John Steinbeck: First Novels
By 1926 Steinbeck was back in California, living near scenic Lake Tahoe and working as a handyman at a resort. In 1929 he published his first novel, Cup of Gold. The book was a quasi-historical account of the adventures of real-life pirate Henry Morgan in Panama, a country that Steinbeck had never visited. Unsurprisingly, the book was not very good. Steinbeck's best work always drew in some way from personal experience—from places he had visited or people he had interviewed. (In his later years, after considerably more critical and commercial success, Steinbeck indulged his interest in historical fiction with a few more themed novels.) A year after publishing his first book, Steinbeck married Carol Henning and the couple moved into a tiny cottage in coastal Pacific Grove, California. Over the next decade, Steinbeck did some of his best writing in the humble little building. It is where he began to find his style, and to identify the things that mattered to him enough to write about them.
Steinbeck published two more novels in the next few years, both set in the Salinas Valley. The books drew closer to the themes that he would later master—workers in Monterey County in The Pastures of Heaven, man's relationship with nature in To A God Unknown—but neither attracted much critical attention. Then in 1935, Steinbeck published Tortilla Flat, the story that first took root in his mind in his days as a high school farmhand. Set in Monterey, California, the novel focused on a group of paisanos (men of Mexican, Indian, Spanish and Caucasian background, according to Steinbeck) and their friendship and exploits in the years after World War I. The book was a great commercial and critical success. It won Steinbeck his first Gold Medal from the California Commonwealth Club, a prize awarded for the best novel by a Californian (he won another the following year for In Dubious Battle). John Steinbeck had found his voice, and just in time—as the flamboyant excesses of the Roaring Twenties came to a close, writers and readers were ready to get down to more serious matters.