Allison's Book Bag

Author John Steinbeck

Posted on: April 24, 2014

His novels are studied in high schools across the country. His collected works also earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature. Known most for writing about social and economic issues of rural America, John Steinbeck also wrote a travelogue about his 1960 road trip with his poodle. That book, Travels with Charley, I’ll review on Saturday.


Born in Salinas, California in 1902, Steinbeck spent most of his life in Monterey County, the setting of much of his fiction. Steinbeck was raised with modest means. His father tried his hand at several different jobs to keep his family fed. He owned a feed-and-grain store, managed a flour plant, and served as treasurer of Monterey County. His mother, a former schoolteacher, shared Steinbeck’s passion of reading and writing. Steinbeck had three sisters.

Steinbeck seemed to have led a happy childhood. He was shy, but smart, and at the age of 14 decided to become a writer. He often locked himself in his bedroom to write poems and stories. In 1919, Steinbeck graduated from Salinas High School.

For the next six years, Steinbeck intermittently attended Stanford University to please his parents. He eventually dropped out for good, without a degree. He chose instead to support himself through manual labor while pursuing a writing career. Summers were spent working on nearby ranches and later with migrant workers on sugar beet farms. His experiences lent authenticity to his depiction of the lives of the working class, who remain the central characters of his most important novels.


JohnSteinbeckIn 1925, Steinbeck went to New York to establish himself as a writer. While there, he once again took on odds jobs, this time as a construction writer and as a reporter. When he failed to have publishing success, he returned to California. There, he garnered work as a tour guide, then a caretaker, and even tried with friends to make money by manufacturing plaster mannequins. He also met Carol Henning, his first wife.

Over the following decade, with Carol’s support and paycheck, Steinbeck continued to pour himself into his writing. When money ran out six months later, the couple moved to Pacific Grove, where his parents lived. They gave him free housing, paper for his manuscripts, and even loans that allowed him to write without looking for work.

During the Great Depression, Steinbeck bought a small boat, and later claimed that he was able to live on the fish and crab that he gathered from the sea, as well as fresh vegetables from his garden and local farms. When that didn’t work, he was not above getting welfare.


During World War II, John Steinbeck served as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Around the same time, he also traveled to Mexico to collect marine life with friend Edward F. Ricketts, with whom he co-authored a book. Ricketts operated a biological lab on the coast of Monterrey, selling biological samples to schools and colleges. Steinbeck’s wife began working at the lab as secretary and bookkeeper. Steinbeck himself began helping out on an informal basis.

Steinbeck’s close relations with Ricketts ended in 1941 when Steinbeck moved away from Pacific Grove and remarried. Several years later, Steinbeck went back to California on an emergency trip to be with Ricketts, who had been seriously injured when his car was struck by a train. However, Ricketts died hours before Steinbeck arrived. Shortly thereafter, Steinbeck was also confronted by his second wife, who asked for a divorce. Steinbeck spent the year after Ricketts’ death in deep depression.

John Steinbeck died in New York City in 1968 of heart disease and congestive heart failure. In accordance with Steinbeck’s wishes, his ashes were buried in the Garden of Memories cemetery in Salinas in the Hamilton Family plot.


SteinbeckHouseSteinbeck’s boyhood home, a turreted Victorian building in downtown Salinas, has been preserved and restored. The house is open for tours during the summer on Sunday afternoons.

The National Steinbeck Center, two blocks away at 1 Main Street is the only museum in the United States dedicated to a single author. It includes Rocinante, the camper-truck in which Steinbeck made the cross-country trip described in Travels with Charley.

His father’s cottage on Eleventh Street in Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck wrote some of his earliest books, also survives.

The town of Monterey has commemorated Steinbeck’s work with an avenue of flags depicting characters from Cannery Row, historical plaques, and sculptured busts depicting Steinbeck and Ricketts. The street that Steinbeck described as “Cannery Row” in the novel, once named Ocean View Avenue, was renamed Cannery Row in honor of the novel. Ed Ricketts’ laboratory survives, though it is not yet open to the public. At the corner, which Steinbeck describes in Cannery Row, also the store which once belonged to Lee Chong.


Some of the resources I consulted are listed below. You’ll also found details in them about Steinbeck’s multitude of writings.

Also just for fun, check out famous Steinbeck quotes: Brainy Quote

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