Biography of John Steinbeck
John Ernst Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902 of
German and Irish ancestry. He was the third of four children and the only son born to John Ernst and Olive H. Steinbeck. His father, John Steinbeck, Sr., served as the County Treasurer while his mother, Olive (Hamilton) Steinbeck, a former school teacher, fostered Steinbeck’s love of reading and the written word. During summers he worked as a hired hand on nearby ranches, nourishing his impression of the California countryside and its people.
After graduating from Salinas High School in 1919, Steinbeck attended Stanford University. Originally an English major, he pursued a program of independent study and his attendance was poor. During this time he worked periodically at various jobs and left Stanford permanently in 1925 to pursue his writing career in New York. However, he was unsuccessful in getting any of his writing published and finally returned to California.
Steinbeck’s best-known fiction explores the struggles of poor people. His first novel, Cup of Gold, is based on the life of Sir Henry Morgan, a famous English pirate of the 1600s; it was published in 1929, but attracted little attention. His two subsequent novels, The Pastures of Heaven and To a God Unknown, were also poorly received by the literary world. In The Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck focuses on the struggle between human beings and nature. Both works were poorly received by the literary world.
Steinbeck married his first wife, Carol Henning in 1930, which later ended in divorce in 1942. They lived in Pacific Grove where much of the material for Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row was gathered. Tortilla Flat, (1935) which deals with migrant workers and poor farmers, marked the turning point in Steinbeck’s literary career. It received the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Medal for best novel by a California author. Steinbeck continued writing, counting upon extensive research and his personal observation of the human condition for his stories. Steinbeck’s most famous novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) won the Pulitzer Prize. It is a story of a poor Oklahoma farming family, who migrate to California in search of a better life during the Great Depression. Steinbeck successfully shows how the struggles of one family reflected the hardship of the entire nation.
During World War ll, Steinbeck was a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Some of his dispatches were later collected and made into Once There Was a War. John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 “…for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception.” Throughout his life John Steinbeck remained a private person who shunned publicity. President Johnson awarded him the United States Medal of Freedom in 1964, and he was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp on what would have been his seventy-fifth birthday. He died December 20, 1968, in New York City and is survived by his third wife, Elaine (Scott) Steinbeck and one son, Thomas. A second son, John IV, with his second wife, also survives him. His ashes were placed in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Salinas.
“Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species…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 passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”- John Steinbeck’s Noble Prize Acceptance Speech.