Photo: (c) William Ward Beecher,
courtesy Globe Photos.
Making Ends Meet While Living a Dream
Steinbeck decided at the age of 14 that he wanted to be a writer. His mother, Olive, a former teacher, fostered his love of reading and writing, but eventually lamented his decision to make it a profession. Following graduation from Salinas High School in 1919, Steinbeck attended Stanford University sporadically until 1925, enrolling in creative writing classes but ultimately dropped out without a degree. For the next four years, he concentrated on writing, living first in New York City and eventually returning to California. In the beginning, he had a hard time making a go of it. He struggled to find a publisher, and even after the publication of his first three novels (starting with Cup of Gold in 1929), he was still virtually unknown.
Until he became a successful writer (with his first monetary and critical success, Tortilla Flat, published in 1935) he earned a living as a carpenter, ranch hand, factory laborer, sales clerk, caretaker and reporter, and was also given financial assistance by his father in the hope that he would develop his craft. He did. Unfortunately, just before his fame broke, Steinbeck suffered the loss of both parents.
From Best-sellers to Blockbusters
Steinbeck's most famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), is a landmark of twentieth-century American literature; it tells the story of Oklahoma migrant workers and California growers in the darkest days of the California depression. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and catapulted Steinbeck into his generation's literary elite. His thirty-four works of fiction and non-fiction (most written during a very prolific period from 1935–1965) are varied in subject and convey his enthusiasm and curiosity about the world. They are honest. They are real.
Other notable works include Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, Sea of Cortez, Cannery Row, The Pearl and East of Eden. He considered the last his epic—the novel he was born to write. After it was finished, he wrote the majority of his non-fiction, penning the travelogue Travels with Charley, an adaptation of the classic Arthurian legend Morte d'Arthur and a book of essays titled America and Americans.
Steinbeck was also very prolific in film. Unlike many writers, he became deeply involved in several adaptations of his works, forging life-long friendship with such directors as Elia Kazan, writing a few scripts himself, and spending time helping to rewrite storylines. Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, The Pearl, The Red Pony and East of Eden were all successfully adapted for the screen and brought him further fame and fortune.