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Steinbeck, John

Early Years

John Steinbeck was born in a grand family home in Salinas, California. During this period, the Salinas Valley became known as the ‘Salad Bowl of the Nation’ due to its successful trading of lettuce and other vegetables, and the life of the farmers and ranchers inspired much of Steinbeck’s work. Steinbeck’s mother was a school teacher, encouraging Steinbeck and his three sisters to read and love literature. A key memory from Steinbeck’s childhood is his pony, Jill, which would later inspire The Red Pony, a series of stories published in magazines from 1933 to 1936.

Education and Becoming a Writer

In 1919, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University but he eventually left in 1925 without a degree and travelled to New York with the hope of becoming a writer – a career he had experimented with during his teenage years. Steinbeck struggled to make a living in New York and returned home, but not before writing his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929). However, it proved critically unsuccessful. The following year, Steinbeck married his first wife, Carol Henning, and he set to work writing his second novel To a God Unknown, experimenting with narratives of ranch and farm life. However, it would be stories modelled after Arthurian legends that would bring Steinbeck his first spell of critical success with his 1935 novella, Tortilla Flat, which follows the lives of a gang of struggling young men post World War I.

Steinbeck’s Success

After the publication of Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck wrote and published his most critically acclaimed and most renowned novels: Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). In 1940, the latter was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was adapted into a Hollywood film starring Hollywood legend Henry Fonda. It remains a key text for understanding the history of America’s Great Depression and the suffering of farmers and workers in the ‘Dust Bowl’ – the name given to farmland damaged by a series of severe dust storms and high winds between 1934 and 1940. It is Steinbeck’s 1937 novel, Of Mice and Men, that remains a favourite with readers, but the novel’s popularity is also challenged by complaint due to its frequent use of language now deemed racist and offensive.

Later Years and Death

Following the success of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck fell ill, begrudging the publicity and fame it brought him. In 1942, he separated from his first wife, and he married his second, Gwyn Conger, in 1943.
Due to suspicions that he was a communist sympathiser, Steinbeck was denied entry into the armed forces to fight in World War II, but he published various pieces of propaganda for the war, including Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (1942), and in 1943 he travelled around the world, reporting on the war in Europe for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1948, Steinbeck’s second marriage came to an end, and the following year he met Elaine Scott, who would become his third and final wife, with whom he moved to New York in 1950 and with whom he remained till his death.
The following year, Steinbeck began work on one of his last novels, East of Eden (1952), which he intended to be his magnum opus and which he dedicated to his sons. His next publication, entitled The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), would be his final work of fiction.
In 1962, he was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. However, Steinbeck’s final years were tainted by his growing disillusionment towards his country in what he felt was its glorification of the Vietnam War. Steinbeck passed away in 1968 before he could write more on the war that so fascinated him.
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John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California

Started university

Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University

Moved to New York

Steinbeck hoped to become a freelance writer

Steinbeck married his first wife, Carol Henning

The two later separated in 1942, with Steinbeck marrying Gwyn Conger just a year later.

Publication of Tortilla Flat

This novella brought Steinbeck his first critical success.

Publication of Of Mice and Men

This novel remains a favourite with readers, but some of its language is now deemed offensive.

Watch a clip of the trailer for the 1992 film adaptation


Publication of The Long Valley

This is a collection of short stories about ranch and farm life.

Watch a short video about the Dust Bowl


Publication of The Grapes of Wrath

The novel was a controversial publication, with many schools, libraries and the Soviet Union briefly banning and symbolically burning the text due to its ‘offensive’ language, sexual references and what many deemed Steinbeck’s communist agenda.

Watch the trailer for the film


Steinbeck married his second wife, Gwyn Conger, with whom he had two sons, Thomas and John

The two later separated in 1948 after a troubled marriage. In 2018, Conger’s memoir, My Life with John Steinbeck: The Story of John Steinbeck’s Forgotten Wife, was published in which she branded Steinbeck a ‘sadistic’ man and a ‘womaniser’.

Steinbeck married his third wife, Elaine Anderson Scott

He remained with her until his death 18 years later.

Publication of East of Eden

Steinbeck intended this as his magnum opus.

Publication of The Winter of Our Discontent

This was his final work of fiction. Travels with Charley, a non-fictional account of a road trip with his poodle, was published in 1962.

Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature

It was awarded ‘for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception’.

Watch the clip of Steinbeck’s acceptance speech


John Steinbeck died in New York City

An autopsy ruled heart disease and congestive heart failure as the causes of Steinbeck’s death, attributed to Steinbeck’s status as a lifelong smoker.

Read an article written to mark the 50th anniversary of his death


Steinbeck’s retelling of Arthurian legend, The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, was published posthumously

In the first few years of their marriage, Steinbeck and his wife, Elaine, had travelled through England and Wales researching the legends for his publication.

The ‘National Steinbeck Center’ was opened to the public

On 2nd and 3rd August every year, the ‘National Steinbeck Center’ hosts the ‘Steinbeck Festival’ – a literary celebration of Steinbeck’s works and legacy through exhibits, performance, talks and films.