The Innocent

It is hard to think of a writer whose reputation has fallen farther than John Steinbeck’s. In his new and semi-idolatrous biography, Professor Jackson J. Benson considers a variety of explanations for Steinbeck’s decline: he lost his talent, after the extraordinary success of Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, when he went Hollywood; he was demoralized by political misreadings of his books, which reactionaries thought Marxist and Marxists thought reactionary; the advanced literary opinion makers destroyed him in revenge, first for his popularity and then for his hawkishness about Vietnam; the Nobel Prize award in 1962 showed everyone an emperor with scarcely any clothes. Though Benson finds at least a little truth in each explanation, his long book leaves the mystery intact: Why did such success lead to such failure, and where did the success come from in the first place?

Benson brings some acuteness and much good sense to bear on Steinbeck’s life and work, but his interpretative gifts are almost swamped by his manner. As its title suggests, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer aims chiefly at telling an entertaining story to (evidently) unregenerate admirers of Steinbeck like Benson himself. The attempt leads, unfortunately, to a style that often makes Steinbeckian simplicity into something like baby talk. “This is the story of a man who was a writer,” the book begins:

He didn’t want to be famous or popular—he just wanted to write books. But he became both. From among the many serious writers of our time, he became for a great many people, here and throughout the world, the one writer who counted, the one who touched them. He made words sing, and he made people laugh and cry. He also made them think—about loneliness, self-deception, and injustice. And in all that he wrote, he testified to his belief that everything that lives is holy…. This man wrote a lot of good books, and that, after all, is what a writer should do.

Amid such prattle, facts tend to evaporate; mere dates, for example, may get lost, and the reader who simply wants to know when Steinbeck was born (February 27, 1902) has to work it out from scattered bits of information later, such as that he was seventeen when he went to college.

Benson seems to have worked hard at reading Steinbeck’s letters and journals, interviewing friends and relatives, looking up old reviews, and so on. But the book’s thickness testifies less to the biographer’s concern for exactitude than to his appetite for stories, usually ones—perhaps because so many of the informants are professional entertainers—that make Steinbeck’s adult life sound like situation comedy. There was the time when he was suffering through a boring dinner with Howard Hughes, and two of his madcap friends (Fred and Ethel Mertz?) rescued him by bursting into Chasen’s, she with two front teeth blacked out and he with an artificial snot drop hanging …

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