Born on February 27th 1902 in Salinas, California, American author John Steinbeck published sixteen novels throughout his lifetime and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. The rich cultural diversity and migratory history of the Salinas Valley distinctly influenced his work as did his experiences struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression and before his literary success. After leaving Stanford University without a degree in 1925, Steinbeck and his first wife Carol were offered free housing at his father’s cottage in Monterey where they survived on vegetables from his garden and fish and crabs caught on a small fishing boat Steinbeck acquired. They were soon forced to accept welfare and Steinbeck began writing in earnest.
He published his first book, Cup of Gold, at the age of 27 in 1929, loosely based on the life of the legendary pirate and outlaw Henry Morgan who ravaged the coasts of Cuba and America throughout the mid 15th century. Steinbeck’s sole work of historical fiction, 2476 copies of the first edition were published, 939 of which were remaindered as unbound sheets.
The following years he produced three shorter works including The Red Pony, a 100-page illustrated novella inspired by his own childhood memories and in 1935 achieved his first critical success with Tortilla Flat, a story of classless homeless young men in post-war Monterey portrayed as near caricatures of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Providing some much needed comic relief in the midst of the hopelessness of the Great Depression, the novel launched Steinbeck’s relative fame and he began work on his Dust Bowl trilogy.
Published in 1936 and the first novel in the trilogy, In Dubious Battle was met with glowing reviews. On publication, New York Times reviewer Fred T. March compared it to the “genial gusto” of the “picaresque” Tortilla Flat. He called it “courageous and desperately honest,” “the best labor and strike novel to come out of our contemporary economic and social unrest,” and “such a novel as Sinclair Lewis at his best might have done had he gone on with his projected labor novel.”
A year later, Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men, the story of two displaced migrant farm workers inspired by Steinbeck’s own experiences working as a migrant farmer as a teenager. Steinbeck began Of Mice and Men as a children’s story. “Although the finished novelette does not seem appropriate for children—that intention was obviously abandoned—the simplicity of its style and the clarity and precision of its imagery may well have been prompted by this original purpose… ” (Benson, 326). The result was “a sophisticated and artful rendering of the basic conflict between two worlds: between an idealized landscape and the real world with its pain and anguish” (Literary History of the American West).
Steinbeck followed these major successes with the novel that would come to be considered his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939. Set in the height of the Great Depression, the story chronicled the struggles of the impoverished Joad family as they traveled from their home in Oklahoma across the country in hope of opportunity in California. The epic novel won both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction and has become a staple in American high school and college literature classes.
Following the success of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck published several other notable novels including The Pearl (1947), East of Eden (1952), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). is novels have been adapted into numerous films including the 1940 drama The Grapes of Wrath starring Henry Fonda and the 1955 adaptation of East of Eden starring James Dean. View the many additional signed and inscribed first editions written by John Steinbeck currently in our collection here.