Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck

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Release Date: 
October 13, 2020
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“Souder’s biography is a stylistic portrait of a towering American original.”

William Souder tackles the enigmatic personality of John Steinbeck in his biography, Mad at the World. From his childhood growing up in Salinas Valley in California, Steinbeck was a loner, wandering off at will, even though he was devoted to his family. As a youth he had a hidden drawer full of short stories that he only showed his best friend when he was leaving home to attend college. And he remained doggedly secretive his whole life. He had a slew of dogs, during all his travels, from coast to coast, in poverty and wealth; through three marriages, he was an avid dog lover.

At Stanford, he was a student of English professor Edith Mirrieless, who guided him toward a successful writing career, even though Steinbeck left school with the conclusion that writing could not be taught. He chose to develop his craft in isolation, taking a job as a winter caretaker of a resort ranch in Lake Tahoe, where he spent the two bitter winters virtually a hermit.

Encouraged by close friends and fellow writers he met at Stanford, he found his early efforts were, indeed, commercial failures. But he continued to keep a daily, rigorous writing schedule, even if he ended up burning the pages.

But he didn’t give up, even though he could be hyper-critical of his manuscripts and even burn them in disgust at himself. Still he made smart inroads to establish himself as a short story writer and novelist. His early works were mostly fantasy, structurally clumsy, but with each book he was improving, and his short stories were becoming very popular. 

He was meanwhile distracted from his career in falling in love and marrying Carol Hemming in 1930. They were happy even though they were living hand to mouth at the start of the Depression. Everything in their lives changed with the instant success of his book Of Mice and Men, which soon became a runaway hit on Broadway and equally successful in its film adaptation.

They traveled at will, spending all their money, which would force him to write more. Meanwhile, he started to focus on reporting the devastation of the Depression, the disenfranchised, and in particular the plight of migrant workers fleeing the scourge of the dustbowl with the promise of work in California only to find themselves exploited and homeless.

In a 100-day sprint to finish of The Grapes of Wrath, sometimes 2000 words a day, with Carol typing (and correcting) his miniature longhand, he later combed through the galleys before sending them back to the publisher.

Steinbeck hated the “businesses of literary success,” and had a loathing of publicity, fame, and what his book publishers routinely expected from their authors. The couple became part of West Coast bohemia and hung out at the studio and lab of marine biologist Ed Ricketts, his drinking buddy, that eventually provided the setting for Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row.

Meanwhile he was also being lured by Hollywood, even though he refused to change his screenplay Of Mice and Men to give it a happier ending. He did, however, have a strong collaborative partnership with Elia Kazan, who directed his scripts for Viva Zapata and East of Eden.

The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford, is an American film classic and was Steinbeck’s favorite, even though Ford excised the book’s raw metaphoric ending of a grown man so weak from starvation during the Depression that a mother who was nursing her newborn pulled him to her breast.

The Steinbeck’s marriage seemed to be on solid ground; they were building a ranch house, traveling, and continuing to be part of their close circle of friends and colleagues.   

They went on an excursion with Ed Ricketts, studying marine life in in the Gulf of California, which eventually became the book The Sea of Cortez, co-written with Ricketts.

Everything started to fall apart after Steinbeck started seeing Gwen Conger, a singer and contract actress at Warner Studios. The affair ignited longtime resentments between Carol and Steinbeck, especially when they drank. They finally separated when he refused to give up Gwen.   

Steinbeck wanted to marry Gwen, and he also became a paid consultant for the Office of War Information and was a war correspondent for the Herald Tribune. He was concussed under heavy fire in Italy.

The final chapters are a condensed portrait of a contented man, after his third marriage to Elaine Scott, even if he owned up to his own limitations as a husband, father, lover, friend, and successful writer.

The book sags a bit in the back half, compared to the detailed clip Souder sustains through most of it. But that aside, Souder’s biography is a stylistic portrait of a towering American original.