John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, the setting for the novel East of Eden. The third of four children, Steinbeck had a relatively happy childhood, with parents who were involved in the community and sisters with whom he got along well. He spent much of his youth exploring the natural world around him, learning the names for everything he saw and using them later in stories. As a freshman in high school and with the encouragement of his English teacher, Steinbeck decided to become a writer. Steinbeck spent much of his time alone writing stories. He entered Stanford University in 1919 but only to please his parents. Steinbeck never finished but did make sure nearly all his classes were about literature and writing. He spent the rest of his time working, often in factories; these experiences informed much of his later writing.
Literary successes marked Steinbeck's early career, in particular the novels Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Many critics consider these his best works of fiction, both of which closely examine the effects of poverty and tragedy on family relations and social interactions. Steinbeck portrays the loss of dreams caused by failed interactions between characters and their environments: the strong connection between people and land is a recurring theme in his work. These novels both ensured his fame and stirred controversy. In fact some states still ban The Grapes of Wrath for certain school-age groups because of its rough language.
Steinbeck then took a few years off to study marine biology with his closest friend, ecologist and philosopher Ed Ricketts, who took Steinbeck on a collecting expedition in the Sea of Cortez. This experience not only surfaced in a nonfiction account of the trip but also informed his novel Cannery Row, as Ricketts's Pacific Biological Laboratory was located on Cannery Row in Monterey. Cannery Row was known for its homeless population, and Steinbeck felt a connection with people down on their luck, telling their stories in Cannery Row. Steinbeck's sympathy for rural workers, stemming from his jobs in factories and in construction, influenced his writing throughout his career.
Steinbeck's later novels, including East of Eden, were not as well received critically, but his style had matured and he came closer to what he intended to do in his work. Steinbeck had just gone through his second divorce, the death of his best friend, Ricketts, a new marriage to Elaine Scott in 1950, and a final move to New York City, so the time during which he wrote East of Eden was marked by emotional upheaval. Wanting to write about his family's lives for decades, he considered East of Eden his masterpiece, the apex of his fictional works. He wrote to a friend in 1948, "It is what I have been practicing to write all of my life." His friend Elia Kazan directed the 1955 film version, the screenplay based on the last part of the book. It is the most autobiographical of his novels, drawing directly from his grandparents' lives as well as his own. In addition, throughout the novel are lyrical, detailed descriptions of the area surrounding Salinas that reflect changes in nature and a deep spiritual connection to the land. To Steinbeck, East of Eden was the novel into which he put everything he had achieved as a writer as well as his love for the natural world.
In 1962 Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature, an award influential critics immediately questioned, convinced Steinbeck's only strength had been his novels about the world of the 1930s. Steinbeck never wrote fiction again, stunned by these responses, but he continued to write essays on the state of American morality and social responsibility. America and Americans (1966) was his last published book, and his assessments of racial conflicts, destruction of the land, and increasing class divisions between the rich and the poor reveal much of Steinbeck's character. Steinbeck made an effort to find and understand vulnerable and disenfranchised people everywhere he went, certain that kindness through understanding was the most important part of living in a moral society. John Steinbeck died on December 20, 1968, in New York City.