traveled from Oklahoma.
‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was published in 1939 immediately causing intense
controversy and it became the top selling novel of that year, winning the Pulitzer Prize and the American Booksellers’ Award. Steinbeck was elected as a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
A movie version of the novel was filmed shortly after and received international accolades.
It is not clear the extent of Steinbeck’s income at that time, but his first
wife received a settlement of $220,000 when suing for divorce.
Steinbeck remained a prolific writer during the war years, being
commissioned to publish such books as ‘Bombs Away’ for the Army and Air Force.
He married for the second time Gwyn Verdon, but this only lasted a few years
and he was divorced in 1948.
He also lost his closest friend, Ed Ricketts, in an automobile accident in
In 1950 he married for the third time Elaine Scott and this seemed to
invigorate Steinbeck and he began work on a new novel called ‘East of Eden’ which was published in 1952.
In 1961 he published a further book ‘The Winter of our Discontent’ and in
1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Always being happiest on the road, in 1961 he went on a trek with an elderly
poodle named Charlie and his adventures are recorded in his last work ‘Travels with Charlie’.
He died on 20th December 1968 after a glittering literary career.