Skip to main content

Of Masons and Men: The Story of John Steinbeck

 Photograph of John Steinbeck
American author and Freemason John Steinbeck, 1939

In many ways, Nobel-Prize winner John Steinbeck had the makings of a model Freemason. He was a thoughtful man and sensitive to the plight of ordinary people. Much of his work reflected the struggle of the working class during the Great Depression and the years after. While Steinbeck wasn’t the most active Freemason in his lodge, he was a Master Mason. Given the appearance of Freemasonry in his literature, it is clear the fraternity’s teachings influenced him. In his Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck’s hero reveals his Templar sword and uniform, and in East of Eden, the character Adam Trask joins the craft later in his life.

One of the all-time great American writers, John Steinbeck’s work provided a one-of-a-kind window into a formative period of the United States’ history. 

The Son of a Mason

John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, to Olive Hamilton, a schoolteacher, and John Ernst Steinbeck, a Freemason and the Monterey County treasurer in California. His mother instilled in John a passion for reading and writing at a young age. They were members of the Episcopal Church, living in a frontier settlement on the fertile California soil near the Pacific Coast, a setting John would leverage in his works later in life. 

During his youth, Steinbeck worked in agriculture, seeing firsthand the harsh reality of migrant workers that would later inform the plots of his novels. He began writing in between jobs and graduated from Salinas High School in 1919. He went on to study English literature at Stanford University but departed in 1925 before attaining his degree. After a few years of traveling the country, John returned to California in 1928, working near Lake Tahoe. It was there he met Carol Henning, his first wife, whom he married in January 1930 in Los Angeles.

The Work of a Mason

John published his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929, a story based on privateer Henry Morgan. Around this time, Steinbeck became a member of Salinas Lodge No. 204 in Salinas, California. He was initiated into Freemasonry on March 1, 1929, passing through the degrees of the blue lodge, and raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason on May 24, 1929. While he didn’t become an lodge officer or active in the Craft, it left a lasting impression on the young writer. 

Before long, the two struggled to find work in Los Angeles as the Great Depression loomed and their prospects – and cash – dried up. John’s parents put the couple up in a cottage in Pacific Grove, CA, near Monterey. They also supplied John and Carol with a loan and paper for John to write, setting him up to produce his first novel. As the economy tanked and devastated the nation, John worked and wrote from the cottage. He and Carol purchased a boat to fish, and the couple grew fresh vegetables in their garden. Years later, Carol became the inspiration for the character of Mary Talbot in John’s novel Cannery Row.

Around this time, John struck up a friendship with marine biologist Ed Ricketts. The two grew close as Ed taught John about philosophy and biology. Ed became a mentor to John and even hired him and Carol to work in his lab. 

A Blossoming Career

During their time near Monterey, John began to write in earnest. He published The Pastures of Heaven in 1932, The Red Pony in 1933, and To a God Unknown that same year. None of these books garnered particular renown, but John pressed on and achieved his first critical success with Tortilla Flat in 1935. The book was a big enough hit that it was made into a film in 1942 starring Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, and John Garfield.

John followed the success of Tortilla Flat with his series of “California novels.” These books invited readers into the struggles of everyday people during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, becoming some of his most famous works, including Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Of Mice and Men is the “little masterpiece” that tells the story of two migrant agricultural laborers in California. Students across the country commonly read it to this day. It was adapted into a play and a Hollywood movie in 1939. 

John followed with the miraculous novel The Grapes of Wrath, widely considered his greatest accomplishment. This story about migrant agricultural workers became the best-selling book of 1939, printing over 40,000 copies by February 1940. Steinbeck’s classic novel won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It was, however, not without controversy. The novel was inherently political, critical of capitalism, and sympathetic towards the working class. In California, where much of the book was set, it was particularly maligned as locals claimed it misrepresented the area’s conditions, even incurring a ban in Kern County from 1939 until 1941.

A photo of John Steinbeck and son John visit LBJ at the White House
Caption: John Steinbeck and his son John visiting with President Lyndon B. Johnson, in the Oval Office.

World War II and Later Works

Not long after the United States joined the Second World War, the New York Herald Tribune sent Steinbeck overseas to serve as a correspondent on the conflict. He accompanied U.S. forces on several raids, including an invasion of an island off the coast of Italy. Close to the fighting, John sustained shrapnel wounds and psychological trauma during his tenure as a war correspondent. When he returned home, he buried himself in his writing. 

In 1942, Steinbeck wrote Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Lifeboat with the screenwriter Jack Wagner. Later, displeased with the final version of the film, John asked that his name be removed from the credits of Lifeboat, believing the film had racist messages with which he disagreed. In 1944, he wrote the famous Cannery Row and followed it with The Pearl.

Over the next two decades, his writing expanded into other projects beyond fiction. He traveled to the Soviet Union in 1947, one of the first prominent Americans to visit the USSR. He wrote of his experience in A Russian Journal and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters that same year. In 1952, Steinbeck published his longest novel: East of Eden. His third wife, Elaine, later claimed that John felt this was his most remarkable novel. In 1955, the film adaptation of his magnum opus was produced and was the famous debut of actor James Dean. 

Alt Text: 1950 Press Photo John Steinbeck and third wife Elaine Anderson Scott
Caption: John Steinbeck and third wife Elaine Anderson Scott, c. 1950

Travels with Charley

John kept up the pace as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s. He and Elaine moved to Somerset, England, while John researched King Arthur and the Knights of Round Table. His unfinished manuscript about King Arthur’s Court was published posthumously in 1976. After he and Elaine returned to the United States in 1960, Steinbeck began his travels in a camper with his poodle Charley. He recounted his exploits in Travels with Charley, both criticizing and admiring the United States. His son, Thom, claimed his father made this journey because he knew he was dying and wanted to explore the country before he passed. 

The following year, Steinbeck published his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. In this story, the protagonist Ethan grows discontented with his own moral decline and that of those around him, exhibiting a different tone than some of his more famous works. Given the subject matter at play, it’s no surprise he made his story’s hero a Freemason and a beacon for morality. While it was not the critical success of his earlier works, it earned him a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Regarding the book, the Swedish Academy stated:

“Here he attained the same standard which he set in The Grapes of Wrath. Again he holds his position as an independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad.”

Death and Legacy

In the subsequent six years of his life following the Nobel Prize win, Steinbeck didn’t publish another work of fiction. He passed away in New York City on December 20, 1968, at the age of 66, from heart disease due to complications from smoking for years. 

Today, many of Brother John Steinbeck’s works are required reading in American high schools, including The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men. The latter remains one of the most frequently read books in the country. During his writing career, he authored 33 books, including 16 novels, 6 non-fiction books, and 2 collections of short stories. 

Want to read about other Masonic writers? Read our features on Mark Twain and Voltaire!