Born in Salinas, Calif., studied at Stanford. He is probably best remembered for his strong sociological novel The Grapes of Wrath, considered one of the great American novels of the 20th cent. Steinbeck's early novels—Cup of Gold (1929), The Pastures of Heaven (1932), and To a God Unknown (1933)—attracted little critical attention, but Tortilla Flat (1935), an affectionate yet realistic novel about the lovable, exotic, Spanish-speaking poor of Monterey, was enthusiastically received. A compassionate understanding of the world's disinherited was to be Steinbeck's hallmark. The novel In Dubious Battle (1936) defends striking migrant agricultural workers in the California fields. In the novella Of Mice and Men (1937; later made into a play), Steinbeck again presents migrant workers, but this time in terms of human worth and integrity—a theme he also used in The Moon Is Down (1942; later made into a play), about Norwegian resistance to the Nazis. The Grapes of Wrath (1939; Pulitzer Prize), while treating the plight of dispossessed Dust Bowl farmers during the 1930s, presents a universal picture of victims of disaster. Steinbeck's depiction of the westward migration of the Joad family, and their subsequent struggles in the exploitative agricultural industry of California, is realistic and moving, and he endows his humble characters with nobility. Steinbeck's other works are diverse, ranging from the literal account of a voyage, The Sea of Cortez (1941; written with the marine biologist E. F. Ricketts); to a parable, The Pearl (1948); to a playful French folk piece, The Short Reign of Pippin IV (1957). Love of his native land shines through the exquisitely nostalgic story “The Red Pony” in The Long Valley (1938). The somewhat sentimental attitude of Tortilla Flat appears again in Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), and Sweet Thursday (1954). More ambitious are the novels East of Eden (1952), a family chronicle with the Cain and Abel theme, and Winter of Our Discontent (1961), about a suburbanite's moral conflict. Steinbeck also wrote notable nonfiction, particularly The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) and A Russian Journal (1948), and the screenplays for the motion pictures The Forgotten Village (1941) and Viva Zapata! (1952). Travels with Charley in Search of America appeared in 1962 and America and Americans in 1966. Steinbeck was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature.
See his letters, ed. by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (1975); biography by Jackson Benson (1984); study by John H. Timmerman (1986).