John Steinbeck was born in California in February 1902 to flour mill manager John Steinbeck Sr and his wife, former school teacher Olive Hamilton from whom the young boy was to gain his love of books and writing. He was the third of four children, and the only son. His family were modestly well off, financially and the family lived in a substantial house in Salinas on Central Avenue. When John was a young teenager, the family suffered a temporary reversal of fortune when his father lost his job at the flour mill. He later started his own venture with a feed and grain store which also failed.
During this period, young John went out to the neighbouring sugar beet farms possibly to supplement the household income. It was during this time that he got to know the experiences and plight of the migrant farmworker that he would later represent in his most famous novels. He worked on occasion in the laboratory at the farm where he would get the chance to indulge in his passion or writing. At the age of 17, John went off to Stanford, studying English Literature, and the family fortunes once again revived as his father secured work as Monterey County Treasurer.
In 1923, John enrolled for a summer marine biology course at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, where he studied the work of William Ritter, particularly his concept of the super-organism, Astro 44. It was through this study that Steinbeck developed his interest in group behavior. John left Stanford in 1925 without graduating and worked his way towards New York earning money through a series of odd-jobs and writing when he could. Once in New York, John tried to gain interest in his work but failed to secure any publishing deals, so returned to California in 1928, where he took work as a tour guide and caretaker at Lake Tahoe. It was here that he met his first wife, Carol Henning.
The couple married in 1930, in Los Angeles and moved to a cottage on land owned by his parents, who had been and continued to support him with loans and materials since his return from New York. For six months the couple were able to exist on the money lent by the older Steinbecks, supplementing their diet with home-grown vegetables and fish and crabs that he caught from the small boat that he bought. When the money ran out, on occasion the couple resorted on occasion to stealing produce from the local market and applied for welfare.
It was around this time that John met later close friend and mentor, Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist and ecologist, who made a living collecting and selling specimens with his own small laboratory in Monterey. Carol Steinbeck would later work for Ed as his secretary and book-keeper.
Steinbeck’s first published work, ‘Cup of Gold’, in 1929 was the tale of the life of Henry Morgan, British Privateer and Naval Admiral and focuses on the sacking of Panama in which, amongst others, Morgan played an active role. He followed this up with three further stories over the next three years, ‘Pastures of Heaven’ in 1932, ‘The Red Pony’ in 1933, which was a tale based on his childhood pony Jill and later that year ‘To a God Unknown’. These novels achieved moderate success, but Steinbeck felt deeply that one day he would achieve greatness through his writing.
In 1935 Steinbeck received his first major break with ‘Tortilla Flat’ based loosely around his love of the Arthurian legends. He quickly followed up with his ‘dust-bowl series’ for which he would make his mark on the literary world. Dubious Battle tells the tale of strike breakers amongst the fruit pickers, and had alleged union or communist leanings, ‘Of Mice and Men’ tells the story of migrant workers during the Depression, faced with the discrimination which came through belonging to what are now known as minority groups. Steinbeck later said his ideas for the characters came from his time on the sugar beet farms around Salinas, although the only one of them who was a “real person” was Lennie. Steinbeck described in an interview with the New York Times in 1937 an occasion when a large man with what would now be classed as learning difficulties, got angry because his friend had been fired. He picked up a pitchfork and stabbed the team leader repeatedly through the stomach with it. The other men were unable to overpower him until the victim was already dead. Steinbeck claimed that this man was taken away and locked in an asylum where he remained. No records however have been found of a patient with this background.
He followed this work up with Grapes of Wrath in which Steinbeck details the negative side of Capitalism. Of Mice and Men, and Grapes of Wrath have gone down in literary history as two of the most critically acclaimed works of the period, throwing open to the world the plight of migrant workers and the poor during the Depression. The conditions they faced in their endeavors just to secure enough money to live, and the harsh treatment they received.
In 1940, Steinbeck took a break and went travelling off the coast of California, collecting marine samples with Ed Ricketts. Carol accompanied them on the trip but upon their return, it appeared their marriage was in trouble. The couple divorced the following year and Steinbeck moved away from Pacific Grove. His friendship with Ed became somewhat distant after this point. The following year Steinbeck remarried Gwyndolyn Conger (Gwyn) with whom he had two sons, Thomas and John IV.
Over the following six years, Steinbeck wrote for a variety of media, he published further works, including ‘Cannery Row’, wrote as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote propaganda material for the war effort and worked with the predecessor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Although denied a commission to enlist, he saw active service as part of a commando team led by Douglas Fairbanks Jr during his reporting on the war in Europe. The team was tasked with diversionary tactics around the Mediterranean and Italy. Although accused of communist sympathies, Steinbeck proved to be an ardent patriot and received shrapnel wounds during the course of his action, and a certain amount of PTSD which he treated by writing further novels based on his wartime experiences.
In 1948, Steinbeck was horrified to hear his friend Ed Ricketts had been critically injured when his car was hit by a train. Steinbeck rushed to be at his friend’s side; sadly, he didn’t make it in time. Ricketts died before Steinbeck arrived. John returned home, devastated, to be met by Gwyn asking for a divorce. There followed a period of depression, which lasted around a year. In 1949 things picked up when he met Elaine Scott, a stage manager, in a restaurant. Elaine was at the time married to actor Zachary Scott. A friendship blossomed which developed into a relationship by the following year as their respective divorces came through. They married in December 1950.
John Steinbeck died in 1968 in New York, from congestive heart failure and heart disease, exacerbated by many years as a smoker. During his lifetime he had achieved several notable accomplishments in the literary world, including the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (fiction) and controversially, the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature. His works continue to be significant bestsellers, many of which have been made into movies, and have been a consistent feature on school and college reading lists, interspersed with episodes on the banned list for their use of contemporary derogatory language and themes, for which arguably the context is overlooked.
John Steinbeck, love him or hate him… an author of great magnitude who opened the world’s eyes to hardship and discrimination.