John Ernst Steinbeck III was born on 27 February 1902 in Salinas, California. He was the second of four children (and the only boy) born to John Steinbeck, Sr., the treasurer of Monterey County, and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, a former teacher. Located near the central California coast on some of the world's most fertile land (Salinas's official nickname today is "the Salad Bowl of America"), Salinas was—and still is—a farming town, surrounded by landscapes of broad yellow valleys and rich green fields. The Steinbecks lived comfortable middle-class lives. Olive, the former schoolteacher, particularly instilled in young John III a love of reading and writing. On summer breaks from Salinas High School, Steinbeck worked as a farm hand on the nearby Spreckels sugar beet farm. During his summer work he noticed the difficult living conditions of his fellow workers, many of whom were migrant laborers. Years later those observations and the stories he heard the men tell would form the basis of his first great book, Tortilla Flat.
After graduating from high school in 1919, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University. Though he enjoyed his English classes, Steinbeck found college culture pretentious and phony. For six years he studied intermittently at Stanford, leaving campus frequently to take odd jobs in farms, factories or ranches. In 1925, he left for good. He never received a college degree, though he always spoke fondly of Stanford.
Steinbeck traveled via freighter to New York City to make his living as a writer. He worked in construction and briefly as a writer for the New York American newspaper. But Steinbeck was always a Californian at heart. He would live in New York again later, when he was older and had established himself and his career. To find his voice as a writer, he had to get back to the Golden State.