John Steinbeck Biography

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Of Mice and Men Author/Context

John Steinbeck was born in his parents' bedroom on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. Adjacent to the Salinas River, much of the towns commerce centered upon shipping and agriculture, specifically vegetable farming. Early in the century many people were migrating to California, and many were trying to succeed in farming. Steinbeck's grandfather had been a dairy farmer, but his own father avoided this life. John was accepted to Stanford University for the fall of 1919, but before he left for university he would spend the summer working as a laborer. While digging canals Steinbeck was afforded his first opportunity to meet and observe this class of unskilled laborers who would later inhabit much of his work.

Steinbeck spent six years at Stanford, studying literature and writing, leaving in 1925 without having earned a degree. Anxious to head to New York City and become a writer, Steinbeck found work on a freighter and began his trip east. In New York Steinbeck worked a variety of jobs to support himself while working on his first novel, Cup of Gold, which was published in 1929. Following this, Steinbeck married for the first time, and he and his wife headed back to California. He would publish two novels during this time, but he did not achieve success until 1935, with the release of Tortilla Flat. The novel focuses upon the paisanos of the Monterey area, paralleling their lives with those of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Steinbeck would next publish In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), which he would also rewrite as a play, The Red Pony (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Of Mice and Men brought him national recognition and The Grapes of Wrath was considered by many critics to be his masterpiece. His experience as a laborer played an important role in his writing. While discussing Of Mice and Men during an interview, Steinbeck said:

"I was a bindlestiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He's in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn't kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times. I saw him do it. We couldn't stop him until it was too late." (Parini 27)

Similarly, before writing The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck spent two years studying the movement of migrant workers into the California valley. This novel was his attempt to bring their problems and suffering to life.

During the 1940s Steinbeck wrote several novels which focused on war. But neither The Moon is Down (1942) or Bombs Away (1942) brought him critical acclaim. Several stories of modern life follow with Cannery Row (1945) and The Wayward Bus (1947). In 1952 Steinbeck published East of Eden, which he regarded as his highest achievement. The book tells the story of a symbolic family conflict set against the backdrop of war. To Steinbeck's disappointment, the epic did not achieve the acclaim he felt it deserved.

Steinbeck spent five years translating much of Malory's Morte D'Arthur. This work was published after his death in The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976). Steinbeck would write one more novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), followed by Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), a record of his cross-country trip with his poodle, Charley.

In 1962 Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in New York City four years later.


Astro, Richard. "John (Ernst) Steinbeck" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 9: American Novelists, 1910-1945. Martine: The Gale Group, 1981, pp. 43-68.

Kiernan, T. The Intricate Music: A Biography of John Steinbeck. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1979.

Parini, J. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt Company, 1995.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

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