John Steinbeck Profile

Carolyn and I have appreciated the work of acclaimed author and local writer John Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. Much of Steinbeck’s fiction is set in Central California, particularly in the Salinas Valley and Monterey Bay area, which is near where we live. Steinbeck’s works often explored themes of fate and injustice, especially among the poor and downtrodden.

John Ernst Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California. His father served as Monterey County Treasurer, and his mother was a schoolteacher, who had a passion for reading and writing. Steinbeck grew up in a small, rural valley along the Pacific coast. Both the valley and coast would later serve as settings for some of his most well-known novels.

When he was growing up, Steinbeck spent his summers working on nearby ranches, such as the Post Ranch in Big Sur. In 1919, Steinbeck graduated from Salinas High School. He then enrolled at Stanford University, where he studied English literature, although he never finished his degree.

In 1925, Steinbeck traveled to New York City, where he took odd jobs and started writing fiction, although he failed to get anything published. In 1928, he returned to California and worked as a tour guide and caretaker at Lake Tahoe, where he met the woman who became his wife. Steinbeck continued writing, and in 1929, his first novel, Cup of Gold, was published. It is the story of a swashbuckling pirate, who ruled the Spanish Main with his vicious outlaw activity.

In 1930, Steinbeck married Carol Henning in Los Angeles. Steinbeck attempted to earn a living by manufacturing plaster mannequins with friends, but this didn’t turn out to be a successful business venture, and they ran out of money six months later. Steinbeck and Henning moved back to Pacific Grove, where they lived in a cottage owned by his father just outside of Monterey. Henning became the model for the character Mary Talbot in Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row.

Steinbeck’s parents gave him free housing, paper for his manuscripts, and loans that allowed him to write without having to look for work. The couple lived on fish and crabs gathered from the sea, and fresh vegetables from their garden, but still their money ran out. Then they lived on welfare, and “on rare occasions” they stole bacon from the local market.

Around this time, Steinbeck wrote a mystery novel called Murder at Full Moon, about a dangerous werewolf that was on the loose. Publishers rejected this book, and it remains unpublished to this day, as Steinbeck’s estate doesn’t want it released, despite pleas from many people who are eager to read it.

Between 1930 and 1933, Steinbeck produced three shorter works, The Pastures of Heaven, The Red Pony, and To a God Unknown. During this time, Steinbeck was a relatively obscure writer with little success, although he “never doubted that he would achieve greatness.”

During this period, Steinbeck met marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who became a close friend and mentor. Ricketts operated a biology lab on the coast of Monterey, selling biological samples of marine animals, and he became a proponent of ecological thinking. They shared a love of music and art, and the two had a deep bond. When Steinbeck became emotionally upset, Ricketts sometimes played music for him.

In 1935, Steinbeck published his novel Tortilla Flat, which was his first critical success, and won the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Medal. The novel portrays the adventures of a group of poor, yet loyal friends, living in the Monterey region during the post-World War I era. The story focuses on their simple lives, camaraderie, and escapades, which were creatively expressed within the mythic structure of an Arthurian legend.

Next, Steinbeck began writing what was to become one of his most widely acclaimed novels, Of Mice and Men, which was published in 1937. This is a drama about the dreams of two migrant agricultural laborers in California, and it was adapted into a Hollywood film two years later, starring Lon Chaney Jr.

In 1939, Steinbeck followed this wave of success with the publication of his novel The Grapes of Wrath, which is often considered to be his greatest work. Set during the Great Depression, it’s the story of a poor family of farm workers who leave Oklahoma for California. It was controversial at the time that it was published, and from 1939 to 1941, it was banned in certain California public schools, because the Kern County Board of Supervisors claimed that it was obscene and misrepresented conditions in the county.

However, The Grapes of Wrath won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, as well as being prominently cited when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. In 1940, The Grapes of Wrath was adapted as a Hollywood film, directed by John Ford, and starring Henry Fonda, who was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for the role. In 1942, Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat was also adapted into a movie, starring Spencer Tracy. With some of the proceeds from this, Steinbeck built a summer ranch home in Los Gatos, California.

In 1945, Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row was published. The novel, set in Monterey, also took place during the Great Depression. The story revolves around people living along a street with sardine canneries known as Cannery Row” The actual location that Steinbeck was writing about was named Ocean View Avenue at the time that he wrote the novel, but it was later renamed Cannery Row in honor of the book. A film version of Cannery Row was released in 1982, and a stage version in 1995.

During the last years of his life, Steinbeck remained an active and prolific writer, despite battling health issues. He continued to produce several notable works, including Travels with Charley: In Search of America, which chronicled his cross-country road trip with his poodle, Charley. Steinbeck also wrote America and Americans, a collection of essays that explored various aspects of American society and culture.

Steinbeck was also involved in political activism, speaking out against social injustices, and advocating for workers’ rights. Despite his declining health, Steinbeck’s literary contributions and commitment to addressing important societal issues continued until his passing. Steinbeck died in 1968, in New York City, at the age of 66.

Steinbeck’s boyhood home in Salinas is preserved and is open for tours. Nearby in Salinas is the National Steinbeck Center, a museum and memorial dedicated to Steinbeck, which was founded in 1983. In 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger inducted Steinbeck into the California Hall of Fame. Today, when driving along U.S. Route 101 through Salinas, a large green sign announces that one is driving along the John Steinbeck Highway.

Some of the quotes that John Steinbeck is known for include:

I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen. 

It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone. 

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness? 

A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ. 

You’ve seen the sun flatten and take strange shapes just before it sinks in the ocean. Do you have to tell yourself every time that it’s an illusion caused by atmospheric dust and light distorted by the sea, or do you simply enjoy the beauty of it? 

I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found. 

To be alive at all is to have scars. 

When two people meet, each one is changed by the other, so you’ve got two new people.

by David Jay Brown

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