John Steinbeck is one of the most popular authors of the 20th century, known for his deft social commentary and grasp on the lives of the everyday person. Born on February 27, 1902, this literary figure is remembered for novels like 1937’s Of Mice and Men and 1939’s The Grapes of Wrath, along with select nonfiction work and screenplays. Here are 11 facts about Steinbeck’s life and career.
February 27, 1902, Salinas, California
December 20, 1968, New York, New York
‘Of Mice and Men,’ ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘East of Eden’
1. California’s Salinas Valley greatly influenced John Steinbeck’s work.
Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, and he used the region as the setting for many of his books, including the short story collection The Long Valley. Salinas plays an even bigger role in 1952’s East of Eden, which Steinbeck called “almost the autobiography of the Valley.”
2. He had a happy childhood.**
Steinbeck grew up in a family of “modest means,” according to the Steinbeck House website, and was the third of four children (he had two older sisters as well as a younger one). His father, John Ernst Steinbeck, worked various jobs in his life, including owning a feed store and managing a flour plant; his mother, Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, was a former teacher. Steinbeck, who settled on a career as a writer when he was just 14, was seriously ill a couple of times in his youth—first when he had pleural pneumonia at 16, and then again the next year when he had his appendix removed.
After graduating from high school in 1919, Steinbeck attended Stanford University (where he tried, without success, to sign up for a human dissection course) off and on until eventually dropping out for good in 1925. (According to The Independent, his father, then working as treasurer of Monterey County, “was getting an allowance from his father ... of $50 ... a month” in the 1920s.) The house where he grew up—which the Steinbeck family moved into in 1900—has been a restaurant full of Steinbeck mementos since 1974.
3. Steinbeck likely wrote his first novel while working as a caretaker in Lake Tahoe.
After dropping out of Stanford University, Steinbeck worked as a caretaker at the luxe Cascade Estates on the California side of Lake Tahoe near Mount Tallac. While working and living on the property, he also found time to finish his first book, Cup of Gold, which was published in 1929. The historical novel is based loosely on pirate Henry Morgan’s assault on Panama City in the 17th century.
4. Steinbeck wrote (but never finished) a book based on King Arthur.
As a child, Steinbeck was enthralled with Arthurian tales of knighthood, adventure, and honor—and as he began producing his own work, like 1935’s Tortilla Flat, he borrowed many of the plots and themes that defined Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (or The Death of Arthur). In 1958, Steinbeck even set out to retell Malory’s stories for a modern audience in The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. But by 1959, the author had abandoned the project and never completed it before his death in 1968. In 1976, though, the unfinished manuscript was posthumously released and remains in print today.
5. Steinbeck’s dog ate his original manuscript for Of Mice and Men.
“My dog ate my work” is probably the oldest excuse in the book—but for Steinbeck, it was true. One evening, after being left alone for a bit too long, his beloved Irish setter, Toby, decided to devour the first half of Steinbeck’s manuscript for Of Mice and Men. Luckily, Steinbeck was an avid dog-lover, so he took the incident in stride and spent the next two months rewriting his work. “I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically,” Steinbeck wrote of the event.
6. Steinbeck took a trip to Mexico with a marine biologist, resulting in Sea of Cortez.
In 1940, Steinbeck set out to explore the Gulf of California—also known as the Sea of Cortez—with his good friend and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. During the six-week journey, the pair recorded detailed notes of their findings, including the discovery of more than 50 new marine species. The duo published the trip log in Sea of Cortez shortly after their return, complete with a narrative portion by Steinbeck and species lists from Ricketts. After Ricketts’s death in 1948, Steinbeck reissued the work as The Log From the Sea of Cortez, consisting solely of the narrative portion of the work with an additional eulogy to Ricketts at the end.
7. He served as a correspondent during World War II.
Steinbeck was hired by the New York Herald Tribune in June 1943 to spend several months reporting on the war in Europe. But instead of detailing battles and logistics, Steinbeck wrote about the human stories of the soldiers behind the war. Some accounts include a man afraid his wife would no longer love him due to his injured hand (“I got to get that hand working. She wouldn’t like a cripple with a hand that didn’t work,” the soldier apparently told Steinbeck) and of American troops planting native vegetables in England to help deal with homesickness.
8. Steinbeck wrote a piece for Esquire defending Arthur Miller during Miller's HUAC investigation.
After playwright Arthur Miller refused to name names of suspected communists during an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1956, he was brought to trial and was found guilty of contempt of Congress in May 1957. Upon hearing about Miller’s punishment, Steinbeck wrote a response titled “The Trial of Arthur Miller” for the June 1, 1957, issue of Esquire. In the essay, Steinbeck expressed his distaste for the intrusive and speculative nature of HUAC, calling the trial “one of the strangest and most frightening dilemmas that a people and a government has ever faced.” He was one of the few public figures to defend Miller at the time.
9. He had a deep love of pencils.
Although the typewriter has been around since at least the 1870s, Steinbeck preferred to write his stories in graphite and always had a large set of sharpened pencils on hand while working. And he happened to be very particular about his favorite writing instrument: He reportedly hated yellow pencils and only worked with long, round, black ones to avoid distractions. According to Steinbeck’s son, Thomas, he would sharpen 24 pencils every day before writing and was allegedly known to use as many as 100 in a single day.
10. Steinbeck was nominated for three Academy Awards.
With a body of work like Steinbeck’s, it’s no surprise that he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. But he also scored three Academy Award nominations during his career. In 1944 and 1945, he was nominated for Best Writing, Original Story for his work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Irving Pichel’s A Medal for Benny, respectively. In 1952, he was nominated for writing the story and screenplay to Viva, Zapata!
11. Travels With Charley was probably mostly fiction.
Steinbeck published Travels with Charley: In Search of America in 1962 after taking a road trip around the United States with his poodle, Charley. The book was a hit, landing on The New York Times Bestseller list for nonfiction soon after it was released; however, in 2011, Pittsburgh newspaper columnist Bill Steigerwald wrote a piece for Reason magazine claiming he had retraced Steinbeck’s journey and found the book to be riddled with inconsistencies, including the fact that Steinbeck would only be able to make parts of the trip if he could “push his pickup truck/camper shell Rocinante to supersonic speeds.” Later, Steinbeck’s son, John, agreed, saying, “He just sat in his camper and wrote all that [expletive].”
12. J. Edgar Hoover loved to audit Steinbeck.
J. Edgar Hoover began his career in law enforcement by finding and deporting communists as an assistant to the U.S. Attorney General in the early 20th century. Years later, as the head of the FBI, Hoover continued his anticommunist campaign, and Steinbeck was among those he suspected as being sympathetic to the Red Menace. But according to Steinbeck’s son, Hoover couldn’t find any evidence to actually take the author to trial, so he instead used his power to have the IRS audit Steinbeck’s taxes every year “just to be politically annoying.”
A version of this story ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2023.