John Steinbeck: Biography, Quotes & Facts

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will provide a biography of John Steinbeck (1902-1968), one of the most accomplished American authors of the mid-twentieth century, and feature some of his own words from his most famous works.

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was a writer with tremendous empathy. His books are written in simple prose that elegantly expresses the struggles of some of the least prosperous Americans in particularly trying circumstances. He is best known for his novels of the thirties, such as Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Let's take a closer look at the life and career of this literary legend.

John Steinbeck 1962

Early Life

John Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California. He took up writing at age fifteen. He enrolled at Stanford University in 1919 to please his parents, but only took courses that he was interested in, such as literature, writing, and science. Steinbeck dropped out of college several times and would work odd jobs in factories or ranches, where he met the migrant workers that would influence his most successful fiction.

Steinbeck never graduated college, and he left Stanford for good in 1925. After working in construction and journalism in New York, he returned to California and found a job as a caretaker for a Lake Tahoe resort. This job allowed him the time and freedom to begin writing in earnest. He produced what would become his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), during his three-year stay at the resort, and he married Carol Henning, who supported him professionally, financially, and emotionally as he continued to write.

Steinbeck Hones His Craft

Steinbeck began the 1930s polishing his style with such works as Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and ended it having written some of the best fiction of his career, including the renowned novels, Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). During this period, Steinbeck developed some of his major themes, such as the strong influence of humans' natural and social environments and their need to help one another to survive. These themes are most evident in The Grapes of Wrath, as the Joad family and other dispossessed migrants cross the west to seek work in California, with only each other to rely on. As Steinbeck puts it in this novel, 'Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lif' up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.'

Fame, Friendship, and Personal Struggle

Steinbeck became famous after The Grapes of Wrath, but its socialist bent drew heavy criticism from some, and he did not enjoy the spotlight. He stepped away from politically charged writing in the 1940s and focused more on observational storytelling. This perspective was influenced in part by his good friend, Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist whom Steinbeck had befriended many years before. The two went on an expedition and published their observations as Sea of Cortez. Ricketts was the inspiration for 'Doc', a character in his novels Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954).

In Cannery Row, Steinbeck praised his friend Ed via the fictional 'Doc' who 'would listen to any kind of nonsense and turn it into wisdom. His mind had no horizon - and his sympathy had no warp. He could talk to children, telling them very profound things so that they understood. He lived in a world of wonders, of excitement. He was concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell. Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, 'I really must do something nice for Doc.'

Somewhat disillusioned with novels after The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck delved into film, drama, documentary projects, and war correspondence in WWII. He divorced Carol in 1943 and remarried Gwendolyn Conger, with whom he had two sons. This marriage also ended in divorce in 1948, the same year Ed Ricketts died suddenly. By 1950, he had married again, this time to Elaine Scott. They moved to New York City, and he remained there, and married to Elaine, until his death in 1968.

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