John Steinbeck, the son of John Ernst Steinbeck, was born in Sainas, California on 27th February, 1902. His mother, Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, a former school teacher, encouraged her son's passion for reading and writing. He spent his summers working on nearby ranches with migrant workers. This gave him a great sympathy of the underdog.
Steinbeck studied marine biology at Stanford University in Palo Alto. In his spare-time he worked as a agricultural labourer while writing novels and in 1929 published Cup of Gold, based on the life and death of Henry Morgan. The following year he married Carol Henning. The couple lived in a cottage owned by his father in Pacific Grove. Steinbeck also spent time with the artistic community based in Carmel. This included Lincoln Steffens, Ella Winter, Albert Rhys Williams, Robinson Jeffers, Harry Leon Wilson and Marie de L. Welch. Winter described Steinbeck as "excessively shy, a red-faced, blue-eyed giant."
Steinbeck published a collection of short stories portraying the people in a farm community, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and a novel about a farmer, To a God Unknown (1933). This was followed by Tortilla Flat (1935), that was set in nearby Monterey. With the proceeds of this novel he built a summer ranch-home in Los Gatos.
The journalist, Lincoln Steffens, was very impressed by his next novel, In Dubious Battle. He wrote to his friend, Sam Darcy on 25th February, 1936: "His novel is called In Dubious Battle, the story of a strike in an apple orchard. It's a stunning, straight, correct narrative about things as they happen. Steinbeck says it wasn't undertaken as a strike or labor tale and he was interested in some such theme as the psychology of a mob or strikers, but I think it is the best report of a labor struggle that has come out of this valley. It is as we saw it last summer. It may not be sympathetic with labor, but it is realistic about the vigilantes."
During this period Steinbeck showed great concern for those suffering from the Great Depression. In 1936 he wrote an article on the subject of the Dust Bowl: "Here, in the faces of the husband and his wife, you begin to see an expression you will notice on every face; not worry, but absolute terror of the starvation that crowds in against the borders of the camp.... This is a family of six; a man, his wife and four children. They live in a tent the colour of the ground. Rot has set in on the canvas so that the flaps and the sides hang in tatters and are held together with bits of rusty bailing wire. There is one bed in the family and that is a big tick lying on the ground inside the tent. They have one quilt and a piece of canvas for bedding. The sleeping arrangement is clever. Mother and father lie down together and two children lie between them. Then, heading the other way, the other two children lie, the littler ones."
Other books by Steinbeck included Of Mice and Men (1937), The Long Valley (1938) and his best-known novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). This novel of a family fleeing from the dust bowl of Oklahoma was made into a film directed by John Ford and featuring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Shirley Mills, John Qualen and Eddie Quillan. The book also won Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.
Steinbeck became estranged from Carol Henning in 1941 and they divorced the following year. He married Gwyndolyn Conger in 1942 and over the next few years the couple had two children Thomas Myles Steinbeck (1944) and John Steinbeck IV (1946 - 1991). He later married Elaine Scott, the former wife of Zachary Scott.
During the Second World War Steinbeck went to Europe where he reported the war for the New York Tribune. He also published The Moon is Down (1942), a novel about the resistance in Norway to the Nazi occupation. Steinbeck accompanied commando raids against German-held islands in the Mediterranean. In 1944, wounded by a close munitions explosion in North Africa.
Other books by Steinbeck include Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), A Russian Journal (1948), Burning Bright (1950), East of Eden (1952), Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV (1957) and a selection of his writings as a war correspondent, Once There Was a War (1958) and Winter of our Discount (1961).
John Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, died in New York City on 20th December, 1966, of heart disease and congestive heart failure. A lifelong smoker, an autopsy showed nearly complete occlusion of the main coronary arteries.
© John Simkin, May 2013