John Steinbeck hated success. Though he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Nobel Prize for literature, though he earned a fortune from his books and the movies inspired by them, the American writer was tormented by his ambition, both “craving success and horrified that it might befall him,” writes William Souder in “Mad at the World,” his absorbing new biography of Steinbeck.
Souder, who lives near Stillwater, has published biographies of Rachel Carson and John James Audubon, the latter a Pulitzer finalist. Now he has chosen a subject with outsized strengths and weaknesses, an artist with a social conscience that vibrated like an exposed nerve, a worldly success who could not abide inequality and injustice.
Son of a frustrated businessman and a former schoolteacher, Steinbeck, a “born storyteller” in the memories of a childhood friend, was “a boy who would not conform, who could not tolerate a bully, and who believed that somewhere within the solitude he craved there was a world that could be rendered sensible and fair.”
He attended Stanford, but failed to graduate. He staved off near-starvation as a New York newspaper reporter, then fled back to California and took a job as caretaker of a Lake Tahoe vacation home, where in the deep snow of a Tahoe winter he honed his craft. He hit his stride with 1935’s “Tortilla Flat,” and canny literary agents and a dedicated editor helped Steinbeck succeed with 1937’s “Of Mice and Men,” a 100-page book with a “perfect pitch that was making him the voice of the downtrodden.”
In 1936 Steinbeck had covered the misery in California’s migrant worker camps for a San Francisco newspaper, where he witnessed “the ‘absolute terror’ of starvation in the faces of once-proud families.” He wove his searing memories into 1939’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” His best-known novel would bring him both fame and notoriety, as fans deluged him with letters and the callous California landowners exposed in the book waged a vicious campaign against him.
Souder documents Steinbeck’s complicated personal life, including his struggles with depression, his three marriages, his friendship with philosopher/biologist Ed Ricketts and his troubled relationship with his children. He smoothly incorporates literary criticism of Steinbeck’s work, though he falters when he insists on defending Steinbeck against critic Edmund Wilson’s astute analysis of the writer’s flaws. Souder writes that “Wilson would not surrender himself to Steinbeck, would never let himself believe freely in Steinbeck’s imagination or allow for the possibility that he simply did not understand Steinbeck’s world.” A writer’s spirited defense of a writer, but it misses the point that in analyzing Steinbeck’s weaknesses, Wilson was just doing his job.
Still, Souder, a gifted writer with a sure grasp of Steinbeck’s time and place, has created a memorable book. The best biographers balance empathy for their subjects with an unblinking accounting of their shortcomings, and Souder succeeds at this tricky business. “Mad at the World” is a vivid portrait of a complicated man, and John Steinbeck, who prized realism above all things, might have approved.
Mary Ann Gwinn is a book critic in Seattle.
Mad at the World
By: William Souder.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 464 pages, $32.
Virtual events: 7 p.m. Oct. 14, Next Chapter Bookstore, bit.ly/3lk6KH7; 7 p.m. Oct. 23, Zenith Bookstore, bit.ly/3iyz8Dv; noon Nov. 2, Brainerd Public Library, bit.ly/3hDsWJP