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. 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.
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 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. 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 about an unusual friendship between two migrant workers. 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.
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; 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.
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 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 in his later years, his all-embracing support of American values and acceptance of all national policies, including the Vietnam War, lost him the respect of many liberal intellectuals who had once admired his social commitments. He died on December 20, 1968, in New York City.