John Ernst Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California on February 27, 1902. His mother, Olive, nourished a love of reading and writing in her son who, at age fourteen, declared his intention to become a writer. According to Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw, the adolescent Steinbeck lived "in a world of his own making, writing stories and poems in his upstairs bedroom."
He attended Stanford University from 1919-1925, studying English literature but never receiving a degree. He worked with ranchers and migrants, relationships which clearly inform his body of work. As Shillinglaw observes, these relationships led Steinbeck, in his earliest fiction of the 1930s, to "claim his people . . . common people shaped by the environments they inhabit." Works of this period include The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933). Along with his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), these novels did not meet with critical success. By contrast, Tortilla Flat (1935), a humorous look at the paisanos of Monterey, received both critical acclaim and popular success.
Shillinglaw points out that, like many 1930s intellectuals, Steinbeck sympathized with communism's concern for the working class (though Steinbeck himself was never a communist, nor did he approve of the Soviet system's repression of the individual). This concern clearly influences The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize. It also met with controversy, however. While widely regarded as Steinbeck's finest work, it aroused the anger of Oklahomans and Californians. Still others objected to its "crass" language.
Steinbeck served as a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune during World War II. Some of his important later works include East of Eden (1952), a modern retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel; The Winter of our Discontent (1961), a critique of what Steinbeck regarded as the overly materialistic American lifestyle; and the travelogue Travels with Charley (1962). When he died in New York City in 1968, he was working on an updated version of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, eventually published in 1976 as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.
Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, cited for "his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception."