John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, in 1902. He was the third of four children and the only son of John Steinbeck, Sr. and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck. Growing up in a rural valley near the Pacific coast, Steinbeck was an intense reader, and both his father, a local government official, and his mother, a former schoolteacher, encouraged his literary pursuits. In 1919 he graduated from Salinas High School and matriculated at Stanford University, where he studied literature and writing.
In 1925, without a degree, Steinbeck left Stanford to pursue work as a reporter in New York City. He returned to California the following year, supporting his endeavors at writing with a steady income from manual labor. Over the next several years his literary career gained momentum with the publication of his first novels. Although his first three—Cup of Gold, The Pastures of Heaven, and To a God Unknown—were critical and commercial failures, he achieved major success in 1935 with the publication of Tortilla Flat, a collection of stories about the ethnic working poor in California. During this time, Steinbeck began to gain recognition from critics for his short stories.
Steinbeck’s extensive travels in the 1930s partly inspired two of his finest works, Of Mice and Men, in 1937, and The Grapes of Wrath, in 1939. Both novels, fictional portraits of the western United States during the Great Depression, are still read widely. Steinbeck received the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath in 1940.
Steinbeck’s simple, touching novella The Pearl originally appeared in the magazine Woman’s Home Companion in 1945 under the title “The Pearl of the World.” The story explores the destructive effect of colonial capitalism on the simple piety of a traditional native culture. Set in a Mexican Indian village on the Baja Peninsula around the turn of the century, the novella tells the story of Kino, an Indian pearl diver who discovers a massive, beautiful, and extremely valuable pearl. The pearl fills Kino with a new desire to abandon his simple, idyllic life in favor of dreams of material and social advancement, dreams that run headlong into the oppressive resistance of the Spanish colonial powers that top the social hierarchy of Kino’s world.
While less complex than Steinbeck’s other works, The Pearl ranks among his most popular, and it is certainly one of his most accessible. The novella was originally conceived as a film project (and was in fact made into a motion picture in 1948); it features a simple, visually evocative style that in many ways recalls the narrative flow of a film. Additionally, The Pearl’s simple prose style echoes the traditional style of a moral parable, particularly the biblical parables of Jesus. The story clearly owes a great deal to the biblical story of the pearl of great price, and to a certain extent the familiar rhythms and easily understandable moral lessons of the novella help to explain its continuing power and its long-standing popularity.
The Pearl is not among Steinbeck’s most critically acclaimed works, but it has exerted a certain amount of influence in American literature. Its evocation of natural beauty and its use of the short, simple parable form may have influenced Ernest Hemingway in writing The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Because of its overwhelming popularity, Steinbeck reissued The Pearl as a single volume in 1947, and it has enjoyed a healthy readership ever since. Other widely read Steinbeck titles include Cannery Row and The Red Pony, both published in 1945, East of Eden (1952), and the unique travelogue Travels with Charley (1962).
Steinbeck was a prolific and popular writer, but few consider him to be an American writer of the absolute first rank. Whereas most of Steinbeck’s contemporaries—Hemingway and William Faulkner, for example—wrote in clear and consistent styles, making it easy to identify their artistry, Steinbeck never stuck with one style, and his choice of narrative form varied greatly from work to work. Nevertheless, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, and although the quality of his writing suffered a precipitous drop in his final years, he left behind a body of work that marks him as a significant twentieth-century American voice.