John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck books and biography


John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck U.S. postage stamp
Born: February 27, 1902(1902-02-27)
Salinas Valley, California, United States
Died: December 20, 1968 (aged 66)
New York, New York, United States
Occupation: Writer

John Ernst Steinbeck (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was one of the best-known and most widely read American writers of the 20th century. A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, he wrote Of Mice and Men (1937) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), both of which examine the lives of the working class and migrant workers during the Dust Bowl and subsequent Great Depression. Steinbeck often populated his stories with struggling characters, and his stories drew on real historical conditions and events in the first half of the 20th century. His body of work reflects his wide range of interests, including marine biology, politics, religion, history, and mythology.

Seventeen of his works, including Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), and East of Eden (1952), went on to become Hollywood films (some appeared multiple times, i.e. as remakes), and Steinbeck also achieved success as a Hollywood writer, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Story in 1944 for Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat.



Early life and work

The house in Salinas, California where John Steinbeck lived until he was 17 years old.
The house in Salinas, California where John Steinbeck lived until he was 17 years old.

John Ernst Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, of German American and Irish American descent. Johann Adolf Großsteinbeck (i.e. Grossteinbeck), Steinbeck's grandfather, changed the family name from Grossteinbeck to Steinbeck when he migrated to the United States. His father, John Steinbeck, Sr., served as the Monterey County Treasurer while his mother, Olive (Hamilton) Steinbeck, a former school teacher, fostered Steinbeck's love of reading and writing. During summers he worked as a hired hand on nearby ranches.

He attended Stanford University intermittently until 1925, when he departed without graduating to pursue his dream as a writer.

Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold was published in 1929. Steinbeck achieved his first critical success with the novel Tortilla Flat (1935), which won California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal. The story of the adventures of young men in Monterey after World War I was made into a film of the same name in 1942, starring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, and John Garfield.

Critical success

Steinbeck found his stride in writing "California novels" and Dust Bowl fiction, set among common people in the Great Depression. His socially-conscious novels about the struggles of rural workers achieved major critical success. Of Mice and Men (1937), his novella about the dreams of a pair of migrant laborers working the California soil, was critically acclaimed.

The stage adaptation of his novel Of Mice and Men was a smash hit, starring Broderick Crawford as the dim-witted but physically powerful itinerant farmhand "Lennie" and Wallace Ford as Lennie's companion, "George." However, Steinbeck refused to travel from his home in California to attend any performance of the play during its New York run, telling Kaufman that the play as it existed in his own mind was "perfect", and that anything presented on stage would only be a disappointment. Steinbeck would ultimately write only two stage plays (his second was an adaptation of The Moon Is Down).

The play was rapidly adapted into a 1939 Hollywood film, in which Darren Uch played "Lennie" (who had already portrayed this role in the Los Angeles production of the play) and Burgess Meredith was cast as "George." Steinbeck followed this wave of success with The Grapes of Wrath (1939), based on newspaper articles he had written in San Francisco, and considered by many to be his finest work. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 even as it was made into a famous film version starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford.

The success of The Grapes of Wrath, however, was not free of controversy, as Steinbeck's liberal political views, portrayal of the ugly side of capitalism, and mythical reinterpretation of the historical events of the Dust Bowl migrations[1] led to backlash against the author, especially close to home. In fact, claiming the book was both obscene and misrepresented conditions in the county, the Kern County Board of Supervisors banned the book from the county's public schools and libraries in August 1939. This ban lasted until January 1941.[2] Of the controversy, Steinbeck himself wrote, "The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. The latest is a rumor started by them that the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them. I'm frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing. It is completely out of hand; I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy."[3]

The film versions of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men (by two different movie studios) were in production simultaneously. Steinbeck spent a full day on the set of The Grapes of Wrath and the next day on the set of Of Mice and Men.


Steinbeck divorced his first wife, Carol Henning, in 1943. He immediately married Gwyn Conger that same year, and had two sons, Thomas Myles in 1944 and John Steinbeck IV (Catbird), in 1946. They divorced in 1948. Two years later, Steinbeck married Elaine Scott, the ex-wife of actor Zachary Scott. They were married until his death in 1968. Steinbeck had one grandchild.

In 1940, Steinbeck's interest in marine biology and his friendship with Ed Ricketts led him to a historical voyage in the Gulf of California, also known as the "Sea of Cortez," where they collected biological specimens. Steinbeck's narrative portion of this collecting expedition (with some philosophical additions by Ricketts) was later published as The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and describes the daily experiences of the trip. The full catalog of the marine invertebrates taken was also published as a biological catalog of the intervertebrate life of the Gulf of California. While it remains a classic in nature studies, it did not sell well, in part due to failure to find a popular audience, and in part due to the fact that it was published almost to the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, which drew the nation's interest away from this style of writing.

Ricketts had a tremendous impact on Steinbeck's writing. Not only did he help Steinbeck while he was in the process of writing, but he aided Steinbeck in his social adventures. Steinbeck would frequently go on trips with Ricketts to collect biological specimens and have a good time away from his writing. This down time gave Steinbeck an opportunity to think about things other than his writing, and gave him some very significant ideas. Ricketts' impact on Steinbeck was so great that Steinbeck decided to base his character "Doc" in the novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday on Ricketts. Steinbeck's close relationship with Ricketts would end when Steinbeck moved away from Salinas, California, to pursue a life away from his wife Carol.

During World War II, Steinbeck served as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. It was at that time he became friends with Will Lang Jr. of TIME/ LIFE Magazine. During the war, Steinbeck saw action in accompanying some of the commando raids of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s Beach Jumpers program, which (among other things) launched small-unit diversion operations against German-held islands in the Mediterranian. As a war correspondent, Steinbeck would certainly have been executed if he had been captured with the automatic weapon which he routinely carried on such missions, but all were successful. These missions would help to earn Fairbanks a number of decorations, but as a civilian, Steinbeck's role in these doings went officially unrecognized. Some of Steinbeck's writings from his correspondence days were later collected and made into Once There Was A War (1958).

During the war, he continued to work in film, writing Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), and the film A Medal for Benny (1945), about paisanos from Tortilla Flat going to war. John Steinbeck later requested that his name be removed from the credits of Lifeboat, because he believed the final version of the film had racist undertones.

His novel The Moon is Down (1942), about the Socrates-inspired spirit of resistance in a Nazi-occupied village in northern Europe, was made into a film almost immediately. It is presumed that the country in question was Norway, and in 1945 Steinbeck received the Haakon VII Medal of freedom for his literary contributions to the Norwegian resistance movement.

After the war, he wrote The Pearl (1947), already knowing it would be filmed.[4], and traveled to Mexico for the filming; on this trip he would be inspired by the story of Emiliano Zapata, and wrote a film script (Viva Zapata!) that was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn.

In 1948 Steinbeck again toured the Soviet Union, together with renowned photographer Robert Capa. They visited Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi and the ruined Stalingrad. He wrote a humorous report book about their experiences, A Russian Journal, that was illustrated with Capa's photos. Avoiding political topics and reporting about the life of simple Soviet peasants and workers Steinbeck tried to generate more understanding towards the Soviet people in a time when anti-Communism was widespread in the US and the danger of war between the two countries was imminent. In the same year he was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Following his divorce of Gwyndolyn Conger, and the sudden, tragic death of his close friend Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck wrote one of his most popular novels, East of Eden (1952). This book, which he wrote to give his sons some idea of their heritage, was the book he repeatedly wrote of as his best and his life's work.

In 1952, Steinbeck appeared as the on-screen narrator of 20th Century Fox's film, O. Henry's Full House. Although Steinbeck later admitted he was uncomfortable before the camera, he provided interesting introductions to several filmed adaptations of short stories by the legendary writer O. Henry. About the same time, Steinbeck recorded readings of several of his short stories for Columbia Records; despite some obvious stiffness, the recordings provide a vivid "record" of Steinbeck's deep, resonant voice.

Following the success of Viva Zapata!, Steinbeck collaborated with Kazan on the theatrical production of East of Eden, James Dean's film debut. Steinbeck did not care for Dean, he claimed that the actor was arrogant, but said that Dean was the perfect person to play Cal Trask.

Steinbeck was a friend to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Steinbeck's next to last major work, Travels with Charley (subtitle: In Search of America) is a travelogue of a coast-to-coast road trip he took across the United States in 1960, in a camper truck, with his standard poodle Charley. In the work, Steinbeck misses his lost youth and lost roots, and criticizes America's intolerance at many levels.

Steinbeck's last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, was written in 1961. In many of his letters to friends, he spoke of how this book was his statement on the moral decay of the U.S. culture, and it is quite different in tone to Steinbeck's amoral and ecological description of the innocent thievery of the protagonists of his earlier works such as Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. Like many of Steinbeck's works, his last one was critically savaged; unlike his previous works, it also did not find popularity with the masses.

In 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” Privately, he felt he did not deserve the honor. In his acceptance speech, he said,

"the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."[5]

In 1964, Steinbeck was awarded the United States Medal of Freedom by President Johnson.

In 1967, at the behest of Newsday magazine, Steinbeck went to Vietnam to report on the war there. Thinking of the Vietnam War as a heroic venture, he was considered a Hawk for his position on that war. His sons both served in Vietnam prior to his death, and Steinbeck visited one son in the battlefield (at one point being allowed to man a machine-gun watch position at night at a firebase, while his son and other members of his platoon slept). [1]

On December 20, 1968 John Steinbeck died in Manhattan, New York. His death is listed as heart disease or heart attack [6]. An autopsy showed nearly complete occlusion of Steinbeck's main coronary arteries. In accordance with his wishes, his body was cremated and an urn containing his ashes were interred at his gravesite. He had earlier written to his doctor that he felt deeply "in his bones" that he would not survive his physical death, and that the biological end of his life was the final end to it.


Bust of John Steinbeck in Monterey, California
Bust of John Steinbeck in Monterey, California

The Salinas, California area, including the Salinas Valley, Monterey, and parts of the nearby San Joaquin Valley, acted as a setting for many of his stories. Because of his feeling for local color, the area is now sometimes called "Steinbeck Country".

The day after Steinbeck's death in New York City, reviewer Charles Poore wrote in the New York Times: "John Steinbeck's first great book was his last great book. But Good Lord, what a book that was and is: The Grapes of Wrath." Poore noted a "preachiness" in Steinbeck's work, "as if half his literary inheritance came from the best of Mark Twain—and the other half from the worst of Cotton Mather." But he asserted that "Steinbeck didn't need the Nobel Prize—the Nobel judges needed him." Poore concluded: "His place in [U.S.] literature is secure. And it lives on in the works of innumerable writers who learned from him how to present the forgotten man unforgettably."

Steinbeck's works are frequently included on required reading lists in American and Canadian high schools. His works are much less commonly taught at the university level, particularly when compared to the works of contemporaries such as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.[citation needed]

Steinbeck's boyhood home, a turreted Victorian in downtown Salinas, has been preserved and restored by the Valley Guild, a nonprofit organization. Fixed menu lunches are served Monday through Saturday, and the house is open for tours during the summer on Sunday afternoons. The National Steinbeck Center, two blocks away, anchors Oldtown Salinas which has many Victorian and Edwardian-era buildings with which Steinbeck would have been familiar. The NSC is the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to a single author, and Dana Gioia (chair of the National Endowment for the Arts) told an audience at the Center, "This is really the best modern literary shrine in the country, and I've seen them all." Its Steinbeckiana includes Rocinante, the camper truck in which Steinbeck made the crosscountry trip described in "Travels with Charley." The cottage his father owned on Eleventh Street in Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck wrote some of his earliest books, has also survived.

In Monterey, "Doc" Ricketts' laboratory has survived (though is not yet open to the public) and at the corner which Steinbeck describes in Cannery Row, also the store which once belonged to Lee Chong, and the adjacent vacant lot frequented by the hobos of Cannery Row. The sardine cannery next to Doc's lab has long stopped operation as a cannery, and is now the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which contains some historical treasures, including a selection of Doc's library books.


On August 20, 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver announced that John Steinbeck will be inducted into the California Hall of Fame on December 5, 2007 at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts in Sacramento.

Political views

Steinbeck's literary background brought him into close collaboration with leftist authors, journalists, and labor union figures, who may have influenced his writing. Steinbeck was mentored by radical writers Lincoln Steffens and his wife Ella Winter, and through Francis Whitaker, a member of the United States Communist Party’s John Reed Club for writers, Steinbeck met with strike organizers from the Cannery and Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union.[7]

Steinbeck complained publicly about government harassment. In a 1942 letter to United States Attorney General Francis Biddle he wrote "Do you suppose you could ask Edgar's boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I am an enemy alien. It is getting tiresome". [8]) The FBI issued ingenuous denials that Steinbeck was not "under investigation". In fact, Mr. Steinbeck was indeed the object of intense FBI scrutiny. He was not under investigation, which is a technical term used by the FBI when they seek to collect evidence in connection with a specific crime.

Steinbeck was also screened for of his political beliefs by Army Intelligence during World War II to determine his suitability for an officer's commission. They found him ideologically unqualified. In later years, he would be criticized from the left by those who accused him of insufficient ideological commitment to Socialism. In 1948 a women's socialist group in Rome condemned Steinbeck for converting to "the camp of war and anti-Marxism" [9]and in 1955 an article in the Daily Worker criticized Steinbeck's portrayal of the American Left.[10] In 1967, Steinbeck traveled to Vietnam to report on the war, and his sympathetic portrait of the United States Army caused the New York Post to denounce him for betraying his liberal past. Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini has suggested that Steinbeck's personal affection for Lyndon Johnson, whom he considered a friend, influenced his view of the situation in Vietnam.

Steinbeck was a close associate of playwright Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. In the 1950s, Steinbeck took a personal and professional risk by standing up for his companion, who was held in contempt of the United States Congress for refusing to name names in the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee trials. Steinbeck called the period one of the "strangest and most frightening times a government and people have ever faced."

Major Works

Of Mice and Men

For more details on this topic, see Of Mice and Men.

Of Mice and Men is a tragedy that was written in the form of a play in 1937. The story is about two traveling ranch workers, George and Lennie, trying to work up enough money to buy their own farm/Ranch. It encompasses themes of racism, loneliness, prejudice against the mentally ill, and the struggle for personal independence. Along with Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Pearl, Of Mice and Men is one of Steinbeck's best known works. It was made into a movie three times, in 1939 starring Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., and Betty Field, in 1982 starring Randy Quaid, Robert Blake and Ted Neeley, and in 1992 starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich.

The Grapes of Wrath

For more details on this topic, see The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath was written in 1939 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. The book is set in the Great Depression and describes a family of sharecroppers, the Joads, who were driven from their land due to the dust storms of the Dust Bowl. The title is a reference to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The book was made into a film in 1940 starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford.

East of Eden

For more details on this topic, see East of Eden.

Steinbeck deals with the nature of good and evil in this Salinas Valley saga. The story follows two families: the Hamiltons - based on Steinbeck's own maternal ancestrage - and the Trasks, reprising stories about the Biblical Adam and his progeny. The book was published in 1952.

Travels With Charley

For more details on this topic, see Travels With Charley: In Search of America.

In 1960, Steinbeck bought a pickup truck and had it modified with a custom-built camper top - rare for that day - and drove across the United States with his faithful poodle, Charley. In this sometimes comical, sometimes melancholic book, Steinbeck describes what he sees from Maine to Montana to California, and from there to Texas and Louisiana and back to his home in Long Island. The restored camper truck is on exhibit in the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.

Film credits

  • 1939 – Of Mice and Men – directed by Lewis Milestone, featuring Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Betty Field
  • 1940 – The Grapes of Wrath – directed by John Ford, featuring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and John Carradine
  • 1941 – The Forgotten Village – directed by Herbert Kline, narrated by Burgess Meredith
  • 1942 – Tortilla Flat – directed by Victor Fleming, featuring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr and John Garfield
  • 1943 – The Moon is Down – directed by Irving Pichel, featuring Lee J. Cobb and Sir Cedric Hardwicke
  • 1944 – Lifeboat – directed by Alfred Hitchcock, featuring Tallulah Bankhead, Hume Cronyn, and John Hodiak
  • 1944 – A Medal for Benny – directed by Irving Pichel, featuring Dorothy Lamour and Arturo de Cordova
  • 1947 – La Perla (The Pearl, Mexico) – directed by Emilio Fernández, featuring Pedro Armendáriz and María Elena Marqués
  • 1949 – The Red Pony – directed by Lewis Milestone, featuring Myrna Loy, Robert Mitchum, and Louis Calhern
  • 1952 – Viva Zapata! – directed by Elia Kazan, featuring Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn and Jean Peters
  • 1955 – East of Eden – directed by Elia Kazan, featuring James Dean, Julie Harris, Jo Van Fleet, and Raymond Massey
  • 1956 – The Wayward Bus – directed by Victor Vicas, featuring Rick Jason, Jayne Mansfield, and Joan Collins
  • 1961 – Flight – featuring Efrain Ramírez and Arnelia Cortez
  • 1962 – Ikimize bir dünya (Of Mice and Men, Turkey)
  • 1972 – Topoli (Of Mice and Men, Iran)
  • 1982 – Cannery Row – directed by David S. Ward, featuring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger
  • 1992 – Of Mice and Men – directed by Gary Sinise and starring John Malkovich


  • Cup of Gold (1929)
  • The Pastures of Heaven (1932)
  • The Red Pony (1933)
  • To a God Unknown (1933)
  • Tortilla Flat (1935)
  • The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath (1936)
  • In Dubious Battle (1936)
  • Of Mice and Men (1937)
  • The Long Valley (1938)
  • The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  • Forgotten Village (1941)
  • The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1941)
  • The Moon Is Down (1942)
  • Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942)
  • Cannery Row (1945)
  • The Pearl (1947)
  • East of Eden (1952)
  • The Short Reign of Pippin IV (1957)

Further reading

  • DeMott, Robert and Steinbeck, Elaine A., eds. John Steinbeck, Novels and Stories 1932-1937 (Library of America, 1994) ISBN 978-1-88301101-7
  • DeMott, Robert and Steinbeck, Elaine A., eds. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings 1936-1941 (Library of America, 1996) ISBN 978-1-88301115-4
  • DeMott, Robert, ed. John Steinbeck, Novels 1942-1952 (Library of America, 2002) ISBN 978-1-93108207-5
  • DeMott, Robert and Railsback, Brian, eds. John Steinbeck, Travels With Charlie and later novels, 1947-1962 (Library of America, 2007) ISBN 978-1-59853-004-9


  1. ^ See Steinbeck, A Life in Letters.

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