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The Anti-Social Novelist

A celebrated chronicler of human suffering, John Steinbeck could not abide other people.


A man writes a book. It is, he feels, “a kind of outpouring,” written from the same impulse “that makes him sing or try to go to bed with all beautiful ladies.” But then the critics blame the book for not being great.

You didn’t want to be great. You just wanted to write a book and have people read it.... I don’t think I am ill tempered about adverse criticism.... But, do you know, you never get over the ability to have your feelings hurt by deliberately cruel and destructive attacks. Even if you know why the attack was made, it still hurts.

Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck
by William Souder
W.W. Norton & Company, 464 pp., $32.00

These words come from a 1953 letter of gratitude that John Steinbeck, aged 51, sent an undergraduate who’d written an enthusiastic paper on The Grapes of Wrath, the book that in 1939 made Steinbeck an international celebrity; the truth of the matter, however, was a bit more complicated. At the very moment the letter was written, adverse criticism could still send Steinbeck into paroxysms of frustrated anger; at the same time, positive criticism did little or nothing for him.

Over the course of a long writing life, Steinbeck had won many prizes, among them the Pulitzer and then, remarkably enough, the Nobel, but no matter how many hundreds of critics and millions of readers declared him a national treasure, he not only raged at those who refused to extend him the accolades he hungered for, he scorned those very accolades when they came his way. As his newest biographer, William Souder, tells us in Mad at the World, he hated his fame, he hated public appearances, but mostly he hated the fans who, like his critics, “praised his work but didn’t understand it.”

Steinbeck’s was a soul profoundly ill at ease with itself: The ability to take praise as well as blame in his stride eluded him throughout the years. Angst was his middle name. Two of the most painful sentences in Souder’s biography tell us that “when he finished a book and knew it wasn’t good that wasn’t what bothered him. What bothered him was knowing that he couldn’t have made it better.” “Tormented” may be a better word than “bothered.” Very nearly a classic depressive, Steinbeck endured “a ceaseless struggle between contentment and despair that grew more pronounced as he got older,” driving him repeatedly to succumb to a black need to retreat from human connection “that would come to border on obsession.” In short: Steinbeck, in the flesh, was very much the opposite of Steinbeck on the page, where the narrator’s underlying plea, almost invariably, is that all human beings recognize themselves in one another.

Do such self-divisions between the artist and the art come as a surprise? How many thousands of people have met the writer of a book they’ve admired, only to come away thinking, “He’s nothing like his writing.” A writer hardly ever is. It’s simply that in most cases the best of the writer—that is, the person in control of the material—goes into the writing, while the rest of him—that is, the ordinary everyday self—acts out all the meanness and confusion inherent in the unresolved conflicts that dog us all. With John Steinbeck, the discrepancies were larger than life.

John Steinbeck was born in 1902, at the mouth of one of the most agriculturally fertile valleys in the world, in the town of Salinas, California, some 19 miles inland from the Pacific Coast city of Monterey. He grew up in modest circumstances (his father was a local civil servant), and was expected to achieve a life two or three notches up the middle-class ladder. But, when he enrolled after high school at Stanford University, it soon became clear that he would never stay the academic course. He’d arrived at school with 50 stories under his arm, and all he wanted to do was write. For years, he bounced in and out of school, returning in 1925 to Southern California, where he began working at odd jobs—tour guide, manual laborer, estate caretaker, anything that would put food and writing paper on the table—while he wrote stories that for the most part went undistinguished and unpublished, but nonetheless got written. In 1930, he married Carol Henning, a twentysomething fellow spirit who believed passionately in him from the moment they met, and together they embarked on a semi-bohemian existence, mainly in and around Monterey, mutually devoted—Carol proved a gifted editor—to the flowering of John’s talent.

From the start, Steinbeck knew where his raw material was to be found and how he was to respond to it. As a boy, living in the Salinas Valley and working summers beside the migrants who performed the backbreaking labor of picking fruit and vegetables in season, he had seen firsthand the social and economic exploitation to which their lives were yoked, and the starkness of their condition seemed to penetrate him. “As an adult,” Souder tells us, “John would say that the one thing he could not bear was another human being oppressed, abused, or taken advantage of by anyone more powerful, especially if the motive was greed.” Once the Great Depression overwhelmed the country, people of almost every stripe and condition began to feel haunted by the astonishing multiplication of the human sacrifice that Steinbeck had observed at home in ordinary times, and were drawn to the bitter realities of the migrants’ lives. Then came the Dust Bowl disaster, and the spectacle of thousands of dispossessed sharecroppers on the road, streaming west across Route 66 like refugees fleeing a foreign invasion. Steinbeck’s moment had come.

He was a regional writer with a bent toward social realism, but at the height of his literary powers in the mid-’30s, the work Steinbeck produced—and this is what has saved him from literary oblivion—was so thoroughly encased in a kind of narrative tenderness for its subject that it often seemed to rise above the limitations of the genre writing with which he was associated. There’s a scene in The Grapes of Wrath that is pure Steinbeck. The Joads and their friends are being expelled from one of the migrant camps by the local police, but one of their number is a dying woman whose husband refuses to go on without her. The woman asks the Preacher to say a prayer over her, and when he hesitates (because he is excommunicated), she reassures him:

When I was a little girl I use’ ta sing. Folks roun’ about use’ ta say I sang as good as Jenny Lind. Folks use’ ta come an’ listen when I sung. An’—when they stood—an’ me a-singin’, why, me an’ them was together more’n you could ever know. I was thankful. There ain’t so many folks can feel so full up, so close, an’ them folks standin’ there an’ me a-singin’.... They wasn’t nothin’ got in between me an’ them. An’—that’s why I wanted you to pray. I wanted to feel that clostness, oncet more.

He had arrived at a tone of voice, an angle of vision, a narrative structure that served the story of the “common man” so well it achieved metaphor.

Ultimately, Steinbeck’s entire career would turn on the books he produced during this crucial decade: The Pastures of Heaven (1932), To a God Unknown (1933), Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Red Pony (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939)—especially The Grapes of Wrath. Hundreds of people—journalists, photographers, federal workers—were documenting the wretchedness of the migrants, but it was The Grapes of Wrath that nailed the visceral experience, endowing it, very nearly, with allegorical meaning. The first few pages are an astonishing description of the Oklahoma earth slowly turning to dust under a relentless gathering of forces that begins to seem a judgment from some Higher Authority, telling the humble of the earth they haven’t been humble enough. In the foreground of this tableau of doom stands a sharecropper’s wife, staring into space in the doorway of the hovel she calls home, murmuring to her husband, “What’ll we do?” The husband, also staring, replies with shocking humility, “I don’t know.” The sense of tragedy—large and looming—is inescapable.

In its time, The Grapes of Wrath was to the rapaciousness of American capitalism at its most dramatic what Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to the anti-slavery movement: a novel that had, during an era of cultural despair, penetrated so deeply into the heart of the matter that it became emblematic of humanity’s vast capacity for inflicting pain and misery on itself.

The life of the migrant workers in the Salinas Valley was only one-half of the California that supplied Steinbeck with the material upon which his writing imagination fed; the other half was to be found among the population of anti-social free spirits who thrived on the Monterey waterfront in the 1930s and ’40s. It was here that Steinbeck and his first wife (there were two more after Carol) most often lived and worked, returning repeatedly to those waterfront friends among whom they felt most at home; women and men who, in time, became the characters in Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, people who drank, whored, and philosophized, relishing life off the books from one end of the day to the next.

It was here that Steinbeck’s talent for social comedy blossomed, and at the same time he grew ever more devoted to the literary bête noire—an obsessive need to sermonize on Man the Individual in relation to Man the Group Unit—that brought him his most devastating criticism. The same year that Steinbeck married Carol, he also met Ed Ricketts. A philosophizing marine biologist who doubled as a prototypical California guru (half Jesus, half sexual predator), Ricketts commanded inordinate respect on the waterfront. For Steinbeck, he proved spellbinding. Ricketts had developed a theory that sought to account for the life on the planet; a kind of ecological thinking that explained all human experience in terms of the individual’s encounter with the environment. Out of this theory, Ricketts philosophized that humans were in thrall to a biologism they could never grasp, much less control. All depended therefore on understanding the relation between an individual specimen and the species as a whole. Hence, Man the Individual in relation to Man the Group Unit became holy writ for Steinbeck.

For the popular reader, this kind of writing made him seem a great man of American letters; for the serious reader, it reduced him to a reputation for middlebrow writing—the sentimental and the intellectually low grade—from which he has never recovered. When Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in 1962, the literary biographer Arthur Mizener declared flat out that he possessed “a real but limited talent that is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing, and in his worst overwhelmed by it.”

There is no denying that many of Steinbeck’s books go on for hundreds of pages in Okie-Arkie dialect speech, interspersed with the kind of sermonizing that made Terry Teachout once declare his work “literature with training-wheels.” Nonetheless, to this day hundreds of thousands of copies of Steinbeck’s novels sell annually, and all his books are in print. High school students, especially, still experience him as a master storyteller who can deliver them up to a sense of life’s wonder.

The amount of print that has been spilled on Steinbeck would fill an ocean: memoirs, social histories, dissertations, biographies by the yard. Surely by now the cases for and against him as a significant American writer have been sufficiently made. So the question before us is: Do we need another Steinbeck biography—and if so, is Souder’s the one we need? For this reviewer the answer, at least in the second instance, is no.

In his work, Steinbeck is famously the sympathetic chronicler of those without the power to demand fundamental respect, while his behavior in person often made a mockery of his declared values. For decades he exhibited behavior—violent, morose, alcoholic—for which others paid heavily. As a husband, he was addictively unfaithful, committing serial infidelities that never satisfied and never abated. His second wife wrote a memoir accusing him of low-level sadism; he had, she said, a pet rat that he’d release into a roomful of visitors and watch gleefully, as the hysteria in the room mounted. As for fatherhood, here is an example of Steinbeck’s parenting:

Once, when John IV was around three, he let Steinbeck’s poorly trained sheep dog into the apartment. The dog shat on the floor. When Steinbeck discovered the mess, he grabbed the boy and rubbed his face in it.… John IV would later say that the great epiphany of his childhood was realizing that his father was an asshole.

What the reader—better yet, let me say this reader—would like to see in a new Steinbeck biography is flesh put on that skeletal report: an exploration of the self-destructiveness that rescues Steinbeck’s inner chaos from the merely incidental, leaving it so indelibly imprinted on the reader’s felt memory that from this moment on his books read differently. It’s not that Souder needs to psychoanalyze Steinbeck’s behavioral extremities; to the contrary, he merely has to illustrate them with the kind of accumulating depth that lends texture to the prose. This, however, he does not do.

One of the reasons, oddly enough, that I think Souder does not dig deep is that his own feelings about Steinbeck seem to be conflicted. For instance, even when he is detailing a relationship obviously important to Steinbeck, he cannot lend himself wholeheartedly to an interpretation that would prove revelatory. Instead, we get something halting, even insinuating that leaves both Souder and the reader feeling morally puzzled, if not downright suspicious. During his time at Stanford, for instance, Steinbeck made a writing friend of a woman named Kate Beswick with whom he had a brief, disastrous love affair. The friendship survived the affair because Kate was an invaluable reader of his work, and for years—certainly throughout his twenties—he sent her his manuscripts. In his letters to her, he also (“luridly,” Souder tells us) included accounts of his current sexual adventures, which, for Souder, made plain the “coarseness” that “came naturally to Steinbeck.... Whether she encouraged him or he simply lacked any sense of decency toward his onetime college lover is impossible to say.” Souder goes on:

The urgency of Steinbeck’s need to relate details of his life to Kate Beswick was remarkable. He told her that ... he had somehow acquired a new sexual prowess.... He said he could now have an orgasm whenever he “wanted” one, whether it took thirty seconds or thirty minutes. He reminded Beswick of his poor control in this regard when they were a couple.... Why Steinbeck kept telling Beswick things like this can’t be explained in any way that makes it seem okay. It was simply in his nature.

It was simply in his nature … the coarseness that came naturally … whether she encouraged him or he simply lacked any sense of decency … why he kept telling Beswick things like this can’t be explained in any way that makes it seem okay. These are phrases that Souder supplies in lieu of an analysis of Steinbeck’s lifelong sexual anxieties (no womanizer is without them). What we get instead is intellectual vacancy coupled with a deal of absurd moralizing (any sense of decency, indeed!) and—neither for the first nor the last time in this book—some really bad writing.

In a long passage detailing Steinbeck’s developing interest in metaphysical theories that he had convinced himself were profound—his view of “the living world as a cooperative endeavor among organisms”—Souder observes, “It’s difficult to decide whether all of this is baloney—or a perceptive kernel of thought that would breathe life into several of the most-revered books of the twentieth century.” I know what I can decide: Steinbeck’s theory is neither brilliant nor worthless, but a biographer who resorts to “baloney” in trying to assess the value of its intellectual content is tired.

Some years ago, Souder wrote a remarkable biography of Rachel Carson that displayed an imaginative grasp of his subject, so full of feeling was he for the reason she was worth writing about. The admiration—clear, simple, deserved—that he lavished on Carson stemmed directly from his solid connection with the integrity that characterized her existence. With Carson, the life, the work, the woman were all one, each element in turn easily accountable to the others. John Steinbeck was an entirely different animal: a man riven with anxieties that separated him repeatedly not only from his intimates and his physical environment but from some necessary sense of self-belief that regularly deserted him. He could fight his demons successfully enough to write the great novels of the ’30s, when, I suspect, the world gave him back a sufficient reflection of his own sense of loss and abandonment; later, they returned with a vengeance. This is the Steinbeck that has somehow eluded Souder’s capacity for deep-down engagement. It would have been interesting to know him better.