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Life of John Steinbeck: A Biography

Madhavi Ghare
John Steinbeck was a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winning American writer. He not only wrote novels and stories, but was an accomplished war correspondent too.
"I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."
―John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck
(February 27, 1902 - December 20, 1968


Author, War Correspondent

1940 Pulitzer Prize (Fiction)
1940 National Book Award
1962 Nobel Prize (Literature)
1964 Presidential Medal of Freedom

Early Life

John Ernst Steinbeck was born on the 27th of February, 1902, in Salinas, California. His father, John Steinbeck Sr., worked as the Monterey County Treasurer, and his mother, Olivia Hamilton, used to work as a schoolteacher. She encouraged her son's love for reading and writing.

During the school summer holidays, Steinbeck used to work as a hired hand on the nearby ranches. He graduated in the year 1919 from Salinas High School. He attended Stanford University till 1925. He left the university without graduating so as to pursue his dream of becoming a writer.

Writing Career

► John Steinbeck's first novel was titled 'Cup of Gold', and was published in 1929. In 1935, he published 'Tortilla Flat', which received critical acclaim, and won the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal.
In 1942, his book titled 'Great Depression', which depicted the adventures of young men in Monterey during the Great Depression, was made into a movie, starring Spencer Tracy.
► John Steinbeck had found his 'writer's voice' while writing fiction set in the area known as the California Dust Bowl, in the time of the Great Depression.

► In 1937, he wrote 'Of Mice and Men', a novella based on the dreams of two migrant workers, who were working to save money to buy their own ranch.
The novella was centered on the themes of loneliness, racism, and the struggle for independence. This was made into a stage production. Steinbeck, however, refused to attend the play, because he claimed that the play, as it existed in his head was perfect, and anything else would be a disappointment.
This book was also made into major movies three different times: 1939, 1982, and 1992.

► In 1939, he published 'The Grapes of Wrath', where he describes the perils of a family of sharecroppers who are driven from their land due to the dust storms in the California Dust Bowl. The book is set in the time of the Great Depression.
This book was also transformed into a major movie production in 1940. He got the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for this book.
► 'The Grapes of Wrath' attracted its share of controversy. However. It showed the ugly side of capitalism and the reinterpretation of the events of the Dust Bowl migrations. It led to people claiming that the book misrepresented facts about the area. It was even banned from public schools and libraries till 1941.
► In 1940, Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts voyaged in the Gulf of California, which is also known as the Sea of Cortez. A narrative of this account was published by him in 'The Log from the Sea of Cortez'. However, this book came out at the same time as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and thus, went largely unnoticed.
► Steinbeck wrote a novel titled 'The Moon Is Down', which also became a major film, and earned him the Haakon VII Medal of Freedom for his literary contributions to the Norwegian resistance movement.

► During World War II, Steinbeck also worked as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune.
His collected writings during these days were published in 'Once There Was a War', in 1958.

► Meanwhile, in 1944, Steinbeck also wrote the script for Alfred Hitchcock's film 'Lifeboat', and then for another film titled 'A Medal For Benny' in 1945.
► In 1947, he wrote 'The Pearl', which also became a major motion film. He also wrote a film script based on the life of Emiliano Zapata, titled 'Viva Zapata!', which was also made into a major film.

► A humorous account of Steinbeck's travels to Russia with renowned photographer Robert Capa was published in 1948, with the title 'A Russian Journal'.
► In 1948, following the divorce from his second wife Gwyndolyn Conger, and the tragic demise of his best friend Ed Ricketts, he wrote 'East of Eden'. The movie production of this book was James Dean's film debut.
► In 1960, he wrote 'Travels With Charley: In Search Of America', which detailed his coast-to-coast road trip across America in a modified camper truck with his poodle Charley. In this book, he also described how he missed his lost youth and the intolerance of America at several levels.
► In 1961, he wrote 'The Winter of Discontent', which described the moral decay within American culture. This novel though, was not quite popular with the critics.

► In 1962, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his 'realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception'.
► In 1964, he won the United States Medal for Freedom at the hands of President Johnson.

► In 1967, he went to Vietnam for the Newsday Magazine, to report on the Vietnam War.

Personal Life

Steinbeck took up odd jobs while writing to make ends meet. Without much success through his writing, he became a tour guide in California. He got married to Carol Henning in 1930. They divorced in 1943, and he married Gwyndolyn Conger. They had two sons: Thomas Myles and John Steinbeck IV.
They divorced in 1948. In 1950, he married Elaine Scott. They remained married till Steinbeck's death.
        John Steinbeck died on the 20th of December, 1968, at the age of 66, in Manhattan, New York, of heart failure. In keeping with his wishes, he was cremated, and on the 4th of March 1969, he was interred at the Hamilton family grave in Salinas.
'The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights' was a novel that was not completed by him before he died. It was published in the year 1976.