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John Steinbeck

Author of The Grapes of Wrath

By Patricia Daniels, Contributing Writer

Picture of John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath.

American author John Steinbeck. (1935)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who Was John Steinbeck?

John Steinbeck was an American novelist, short story writer, and journalist who is best known for his Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Several of Steinbeck's novels have become modern classics and many were made into successful films and plays. John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 and the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1964.

Dates: February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968

Also Known As: John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr.

Famous Quote: "Man is the only kind of varmint sets his own trap, baits it, then steps on it."

Steinbeck's Childhood

John Steinbeck was born February 27, 1902 in Salinas, California to Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, a former teacher, and John Ernst Steinbeck, the manager of a local flour mill. Young Steinbeck had three sisters. As the only boy in the family, he was somewhat spoiled and pampered by his mother.

John Ernst Sr. instilled in his children a deep respect for nature and taught them about farming and how to care for animals. The family raised chickens and hogs, and owned a cow and a Shetland pony. (The beloved pony, named Jill, would become the inspiration for one of Steinbeck's later stories, The Red Pony.)

Reading was highly valued in the Steinbeck household. Their parents read classics to the children and young John Steinbeck learned to read even before he started school. He soon developed a knack for making up his own stories.

High School and College Years

Shy and awkward as a young child, Steinbeck became more confident during high school. He worked on the school newspaper and joined the basketball and swim teams. Steinbeck blossomed under the encouragement of his ninth-grade English teacher, who praised his compositions and persuaded him to keep writing.

After graduating from high school in 1919, Steinbeck attended Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Bored by many of the subjects required to earn a degree, Steinbeck only signed up for classes that appealed to him, such as literature, history, and creative writing. Steinbeck dropped out of college periodically (in part because he needed to earn money for tuition), only to resume classes later on.

In between stints at Stanford, Steinbeck worked on various California ranches during harvest time, living among itinerant farmhands. From this experience, he learned about the life of the California migrant worker. Steinbeck loved hearing stories from his fellow workers and offered to pay anyone who told him a story he could later use in one of his books.

By 1925, Steinbeck decided he'd had enough of college. He left without ever finishing his degree, ready to move on to the next phase of his life. While many aspiring writers of his era traveled to Paris for inspiration, Steinbeck set his sights on New York City.

Steinbeck in New York City

After working all summer to earn money for his trip, Steinbeck set sail for New York City in November 1925. He traveled on a freighter down the coasts of California and Mexico, through the Panama Canal and up through the Caribbean before reaching New York.

Once in New York, Steinbeck supported himself by working a variety of jobs, including as a construction worker and a newspaper reporter. He wrote steadily during his off hours and was encouraged by an editor to submit his group of stories for publication. Unfortunately, when Steinbeck went to submit his stories, he learned that the editor no longer worked at that publishing house; the new editor refused to even look at his stories.

Angry and disheartened by this turn of events, Steinbeck abandoned his dream of making it as a writer in New York City. He earned passage back home by working on-board a freighter and arrived in California in the summer of 1926.

Marriage and Life as a Writer

Upon his return, Steinbeck found a job as a caretaker at a vacation home in Lake Tahoe, California. During the two years he spent working there, he was very productive, writing a collection of short stories and completing his first novel, Cup of Gold. After several rejections, the novel was finally picked up by a publisher in 1929.

Steinbeck worked at a number of jobs to support himself while continuing to write as often as he could. At his job in a fish hatchery, he met Carol Henning, the woman who would become his first wife. They were married in January 1930, following Steinbeck's modest success with his first novel.

When the Great Depression hit, Steinbeck and his wife, unable to find jobs, were forced to give up their apartment. In a show of support for his son's writing career, Steinbeck's father sent the couple a small monthly allowance and allowed them to live rent-free in the family cottage at Pacific Grove on Monterey Bay in California.

Literary Success

The Steinbecks enjoyed life at Pacific Grove, where they made a lifelong friend in neighbor Ed Ricketts. A marine biologist who ran a small laboratory, Ricketts hired Carol to help out with the bookkeeping in his lab. John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts engaged in lively philosophical discussions, which greatly influenced Steinbeck's world view. Steinbeck came to see similarities between the behaviors of animals in their environment and those of people in their respective surroundings.

Steinbeck settled into a regular writing routine, with Carol serving as his typist and editor. In 1932, he published his second set of short stories and in 1933, his second novel, To a God Unknown. Steinbeck's run of good luck changed, however, when his mother suffered a severe stroke in 1933. He and Carol moved into his parents' house in Salinas to help care for her.

While sitting at his mother's bedside, Steinbeck wrote what would become one of his most popular works — The Red Pony, which was first published as a short story and later expanded into a novella.

Despite these successes, Steinbeck and his wife struggled financially. When Olive Steinbeck died in 1934, Steinbeck and Carol, along with the elder Steinbeck, moved back into the Pacific Grove house, which required less upkeep than the large house in Salinas.

In 1935, Steinbeck's father died, only five days before the publication of Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck's first commercial success. Because of the book's popularity, Steinbeck became a minor celebrity, a role he did not relish.

"The Harvest Gypsies"

In 1936, Steinbeck and Carol built a new home in Los Gatos in an attempt to get away from all of the publicity generated by Steinbeck's growing fame. While the house was being built, Steinbeck worked on his novella, Of Mice and Men.

Steinbeck's next project, assigned by the San Francisco News in 1936, was a seven-part series on the migrant farm workers populating the farming regions of California.

Steinbeck (who titled the series "The Harvest Gypsies") traveled to several squatters' camps, as well as to a government-sponsored "sanitary camp" to gather information for his report. He found appalling conditions in many of the camps, where people were dying of disease and starvation.

John Steinbeck felt great sympathy for the downtrodden and displaced workers, whose ranks now included not only immigrants from Mexico, but also American families fleeing the Dust Bowl states. He decided to write a novel about the Dust Bowl migrants, and planned to call it "The Oklahomans." The story was centered on the Joad family, Oklahomans who — like so many others during the Dust Bowl years — were forced to leave their farm to seek a better life in California.

Steinbeck's Masterpiece: The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck began work on his new novel in May 1938. He later said that the story was already fully formed in his head before he started writing it. With Carol's help typing and editing the 750-page manuscript (she also came up with the title), Steinbeck completed The Grapes of Wrath in October 1938, exactly 100 days after he had begun. The book was published by Viking Press in April 1939.

The Grapes of Wrath caused an uproar among California produce farmers, who claimed that conditions for the migrants were not nearly as bleak as Steinbeck had portrayed them. They accused Steinbeck of being a liar and a communist. Soon, reporters from newspapers and magazines set out themselves to investigate the camps and found that they were just as dismal as Steinbeck had described. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited several camps and came to the same conclusion.

One of the best-selling books of all time, The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was made into a successful movie that same year.

Despite Steinbeck's phenomenal success, his marriage suffered from the strain of getting the novel completed. To make matters worse, when Carol became pregnant in 1939, Steinbeck pressured her to terminate the pregnancy. The botched procedure resulted in Carol needing a hysterectomy.

Voyage to Mexico

Weary of all the publicity, Steinbeck and his wife embarked upon a six-week boat voyage to Mexico's Gulf of California in March 1940 with their friend Ed Ricketts. The purpose of the trip was to collect and catalog plant and animal specimens. The two men published a book about the expedition called Sea of Cortez. The book was not a commercial success, but was praised by some as a significant contribution to marine science.

Steinbeck's wife had come along in hopes of patching up their troubled marriage, but to no avail. John and Carol Steinbeck separated in 1941. Steinbeck moved to New York City, where he began dating actress and singer Gwyn Conger, who was 17 years his junior. The Steinbecks divorced in 1943.

One good outcome of the trip came from a story Steinbeck heard in a small village, inspiring him to write one of his best-known novellas: The Pearl. In the story, a young fisherman's life takes a tragic turn after he finds a valuable pearl. The Pearl was also made into a movie.

Steinbeck's Second Marriage

Steinbeck married Gwyn Conger in March 1943 when he was 41 and his new wife a mere 24 years old. Only months after the wedding — and much to his wife's displeasure — Steinbeck took an assignment as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. His stories covered the human side of World War II, rather than describing actual battles or military maneuvers.

Steinbeck spent several months living alongside American soldiers and was present during combat on numerous occasions.

In August 1944, Gwyn gave birth to son Thom. The family moved into a new home in Monterey in October 1944. Steinbeck began work on his novel, Cannery Row, a more lighthearted story than his previous works, featuring a main character who was based upon Ed Ricketts. The book was published in 1945.

The family moved back to New York City, where Gwyn gave birth to son John Steinbeck IV in June of 1946. Unhappy in the marriage and longing to return to her career, Gwyn asked Steinbeck for a divorce in 1948 and moved back to California with the boys.

Just prior to his break-up with Gwyn, Steinbeck was devastated to learn of the death of his good friend Ed Ricketts, who had been killed when his car collided with a train in May 1948.

Third Marriage and the Nobel Prize

Steinbeck eventually returned to the family house in Pacific Grove. He was sad and lonely for some time before meeting the woman who became his third wife — Elaine Scott, a successful Broadway stage manager. The two met in California in 1949 and married in 1950 in New York City when Steinbeck was 48 years old and Elaine was 36.

Steinbeck began working on a new novel that he called "The Salinas Valley," later renaming it East of Eden. Published in 1952, the book became a bestseller. Steinbeck continued to work on novels as well as writing shorter pieces for magazines and newspapers. He and Elaine, based in New York, traveled frequently to Europe and spent nearly a year living in Paris.

Steinbeck remained productive, despite suffering a mild stroke in 1959 and a heart attack in 1961. Also in 1961, Steinbeck published The Winter of Our Discontent and a year later, he published Travels with Charley, a non-fiction book about a road trip he took with his dog.

In October 1962, John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some critics believed he didn't deserve the award because his greatest work, The Grapes of Wrath, had been written so many years before.

Awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1964, Steinbeck himself felt his body of work didn't warrant such recognition.

Weakened by another stroke and two heart attacks, Steinbeck became dependent upon oxygen and nursing care in his home. On December 20, 1968, he died of heart failure at the age of 66.

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