His love for California and its people stemmed from his summers spent working on ranches, which also gave him the detailed knowledge of the Californian landscape and agriculture evident in many of his books. Six years at Stanford University studying English ended without graduation, and instead Steinbeck moved to New York to attempt a writing career.
Finding little success, he returned to his home state, where his new works were not well received. It wasn’t until his first marriage to Carol Henning and their move to Pacific Grove that he made a breakthrough with his first novel, Tortilla Flat (1935), which followed a group of young men who reject all the standard ideals of American life to fulfill their desire for wine and women.
The Californian landscape would greatly inspire Steinbeck’s writing, and it was the setting for most of his work. His friendship with marine biologist Ed Ricketts throughout the 1930s and '40s nourished his love for the landscape, as they travelled extensively along the Californian coast picking up specimens for Ricketts’ work. The book they wrote about their travels did not do well, however, and the subsequent loss of this friendship, some believe, did irreparable harm to Steinbeck’s writing.
Two of his most famous works, Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) were written during this period of friendship with Ricketts, and show a greater concern with agriculture than any of his other work. Before writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck travelled widely and met many migrant families. The treatment they received upset him greatly; he said he lessened the extent of their suffering in the novel to make it more accessible. Nevertheless the novel was still met with some anger.
During the Second World War, Steinbeck was a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, and he journeyed to the Mediterranean for first hand experience of the war. He returned with both shrapnel and psychological wounds, and he found solace in his writing and a new marriage to Gwyndolyn Conger, with whom he had two sons, Thomas and John.
The breakdown of his second marriage led to a journey around the Soviet Union with Robert Capa and a book, Russian Journal (1948). He would marry once more and continue his travels, firstly to Tel Aviv and then around America with his dog, recorded in the book Travels with Charley (1960).
Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 was the nail in the coffin for Steinbeck’s productivity. Shocked by the public outcry at his award, he never wrote fiction again. He died in 1968. His last novel was The Winter of our Discontent (1961).
Today, John Steinbeck is considered one of America’s greatest writers, and his books are studied in schools across the world. He has been commemorated with a US postal stamp and the National Steinbeck Center is entirely dedicated to his life and works.