Born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. grew up in modest circumstances. His mother, Olive Hamilton, was a former schoolteacher, and his father, John Ernst Steinbeck, worked as a manager of a flour mill. Early on, he learned to appreciate agriculture. Salinas Valley had many prosperous farms and was known as the "Salad Bowl of the Nation."
Steinbeck's family faced financial difficulties when his father lost his job at the flour mill, making young Steinbeck aware of the difficulties faced by people who had limited means. In 1919 he entered Stanford University. He took creative writing courses and especially enjoyed classes in history, biology, and ecology. He was a largely disinterested student who did not complete some of his classes, however, and wanted to devote his time to writing. He dropped out of Stanford in 1925.
Steinbeck achieved his first literary success with the novella Tortilla Flat (1935). Soon he began to use his writing to call attention to unfair labor practices, a theme reflected in Of Mice and Men (1937).
In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck combines his experience with economic hardships, concern about labor issues, and knowledge of farming and ecology to weave a rich, searing story about a migrant family searching for work in California. In preparation for this novel, he researched the migrant way of life in California for about two years.
The Grapes of Wrath became a financial and critical success, earning both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1940. He followed this work with the novels Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), East of Eden (1952), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). In 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Steinbeck died of heart disease on December 20, 1968, in New York City.