Stubborn Steinbeck

The Intricate Music: A Biography of John Steinbeck

by Thomas Kiernan
Little, Brown, 331 pp., $12.95

The Wayward Bus

by John Steinbeck
Penguin, 212 pp., $2.95 (paper)

East of Eden

by John Steinbeck
Penguin, 691 pp., $2.95 (paper)

John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck; drawing by David Levine

John Steinbeck went to Stanford University in the fall of 1919 saying he wanted to be a writer. At seventeen, he had written little, none of it promising, but he knew the power that the writing of others held over him, and he longed for some of that power himself. “I’ve thought a lot,” Steinbeck later told Thomas Kiernan, “about why I set out to write. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I think I can say now that one of the big reasons was this: I instinctively recognized in writing an opportunity to transcend some of my personal failings—things about myself I didn’t particularly like and wanted to change but didn’t know how.” A strange, burden-some, and likely statement of a need that can lie as deep as any other, and can exist prior to any sense of language or subject. It is a need that cannot be satisfied by mere literary achievement.

It cannot have helped that the books Steinbeck was most possessed by were remote from him, Malory and the Bible especially, and led to dreams that couldn’t be fulfilled. As opposed to the Round Table, he had to make do with middle-class Salinas and Stanford, and, later, jobs in factories and on farms, with only fierce stubbornness to keep him going. For a decade after he left college Steinbeck was a writer of novels and stories that yielded neither fame nor fortune nor satisfaction. He supported himself with odd jobs, helped by a $25 a month stipend from his father.

Most people just don’t stick at it. They see they haven’t got the talent, or they watch the dream fade as adolescence fades, to be replaced by something more hopeful or diminishing. Perhaps what was most remarkable about Steinbeck is that he persisted. Since what most drove him to write was a failing, a sense of something missing, he never could be wholly satisfied by even his most successful work. Though there is a place now called Steinbeck country, though there are “ideas” we can now call Steinbeck’s themes, he seems a writer without a source of strength. For years he thought he had a subject, a big book about the Salinas valley that only he could write. But all that came of this was East of Eden, a bloated, pretentious, and uncertain book. If the obvious comparison is with Faulkner, who also wanted to be a writer long before he knew what he wanted to write about, who also created a fictional place based on a real place, the more telling one is with O’Neill, stubborn, lumbering, called “powerful” by admirers. But O’Neill could, late in his career, write memorably about his family. Some critics admire A Long Day’s Journey into Night far more than I do, but everyone would prefer it to East of Eden.

There is a story to be told here,…

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