Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck - William Souder

According to its publisher, William Souder’s Mad at the World is the first “full-length biography of the Nobel laureate to appear in a quarter century.” As someone who has been reading John Steinbeck’s work for decades, I knew surprisingly little about the author’s personal life or the “story” behind even his best known works. That is no longer the case because Souder’s biography deals in depth both with Steinbeck, the man, and everything of consequence that he wrote during his lifetime attempts to avoid the demands of his ever-growing fame. 


John Steinbeck was not a man who had a lot of close friends, and he could be quick to discard the ones he did have. He was an egocentric man who took criticism of his work personally, meaning that those who dared to criticize him (even it was part of their job) often suffered the consequences of being shut out from his life for having been so bold. Even as a boy, he was always the outsider who seemed to prefer his own company to that of others. He was obsessed with his writing, but considered himself such a gift to women that he spent much of his time drinking and womanizing. He even had such little self-awareness at times that he bragged of his countless conquests to drinking buddies and former lovers - often even in writing. Steinbeck was married three times, producing two sons by his second wife. That neither son seems to have ever had much good to say about their father is telling. That they were bitter about their upbringing is an understatement.


Some of his best ideas, including some of those responsible for his most famous and best-received books, came from ideas, diaries, articles, stories, and the like, that others shared with him. Generating new ideas seem to have been Steinbeck’s biggest obstacle, but what he did with those ideas, even the ones previously abandoned by others, is unarguably brilliant. Never a man to be much impressed by money and fame, Steinbeck grew more and more unhappy with his life as fame and fortune found him. His problem was that money went through his hands even more quickly than it came to him. Year after year, he had to borrow money to pay the taxes on the previous year’s income even when he had a fortune coming in from book sales, Broadway plays, and movies.


But that is not all there is to know about John Steinbeck. As Souder puts it:


“What’s clear is that his mind was aflame from an early age, and that certain impulses fell into place and took hold of young John Steinbeck, a boy who could 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. These tendencies were hard to reconcile and hinted at a difficult but consequential life ahead.”


Steinbeck’s best work came from his anger at what he saw all around him in California’s Salinas Valley. He was sickened by the way immigrant crop-pickers were treated despite their importance to the entire country, and when the Great Depression resulted in the valley being inundated with starving people from other states, he did his best to publicize their plight. But even then, because he struggled so greatly to know where to start, Steinbeck had to look “outside of himself” for the idea that would turn into The Grapes of Wrath. Still, he hoped that the book would fall from the bestseller lists within six months so that he could be forgotten forever.


Bottom Line: Mad at the World succeeds in humanizing the man responsible for some of the best, and best known, books of the last century. That John Steinbeck was not a particularly likable man can hardly be disputed, but the importance of the books he produced over a relatively short lifetime is equally indisputable. His “instinct for privacy…bordered on pathological” and although he tried to hide it, he often suffered from depression. John Steinbeck was a man driven to write but totally unprepared to handle the success his writing would bring. Mad at the World leaves me wondering if he ever had a truly happy day in his life.


William Souder

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention Sam!

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    1. I hope you enjoy it. It pulls no punches, covers all the bases, and is one of the best bios I've read in years.

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  2. I had read elsewhere some hints of Steinbeck's less than positive behavior. Still, I am interested in this biography, but not right now. Right now, reading about an unhappy life of a real person doesn't appeal to me. I think times need to be better before venturing into Steinbeck's life.

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    1. He had a tough time, Jen, and brought much of it on himself, but a lot of his problems were medical ones beyond his control. It really is a good biography, and I think you'll get a lot out of it when you read it.

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  3. I think I'm going to have to read this biography next year. I like reading about authors and their lives and their writing...even when they're not easy people to like.

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    1. Lark, I'm happy to see a biography do so well these days, and this one deserves the praise it's getting.

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  4. I am big fan of John Steinbeck but what I have heard about how he behaved in private is troubling but that's probably true of many of our favorite authors and it sounds like William Souder's book will give us an explanation for the mad at the world behavior and his admirable qualities as well.

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    1. Exactly right, Kathy. He had a good heart when it came to defending those who could not defend themselves, and that was a trait that went back to his childhood. Unfortunately, that good heart did not always extend to his personal relationships, especially to his two sons, it seems.

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