Steinbeck devoted the final years of his life to traveling and writing. While he never achieved the same level of critical success that he did with The Grapes of Wrath, he continued to challenge himself in his work. In 1952 he published East of Eden, an epic novel that spans American history from the Civil War to World War I. Steinbeck considered it to be his masterpiece. Steinbeck wrote about the Trask family's battles with good and evil after an extremely difficult period in his life in which he divorced his second wife and his close friend Ed Ricketts died. He called it "the story of my country and the story of me," adding that in previous novels he had always "held something back for later. Nothing is held back here."6 His writing became more philosophical in his later years. He wrestled overtly with questions of morality in books like Travels With Charley, the memoir of a cross-country road trip with his pet poodle, and The Winter of Our Discontent, his final novel.
Steinbeck was showered with literary honors in his later years, though most of the prizes referred to work he had completed almost two decades earlier. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon Johnson in 1964, with a note declaring he had "helped America to understand herself by finding universal themes in the experience of men and women everywhere.7 Two years earlier, he was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Upon presenting the award, the head of the Swedish Academy called Steinbeck "a teacher of good will and charity, a defender of human values." Steinbeck described his philosophy on writing in his acceptance speech, saying that "the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat—for courage, compassion and love."8
On 20 December 20 1968, John Steinbeck died of a heart attack in New York City. His ashes were buried in Salinas, California. Forty years after his death, it's clear that mankind is far from achieving the ideals of perfection and understanding that Steinbeck advocated in his work. But maybe, thanks to his words, we're all just the tiniest bit closer.