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Author Biography

Learn more about John Steinbeck's life and the personal experiences that inspired his novel Of Mice and Men in Course Hero's video study guide.

John Steinbeck | Biography

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John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902, to parents John Ernst Steinbeck and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck. Steinbeck's father worked at a variety of jobs, including as manager of a flour plant and owner of a grain store. He never achieved financial success and, as a result, young Steinbeck grew up in modest circumstances. Early on, the son formed a strong bond with the land. One of Steinbeck's early ambitions as a writer was to depict the farms and ranches in the Salinas Valley.

In 1919 Steinbeck began attending Stanford University. Although intent on improving his creative writing skills at the university, his general interest in college studies proved to be lukewarm. Because of this, Steinbeck dropped in and out of school. During his time away from college, he often adopted the lifestyle of a bindlestiff, a term used for migrant workers who carried bundles containing bedding and other gear. These people often took odd jobs, including work on ranches. This experience later influenced Of Mice and Men.

During Steinbeck's university years, he formed a strong friendship with Edward Flanders Ricketts, a marine biologist. Steinbeck admired how Ricketts could accept life as he found it, without placing judgments on it.

In 1925 Steinbeck left Stanford without graduating. After attempting several jobs, he married Carol Henning in 1930. She was an ardent supporter of his writing. They moved into a rent-free cottage belonging to the Steinbeck family in Pacific Grove, California, and she worked at various jobs as he continued to write.

Steinbeck's first literary achievement came with publication of the novel Tortilla Flat (1935). Set in Monterey, California, it features a group of ne'er-do-wells (known as paisanos, or "countrymen") who live an often lawless life while remaining tirelessly devoted to their deep friendships. During these early years as a writer, Steinbeck developed an interest in the plight of laborers and their struggle against oppressive working conditions. His next work, In Dubious Battle (1936), was an expansive novel that depicts a strike at a California apple orchard. Following this work, Steinbeck wanted to explore the subject of common laborers in a more focused manner, and he began working on Of Mice and Men in 1936.

Of Mice and Men portrays the strong friendship between two bindlestiffs—the smart and loyal George, and his hulking, mentally challenged friend Lennie. For this work, Steinbeck drew on his firsthand knowledge of the difficulties faced by common workers. He and his wife had just taken a trip to Mexico, where they witnessed the struggles of landless, poverty-stricken workers. Steinbeck was also familiar with living in extremely modest circumstances. He and his wife struggled for years to make ends meet as he attempted to become a successful writer. All of these elements played a role in shaping Of Mice and Men.

Influenced by his friend Edward Ricketts, Steinbeck wanted to use an objective tone for Of Mice and Men. He wanted at first to name the novel Something That Happened as a way to emphasize an event without moral judgment. The author was fascinated with the idea of creating a new form of literature, which he called the play-novelette. This form could be read either as a novella or as a script for a play. After publishing the novel, Steinbeck allowed it to be used as the basis for a staged presentation in San Francisco.

Of Mice and Men became an immediate success and continues to be read throughout the world. Even so, the work proved to be very controversial. Many people objected to its offensive language. Others claimed it supported euthanasia. Starting in the 1950s, the novel was banned in various places for these and other reasons. The novella continued to be among the most banned books in the United States into the early 21st century.

Steinbeck followed Of Mice and Men with his signature novel, Grapes of Wrath (1939), which also deals with migrant workers. Later novels include East of Eden (1952) and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). In 1962 Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Steinbeck died in New York City on December 20, 1968.

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