John Steinbeck Biography

John Steinbeck was a noted American writer who was known for his award-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and Of Mice and Men (1937) which was a widely acclaimed novella. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

Quick Facts

Nickname: N/A

Date of Birth: 27th February, 1902

Place of Birth: Salinas, California

Origin: Irish and German

Profession: Writer

Known for: Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962


Childhood and Growing Years

John Ernst Steinbeck (Jr.) was born in Salinas, California to John Ernst Steinbeck (Sr.) who was a treasurer in Monterey County, and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, who was a former schoolteacher in a public school. He was from a moderate middle-class working family, and he was the only son among 4 siblings. His mother, with her academic background and love for books, is said to have been the person to get John interested in reading and writing since an early age. He spent his childhood summers working on ranches near their place, and later spent most of his time working with migrant workers on the Spreckles ranch. It was here that he first gained insight about the life of a ranch worker, which would later help him write about them in his novels.

He graduated from Salinas High School in 1919. He then enrolled at Stanford in 1920, and attended it sporadically until 1925 (often leaving in between to take up jobs on ranches, factories or farms), until eventually he decided university education would not be of much help to him. Though he liked attending his English classes, for the most part, he found college culture to be pretentious. Though he always spoke to Stanford with fondness later, he finally left Stanford without getting his degree. He left to New York to pursue a writing career, and worked odd jobs to support himself there. He stayed there for almost an year, hunting for a publisher to publish his works, but never found one.

He then moved back to California and worked there as a handyman at a resort near Lake Tahoe in 1928; where he met tourist Carol Henning, who would soon become his first wife. They married in January, 1930. He lived for the most part in Monterey County, which was the setting of most of his later novels.

He later had 2 more marriages, one to country singer Gwndolyn Conger in 1943, with whom he had his only two children (Thom and John IV). Their marriage lasted 5 years, and they finally divorced in 1948. The very next year, he met Elaine Scott in Carmel, and married her the year after that.

Claim to Fame

Cup of Gold was Steinbeck’s first book, which was published in 1929. The book was set in Panama, and it was a quasi historical account of the life of Henry Morgan, a real life privateer. A year after the release of this book, he and his wife Carol moved to a small cottage in Pacific Grove, California where he was to produce most of his famous works.

In the next two years, he wrote and published two other books The Pastures of Heaven and, in 1933 and To a God Unknown, but neither of these books brought him the much needed critical acclaim he deserved. But these two books were along the lines of what would later become his trademark writing style, where he identified and wrote about the things that mattered most to him, and which he drew from past experience.

He first achieved critical acclaim with his book Tortilla Flat, which was published in 1935. This book was set in Monterey, and it was about the life of a group of young paisanos in post-World War 1 world. This book, with its subtle humor in a very real scenario, brought him much needed critical and commercial success.

Encouraged by the success of that book, he began to write a series of “California” books, all with a similar theme; set in the time of the Great Depression. The most famous of these books were In Dubious Battle, which was considered to be the first of a quasi trilogy, told the story of a strike by fruit pickers against the ruling party in the region. He wrote in a tone sympathetic to the plight to the working class, and so his work was not appreciated by the political parties of that day. Of Mice and Men, was set in California and was about the dreams of two migrant farm laborers and their constant endeavor for personal independence. This book was made into a movie 3 times. The Grapes of Wrath was a tragic story about a family of poor farmers and their struggle to survive and create a better future for themselves. All of these books were commercial successes, and made him a well-known author. These books won him many major awards, and also were adapted into stage plays and movies.

He authored a total of 27 books, sixteen of which are fiction (Some historical), five short story collections and six books of non-fiction.

He passed away on 20th December, 1968. He spent his last years travelling the US, and working on the book “Travels with Charlie”. He died of congestive heart failure, as he had been a compulsive smoker throughout his life. He was cremated, and his ashes lie in Salinas in the Garden of Memories Cemetery.

Awards and Nominations

He won a Commonwealth Gold medal for Best Book by a Californian in 1935 for Tortilla Flat. His book In Dubious Battle won him The Novel of 1936 Prize. In 1938, he received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Of Mice and Men. He also won a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and a National Award for his book The Grapes of Wrath in 1940. This book was also later made into a motion picture. Seventeen of his books have been made into movies.

Personal Quotes

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

“I am impelled, not to squeak like a grateful and apologetic mouse, but to roar like a lion out of pride in my profession.”

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

“Man, unlike anything organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.”

“Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”

“Time is the only critic without ambition.”

“In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.”

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