“Mad at the World” seems, at first glance, an odd title for a book. But William Souder believes it conveys the personality and work of John Steinbeck, who brought social realism to the forefront in many of his 30-some books, including “Of Mice and Men” (1937), and “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939).
Souder lives in Grant, Minn., with his wife, Susan Sperl, and a wirehaired pointing griffon puppy who will become his bird-hunting companion. Their two daughters and two sons are grown and out of the nest.
“Mad at the World” is the first biography of Steinbeck in 25 years and critics and scholars are loving it.
“The title of my book is a reference to the fact that Steinbeck’s greatest work and in some ways, all of his work, is animated by anger he was born with,” said the 71-year-old author.
“He hated bullies, hated anybody being abused by a person or entity more powerful or richer. He had a soft spot for the underdog, for the person most people would walk by on a sidewalk and not notice. He thought that in many cases the marginalized or homeless or dispossessed were the best sort of people, the most moral who strove to live a good life as other people didn’t.”
John Steinbeck talks to media Oct. 25, 1962, in the office of his publisher in New York after the announcement he had been awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. (AP Photo/Anthony Camerano, File)
Winner of Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, Steinbeck wrote the novels “East of Eden,” “In Dubious Battle” and “Tortilla Flat,” among others, as well as short stories. His nonfiction includes “Travels with Charley” (which could be considered semi-fiction since parts of it are not true or at least fudged), as well as “A Russian Journal” (1948), based on his travels in the country that was turning from a World War II ally to a Cold War enemy. He covered World War II and Vietnam as a war correspondent.
Steinbeck, ambivalent about whether people would like his books, and wary of fame, gave us enduring stories about men and women on the fringes of society like George and mentally-challenged Lennie in “Of Mice and Men,” a novel Souder writes “had achieved a perfect pitch that was making (Steinbeck) the voice of the downtrodden.”
The brave Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath” are Steinbeck’s homage to the migrants he saw pouring into California in the 1930s. They were desperate people escaping heat and dust in the Midwest.
“These were times when the landowners sent out their goon squads to prevent relief efforts,” Souder says. “Nobody wanted to tell that story. No one would tell the truth and report it. That enraged Steinbeck. That anger made him the writer he was.”
TELL IT IN A DIFFERENT WAY
“Mad at the World” joins two earlier Steinbeck biographies: “The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer,” by Jackson Benson (1984), and Jay Parini’s “John Steinbeck, A Biography” (1995).
“So it wasn’t as though books about Steinbeck were crowding the shelves,” Souder said.
“I thought there was an opportunity to tell Steinbeck’s story in a different way. Most important for me as a biographer is to see there is a way to tell the person’s story that will keep the reader going from page to page asking, ‘And then what happened’? If you see the life of your subject in those terms, it’s storytelling.”
Sonder describes himself as “a kid of the 1960s and ’70s,” inspired by new journalists Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion. These writers, he says, took techniques of fiction writing — narrative structure, maintaining tension, shifting points of view, and ending chapters on a high note — and applied them to nonfiction.
A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Souder is the author of two previous well-received biographies: “On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson” (2012); and “Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America” (2004), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His earliest book, “A Plague of Frogs” (2000), explored the mystery of why deformed frogs were being found around Henderson, Minn.
Souder points out that his books, including “Mad at the World” are linked by his subjects’ interest in ecology and the environment.
“This book fits into this progression I’m writing about, key figures that interest me — Audubon, Carson and Steinbeck,” he says. “Look at the constellation of people that have figured in the history of the country seen through the lens of natural history and environmentalism and they stand out.”
LOVING MARINE LIFE
Steinbeck came to ecology partly through his friend Edward Ricketts, a popular marine biologist and philosopher (and womanizer) whose book “Between Pacific Tides,” a 1939 guide to marine invertebrates of the Pacific Coast, still inspires scientists.
His lab on Cannery Row in Monterey, across from a whorehouse, was legendary for parties that drew Steinbeck and other poor young people such as mythologist Joseph Campbell, who was in love with Steinbeck’s wife, Carol. (Souder makes no judgment about whether they had an affair.)
When Souder was researching Ricketts for his book about Rachel Carson, he read “Sea of Cortez” (later renamed “The Log from the ‘Sea of Cortez’ “), a book by Ricketts and Steinbeck based on a 1940 trip they took along the Gulf of California collecting marine specimens.
“You can’t do research in Monterey, Salinas or Stanford (University) without running into Steinbeck and Ricketts,” Souder says. ” He became the character of Doc in ‘Cannery Row’ and ‘Sweet Thursday’ and a different Doc in ‘In Dubious Battle.’ That’s how I started to look at Steinbeck as an interesting guy.”
Souder says he is personally interested in “all kinds of stuff — natural history, science and environment, mid-20th century history and writers – and Steinbeck ticks all those boxes.”
And then there is Steinbeck’s literary stature.
“Steinbeck is not a perfect person but he’s a very important writer, with two or three books on every list of Best Books of the 20th century, an undeniable important literary figure,” Souder says. “As a biographer you don’t have to love your subject, you don’t even have to like them. You don’t have to endorse or approve the way they lived their lives. But you have to have an affinity for him. You have to feel you ‘get’ this person and I felt that with Steinbeck.”
STEINBECK AND THE LOST GENERATION
Steinbeck was born in 1902 in California’s Salinas Valley, a shy child, a dreamer and a storyteller. He died in 1968 in New York.
In between, Souder says, “he lived his life from one peak to the next, one valley to the next, an up-and-down guy emotionally and also in terms of writing production. I was particularly interested in the long apprenticeship he had when he was struggling with voice and what to write about. Nothing clicked with him until his parents went into steep decline (in the mid-1930s). He was helping care for them, living in the house in Salinas. It seemed like the worst possible time for creativity to bloom and to figure himself out as a writer, and yet that’s what happened.”
During this milepost in his life, Steinbeck wrote the three main parts of “The Red Pony,” his novel “Tortilla Flat,” and “The Chrysanthemums,” which Souder believes may be his greatest short story.
“With these works, he shook free of preconceptions about what kind of writer he wanted to be,” Souder said. “In addition, he got interested in migrants pouring into California.”
Steinbeck saw firsthand the terrible conditions in migrant camps when he wrote a series of articles, “The Harvest Gypsies,” for The San Francisco News. He channeled his anger into “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, this book with the startling ending made Steinbeck one of the most famous writers in America, finally standing with his successful older contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.
“Fitzgerald and Hemingway were the leading voices of what Gertrude Stein called the Lost Generation, writers reinventing literature after a catastrophic war, a generation Steinbeck somehow managed not to be a part of,” Souder says.
“The Lost Generation had the feeling that American writers had nothing left to write about, that all the great stories had been told. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and (John) Dos Passos started this breakthrough literature that was intensely realistic. It completely bypassed Steinbeck. While they were reinventing literature, he was a starving reporter in New York and several years away from his first book (“Cup of Gold”), which was about pirates and completely out of step with new literature. He wasn’t part of the Jazz Age, the fast-living milieu. But he eventually invented for himself a different niche. You can debate which writer was the more historically important, but you can’t debate that Steinbeck found his own way maybe a little more than some of his contemporaries.”
A VOLATILE PRIVATE LIFE
William Souder, author of “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck.” (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
Souder doesn’t flinch from, but doesn’t judge, Steinbeck’s treatment of two of his three wives. This man with the disarming blue eyes thought he was a ladies’ man, writing to his Stanford classmate and former lover Kate Beswick the most intimate letters about his sex life, including how well he could control his orgasms.
Steinbeck met his first wife, Carol Henning, when he was a caretaker at Lake Tahoe. Without her, there would have been no “Grapes of Wrath” and Steinbeck acknowledged it was her book.
“Carol was an exceptionally dynamic, brilliant person in her own right,” Souder says. “She was extremely important to Steinbeck, his muse and his closest editor; and by editor I mean collaboration. She helped him enormously, coming up with the title for the book. She typed his initial drafts, written in long-hand, editing and revising as she went. Steinbeck’s tendency was to overdo things. He had this romantic sensibility and everybody, including friends who helped him with early writing, was concerned with reining him in and simplifying his prose. Carol was good at that.”
In the summer of 1939, when Steinbeck was one of the most famous writers in the country, he began an affair with a 19-year-old singer, Gwyn Conger. They were married in 1943 after his divorce from Carol.
“Steinbeck’s marriage to Carol came apart almost as soon as ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was done,” Souder says. “I think what caused the marriage to come apart is that they were two very large, powerful personalities confined to a single marriage that might have felt claustrophobic. They didn’t fall out of love but out of the ability to tolerate one another.”
Steinbeck’s marriage to Gwyn “was alcohol-fueled, troubled from the start,” Souder says. The couple’s sons John IV and Thomas are deceased.
“Steinbeck loved his sons, at the same time he always saw them as limiting his ability to do his work, as though they were in the way,” Souder says. “They were shipped off to prep school, and he had a strained relationship to them throughout his life.”
Gwyn told people Steinbeck forced her to have several abortions and had not wanted her to have John IV. She claimed that he’d gone along with having Thom only “to prove he wasn’t too old to father a child with his pretty young wife.” Souder acknowledges that things she said were “hard to evaluate.”
During World War II, Steinbeck was a correspondent for the Herald Tribune newspaper, landing with the Allied invasion in Italy, where he was badly injured.
“This was another inflection point in Steinbeck’s life,” Souder says. “He didn’t talk about it much, but in an artillery barrage he suffered at least one serious concussion and more likely a series of concussions from continuous bombardment. When he came home he had all the symptoms of head trauma, which we know a lot more about today. I believe this contributed to his episodes of depression, inability to work and even these fugue states where he was unable to think or work or interact with people for a day or two. He wrote if off as the aftereffects of war and felt he got off easy.”
In the spring of 1949, Steinbeck spent time in Los Angeles where, Souder writes, he had an affair with film star Paulette Goddard, separated from Burgess Meredith, who’d played George in the popular film version of “Of Mice and Men.” Steinbeck’s friend, actress Ann Sothern, introduced him to 35-year-old Elaine Scott, still technically married to actor Zachary Scott.
Steinbeck was 49 years old when he and Elaine married in 1951.
“Elaine was very different from Gwyn and Carol, who had volatile personalities,” Souder says. “She was very happy to be Mrs. Steinbeck in the sense of being his companion, lover, soulmate. She was there for him in a way the others were not. I don’t think his work was as good when he was married to Elaine, although he wrote ‘East of Eden,’ an important and monumental work that some think is better than ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ ” (For those who remember this film because of James Dean’s stunning performance, Souder points out there is very little of the novel in the movie.)
By the time Steinbeck married Elaine, he finally accepted the reality that he could pay his bills.
“He constantly complained of being broke,” Souder says, “but he lived, by all accounts, an extravagant life with fancy houses in New York, a Sag Harbor retreat (on Long Island) and constant travel, always with first-class accommodations in the best hotels all over Europe. He made a lot of money and spent it just as fast. He went to his grave saying he had to borrow to pay income taxes.”
THE WRITER AND THE WRITER
William Souder, author of “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck” takes a walk near his property in Grant, Minn., with his bird dog Sasha, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
Now that “Mad at the World” is published, Souder talks about how much he “absolutely enjoyed” writing this book.
“I never once felt beleaguered or bored or put-upon or stumped or stuck or regretful I started the project. In the craft of writing, I have loved the hard work, that struggle to seem as though everything is effortless.”
What made writing “Mad at the World” so enjoyable for Souder was the variety in Steinbeck’s writing, which paralleled what was going on in the country, from the Depression to the Vietnam conflict.
“With the Victorian age barely over, the Steinbecks’ baby boy hurtled into a future he would help to write,” Souder writes. “Before his second birthday, Wilbur and Orville Wright would fly. And within months of his death, Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon. In between, John Steinbeck tried to tell the story every writer hopes to get right, which is only how it is during one small chapter of history. It is not much to ask, but the hardest thing on earth to do.”
“Steinbeck was very much a writer of his time. That was inescapable to me and part of the appeal of a Steinbeck biography now. All his themes are relevant again — forced human migration and resistance to that, life in a time of economic devastation because of the pandemic, high income disparities that have divided haves and have-nots in a stratified way as never before, the huge problem of climate change we are wrestling with. All great writers remain relevant but some writers’ work speaks more directly to the time we are in. That’s true of Steinbeck.”
— William Souder, author of “Mad at the World”
Title: “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck”
Publisher/price: Norton ($32)
WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING:
“Souder neither deifies nor condemns his subject, remarking candidly on Steinbeck’s misogyny and propensity for mythmaking, while making clear the author’s ardent devotion to his craft. Steinbeck fans could not ask for a more nuanced account of this troubled giant of American literature.”
— Starred review, Publishers Weekly
“Readers unfamiliar with Steinbeck’s story will come away from Souder’s rendering with a forceful first impression. Those who feel they already know the story well enough can anticipate the pleasure of traveling down a newly-opened road through one’s home town: the general landscape is familiar, but the perspective is novel and the trip its own reward.”
— Steinbeck scholar Donald Coers writing for the online journal Steinbeck Now.