John Steinbeck’s fiction is often held up as an exemplar of politically engaged art, but William Souder’s concise new biography, “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck,” argues persuasively that the writer’s politics consisted primarily of a hatred for bullies. Souder, author of previous, well-received biographies of James Audubon and Rachel Carson, sees this sentiment dating back to childhood, when Steinbeck befriended a shy boy who was bullied because “somebody has to take care of him.” It got its most powerful expression in Steinbeck’s masterpiece, “The Grapes of Wrath,” which in 1939 called on Americans to empathize with the human struggle of Dust Bowl refugees beaten down by the drought that destroyed their farms, the banks that threw them off their land, the California growers who exploited their desperation, and the fearful locals who despised them as “Okies.”
Souder’s summaries of other iconic Steinbeck works — “Tortilla Flat,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Cannery Row,” and “The Pearl” — discern nothing more political than a general sympathy for the poor and dispossessed. His personal philosophy, Souder suggests, is most clearly expressed in “The Red Pony”: “life has two sides, one clear and warm and embraced by the natural joy of existence, the other a dark heaven from which misfortune falls randomly but inevitably.” These light and dark forces grapple for supremacy within a family in "East of Eden, the sprawling 1952 novel Steinbeck considered his best.
Souder’s account of Steinbeck’s youth in Salinas, Calif., vividly evokes the landscape “between the mountains and by the sea” that nurtured his love of nature, as well as his burgeoning urge to write. He was a sociable but essentially solitary boy whose inner life was shielded even from friends, an aspiring writer who found books “realer than experience.” Steinbeck had to write from an early age; in high school, he showed a classmate a dresser drawer filled with manuscripts that he sent to magazines without a return address and under a pen name. He both craved fame and feared it, Souder notes.
His happiest years seem to have been the decade after meeting his first wife, Carol Henning, in 1928. Steinbeck found his voice as a writer with “The Pastures of Heaven,” a 1932 collection of stories about families struggling to survive in a California valley, and found a lifelong editor in Pat Covici, who was impressed by the commercially unsuccessful “Pastures” and went on to publish every subsequent Steinbeck book until his death. Steinbeck and his wife were broke, but they scraped by with almost no money in a family cottage on Monterey Peninsula, fishing and growing vegetables for food. They belonged to a bohemian social circle of “the talented and the impoverished” gathered around marine biologist Ed Ricketts and long nights of drinking and talking. Ricketts became a close friend and shaped Steinbeck’s belief that “The search for reasons is pointless ... the experience of being simply is.” As Souder comments, it’s an odd credo for a writer who expressed lifelong outrage over human cruelty and injustice, but Steinbeck’s most famous novel of social protest is at heart a tribute to human endurance beyond reason and without goals.
“The Grapes of Wrath” grew from a newspaper assignment to write about migrant workers in California; like many of Steinbeck’s best books, it was drawn from stories people told the writer in plainspoken speech he had a knack for capturing on the page. It was an immediate sensation: a number-one bestseller within weeks of publication, the subject of critical raves and outraged attacks from the growers' association. At age 37, with movie versions of “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath” opening back-to-back in December 1939 and January 1940, Steinbeck had achieved the fame he had long desired and dreaded. He hated the unwanted publicity and the invasion of his privacy by people who wanted things from him. The stress undermined his marriage to Carol, which blew up over his affair with 19-year-old Gwyn Conger.
Steinbeck wrote some fine books in the ’40s: the under-known “The Moon Is Down” in addition to “The Pearl” and “Cannery Row.” He was a larger presence in American culture than ever before (or after); even slight efforts like “The Wayward Bus” sold well, and four more of his novels followed “The Grapes of Wrath” onto film. But Souder’s brisk chronicle of these years shows Steinbeck subject to severe bouts of depression, undoubtedly aggravated by his turbulent relationship with Gwyn, but possibly because of a concussion sustained during his brief 1943 stint as a war correspondent. A happy third marriage to Elaine Scott enabled Steinbeck to write “East of Eden,” his final important work, and Souder passes quickly over the subsequent decade and a half of agreeable travel, readable but minor books, and increasing health problems.
When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, critics reacted with incredulity, and Souder acknowledges that this happened decades after “the books that might have made him deserving of the Nobel.” He died in 1968, aloof from the political turmoil that made “The Grapes of Wrath” a lodestar for a new generation of writers seeking to make fiction a vehicle for furious protest and a catalyst for change. Souder’s appreciative yet clear-eyed assessment concludes that Steinbeck’s goal was more modest: “He brought people to life who were otherwise invisible and voiceless — because he could, and because he liked them better than the characters who lived in other writers’ work.”
MAD AT THE WORLD: A Life of John Steinbeck
By William Souder
Norton, 446 pp., $32