John Steinbeck, Bard of the American Worker

A Life of John Steinbeck
By William Souder

John Steinbeck (1902-68) might well be one of those once-popular authors whose names we recognize but whom no one reads beyond junior high. Still, his affecting novels about besieged migrant workers and itinerant day laborers may come back into vogue now that the country, if not the world, faces an economic crisis whose proportions have already been compared to, and may far outdistance, those of the Great Depression.

Certainly William Souder, in “Mad at the World,” his admiring new biography, believes Steinbeck should get another, sympathetic look. Hailing him as a “major figure in American literature,” Souder further claims Steinbeck has “given the world several books that would last forever.” Of course, forever is a very long time, more than Steinbeck himself thought he merited. When asked if he deserved the Nobel Prize he was awarded in 1962, Steinbeck modestly replied, “Frankly, no.”

To Souder, the author of a fine biography of John James Audubon, Steinbeck was “simply being his angry, contrarian self.” As he frames it, anger was the novelist’s full-throated response to injustice, and it “had driven him to greatness.”

Yet to the reader Steinbeck seems less angry than shy, driven and occasionally cruel — an insecure, talented and largely uninteresting man who blunted those insecurities by writing. “I work because I know it gives me pleasure to work,” Steinbeck once said. Not much else seemed to do that, except maybe booze.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of October. See the full list. ]

Born in Salinas, Calif., in 1902, to supportive middle-class parents, Steinbeck entered Stanford in 1919, where his favorite teacher, Edith Mirrielees, herself a published author, advised him to head to Paris if he wanted to write. But Steinbeck was essentially a loner, so he stayed back in Palo Alto, never graduating but piling up stories while living by himself in a shed.

Though he briefly tried his luck in New York City, to be “closer to the heart of the publishing world,” by 1926 he was back in California, working as the caretaker for an estate near Lake Tahoe. There he planned to write a novel in the self-imposed isolation of two long winters. Imitating the satiric fantasist James Branch Cabell and Thomas Malory, whose “Le Morte d’Arthur” he adored, Steinbeck produced the deservedly forgotten “Cup of Gold” in 1929, just months before the stock market crash.

The next year, Steinbeck married the first of his three wives, Carol Henning, whom he’d met in Tahoe City, and soon the couple were living rent-free in the Steinbeck family summer cottage in Pacific Grove. Their 10-year marriage “made him a writer,” Souder writes. Carol was not only Steinbeck’s typist, she also deftly edited his prose. And she pricked Steinbeck’s political conscience, urging him to attend the meetings of the Communist-affiliated John Reed Club, though Steinbeck never became a member. He felt the organizers were browbeating farmworkers, and he “detested bullies,” Souder notes.

That same year, in 1931, Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts, whose work influenced the environmentalist Rachel Carson, the subject of Souder’s fine 2012 biography. Ricketts was a charismatic, self-taught marine biologist and proto-ecologist who drew people to his lab in Monterey with his “non-teleological thinking,” which Steinbeck took to mean the “underlying pattern” of the world, that which just is.

Steinbeck seems to have used Ricketts as the model for a character in his novel “In Dubious Battle”: the dispassionate Doc Burton, who considers a workers’ strike a sort of ecosystem. “A man in a group isn’t himself at all,” Doc says; “he’s a cell in an organism that isn’t like him any more than the cells in your body are like you.” It was a concept to which Steinbeck would return in several of his books.

By that point Steinbeck had already published the beloved coming-of-age story “The Red Pony,” as well as the hugely successful novel “Tortilla Flat,” both of which he wrote while at his mother’s deathbed, in 1933. Steinbeck’s human side is best revealed in these passages in which he’s caring for both of his parents at the end of their lives. Despite his grief, though, there’s something ebullient about the way “Tortilla Flat” romanticizes the mixed-race individualists who dwell in the hills above Monterey.

That novel, like “In Dubious Battle,” was acquired by Pascal Covici, who would remain Steinbeck’s loyal publisher for three decades, ending up at Viking. (Steinbeck had also managed to secure the savvy literary agents Elizabeth Otis and Mavis McIntosh.) In 1937, he produced another hit: the poignant and streamlined (if schematic) “Of Mice and Men,” brought to Broadway almost immediately by George S. Kaufman.

Steinbeck kept writing. “The clock is running down,” he said at just 39. Maniacally, he counted the number of words he produced each day. “Life was leaking out of him,” Souder rhapsodizes, “slipping away into the oblivion waiting for him in death.”

Perhaps; but after The San Francisco News assigned Steinbeck to write a series about the pathetic living conditions of the Dust Bowl refugees in California’s San Joaquin Valley, he actively began “The Grapes of Wrath,” his touching 1939 novel about the hegira of these Oklahoma sharecroppers. The Joad family is a single, self-protective biological collective, with Ma Joad at its nurturing center: “It’s all one flow,” she says. “Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out.” With these stereotypes in place, Steinbeck’s characters remain remote specimens — as the critic Alfred Kazin put it, they stay “on the verge of becoming human, but never do.” Yet, immediate and concrete and written more out of sorrow — and hope — than anger, the novel became an anthem of the Depression. “Steinbeck’s writing had merged with history,” Souder enthusiastically declares.

No longer living on a shoestring, the Steinbecks built a house in the Santa Cruz foothills. He and Carol traveled; they were friends with Charlie Chaplin. Shrinking from fame and plagued by “dreaded, soul-crushing celebrity,” Steinbeck nonetheless courted Hollywood notables, who courted him back, and though he complained about never having enough money, “Tortilla Flat,” “Of Mice and Men” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Grapes of Wrath” were all adapted for the screen.

But success may have destroyed his marriage. While visiting Los Angeles, Steinbeck had begun an affair with Gwen Conger, a 19-year-old “lit fuse” (Souder’s term) who would become his second wife and the mother of their sons. At the same time, John and Carol joined Ricketts on a voyage to collect marine specimens in the waters off Lower California. The journal the men kept over the six-week trip would be published a decade later as the lyrical nonfiction book “Sea of Cortez.”

Souder’s sympathy for Steinbeck (and Ricketts) is most effective and eloquent in his depiction of the California landscape or of the sea, which he describes as swimming with small pelagic crabs “like a crimson carpet spread across an ocean the color of lapis lazuli.” Often, though, he slips into generalities about writers or writing: “Loneliness — that was the writer’s lot,” he tells us, “the nature of the trade.” Yet he recoils at Steinbeck’s machismo and disregard for the feelings of most women (except his third wife, Elaine). Of Steinbeck’s boasting to a former girlfriend about the details of his supposed sexual prowess, Souder dryly observes, “What a gift to women he fancied himself.”

Similarly, the biographer also balks at Steinbeck’s treatment of his sons. Discovering that his 3-year-old had let his dog into their apartment, where the dog made a mess, Steinbeck grabbed the child and rubbed his face in it. When this same son returned from Vietnam, was arrested for marijuana possession and then testified before Congress about drug use among soldiers, Steinbeck never spoke to him again. (Defending Steinbeck, Souder speculates that the novelist’s cruelty might have stemmed from the concussion he sustained while serving as a war correspondent during World War II.)

After Pearl Harbor, Steinbeck had gone to London and North Africa for The New York Herald Tribune, and later he briefly covered Vietnam. His prolific range, as Souder rightly notes, included an unusual variety of genres, from journalism to screenplays, notably an early version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat.” There were the later novels, too, such as “East of Eden,” in 1952, loosely based on his mother’s family, with its evocation (once more) of a bucolic California. And in 1962, suspecting the end was near, Steinbeck published the nonfiction “Travels With Charley,” based on his road trip across America and his conversations with real Americans. But the journalistic veracity of the book was questionable: According to his son, Steinbeck couldn’t have spoken to all those people, for “he couldn’t have handled that amount of interaction.” True to form, Steinbeck stilled his demons with yet another tale.

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