Tortilla Flat: Biography: John Steinbeck
One of America's leading twentieth century novelists, John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in the Salinas Valley, California. His father was John Ernst Steinbeck II, a Monterey County official, and his mother schoolteacher Olive Hamilton. It was Steinbeck's mother who instilled in him a love of reading as a child. One of his favorite books was Malory's Morte d'Arthur, about the King Arthur legends. This was the first book Steinbeck owned, when he was nine years old, and he later said that over the years he had been more affected by this book than any other. It's not surprising, then, that his short novel, Tortilla Flat, has so many parallels to the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
When he was in high school, Steinbeck spent his summers working on local ranches, and this helped him to appreciate the California landscape and its people. This appreciation would later become a marked characteristic of his literary work.
Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University in Palo Alto in 1919, but he left without earning a degree. In 1925, he moved to New York City where he tried unsuccessfully to make a living as a freelance writer. Returning to California, he took various manual jobs such as laborer and bricklayer. Still intent on becoming a writer, he published Cup of Gold in 1929. It was his fourth attempt at a novel.
Steinbeck's first popular success came with Tortilla Flat (1935), which won the California Commonwealth Club's Gold Medal for the best novel by a California author. The novel was made into a movie in 1942, starring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, and John Garfield. Steinbeck followed this with the novel Of Mice and Men (1937), and the work that is usually regarded as his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a chronicle of the exodus of farm families from the Dust Bowl during the economic depression of the 1930s. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
During World War II, Steinbeck was a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1952, he published another of his best-known novels, East of Eden, which he had worked on for five years. Set in California's Salinas Valley, the novel follows the fortunes of two families over several generations. Deeply concerned with the issue of free will, and employing themes and symbols from the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, East of Eden met with mixed reviews.
Steinbeck had married Carol Henning in 1930, but the marriage did not last. In 1943, Steinbeck married his second wife, Gwyndolyn Steinbeck. The couple produced two sons, Thomas Myles Steinbeck (born 1944) and John Steinbeck IV (born 1946). The marriage ended in 1948, but Steinbeck married for the third time in 1950, to Elaine Scott. This turned out to be a happy marriage and the couple lived together until Steinbeck's death.
In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died six years later, in New York City of a heart attack.