In his authoritative biography, John Steinbeck, Writer, Jackson Benson suggests that Steinbeck was in a somewhat transitional period between the years 1930-1932 when he wrote Pastures of Heaven. Because his first novel, Cup of Gold, published in 1929, had been both a popular and critical failure, Steinbeck attempted different styles, including the penning of a detective mystery novel a la Dashiell Hammet, titled Murder at Full Moon. It was never published, nor was his experimental piece "Dissonant Symphony," which ended up being destroyed. At that time, Steinbeck and his wife Carol were barely making ends meet financially. Benson posits that had one of those works succeeded, Steinbeck may have taken quite a different career course and might have continued in the vein of Hammet, who made quite a good living with his hard-boiled detective novels and stories. Instead, only Pastures of Heaven survives and it provided neither fame nor fortune for the struggling writer.
Inspired by the stories of friend Beth Ingels, who grew up in a valley just west of Salinas, Pastures is a series of interrelated short stories about the interaction of people in a small California valley. Like his later masterpiece East of Eden, the work deals with family histories and the relationship between fathers and sons. Benson notes that Steinbeck spent much of his time reading Biblical passages during the writing of Pastures, particularly the story of Jacob and Joseph.
Published in 1932, Pastures came out just as the Great Depression was crushing the nation economically. Not surprisingly, it was not a commercial success. It did, however, draw praise from some critics at the time and helped inspire publisher Pat Covici to sign Steinbeck to a contract. Critics particularly liked Steinbeck's realism. The Chicago Tribune commented, "The characters are as vitally real as your next door neighbor, and the style and presentation of the novel are restrained, compassionate, and compelling." Likewise, the New York Times Book Review called the book "racy" and "realistically direct." Overall, said critics, the novel was noteworthy for its clear depictions of character, theme and, most importantly, the almost poetic descriptions of setting, which would be a trademark for Steinbeck going forward.
Because Steinbeck would write several American classics, Pastures was often ignored by later critics. In recent years, Pastures has had something of a revival in California with a dramatic adaptation of the book. Writing in the San Jose Mercury News in 2010, critic Karen D'Souza calls Pastures "an enchanting ode to the Golden State" which "salutes the heroism of simple people scratching out a legacy from a fertile patch of earth." While never considered one of Steinbeck's true gems like Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath, or even Tortilla Flat, Pastures still holds its place in the Steinbeck canon as a precursor to the power of his later writing.