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 from his nose. (“John erupted with laughter that echoed up and down the street.”) Or the time when the Steinbecks, whose own dog infuriatingly ignored John’s commands, were saved from a fire by the barking of his despised mother-in-law’s despised dog (a model of obedience). While the womenfolk fought the flames, John, who had unwittingly started the fire himself, got locked out of the house unnoticed on a frigid New York night clad only in his pajama tops. (“They opened the front door and there he stood, partially dusted with snow, blue and shriveled with cold, and certain that he was going to die of pneumonia.”) These (and others) sound like family stories that have ripened in the retelling, but even if they’re God’s truth, I don’t see what purpose is served by representing Steinbeck as a character in I Love Lucy.
Still, for all the defects of Benson’s narrative tastes, a picture of an interesting man and a curious literary career slowly emerges from this gigantic, ambling book. Steinbeck is commonly seen as a regional writer; the scenes of his childhood and youth in the Salinas Valley are amply recorded in The Pastures of Heaven, The Red Pony, and East of Eden, and his early manhood in adjacent parts of California figured in Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Cannery Row. Except for East of Eden, all of these were published between 1932 and 1945, and Steinbeck’s later work is often taken to show what happens to a regionalist who turns away from his roots.
Benson suggests, however, that Steinbeck did not consider himself a regional writer and is not best understood as such. Like any other novelist he wrote about what he knew, but rural and small-town California in itself was not central to his imagination. A rather unhappy, reclusive child of strict but not unsympathetic middle-class parents (his father uncomplainingly supported him for years while he tried to become a writer), not much regarded or even noticed by his schoolmates in Salinas, Steinbeck like most writers found his vocation not in the reality around him but in books. He got his idea of literature from reading Stevenson, Dumas, Scott, Bunyan, Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, the Bible, and especially myths and fairy tales and the Arthurian legends in Malory. When he went to Stanford, where he studied off and on for six years but earned no degree, his shyness adopted the familiar guise of social wildness, with much male horseplay, drinking, womanizing, and public posturing, literary and otherwise. A fine horseman, he signed up for the polo team, but though he wore his riding togs ostentatiously around campus, no one remembers ever seeing him play.
Identifying himself as a writer must have been partly just another weapon against collegiate proprieties, as it was almost fifty years later for another big and rebellious Stanford student, Ken Kesey. (By an odd chance, both men established refuges at La Honda, in the hills beyond the campus.) Other such weapons were his occasional talk of socialism, his working-class styles learned from summers and off-terms in the fields and sugar mills and in the hobo jungles he visited looking for usable stories, and his preference (for a while more talk than action) for no-nonsense sex over the routines of bourgeois courtship.
But the Steinbeck who emerges from Benson’s account was at heart an incurable romantic, and also (there is no necessary contradiction) a rather likable upholder of middle-class verities. Like Stephen Dedalus, he cherished the role of writer and thinking man, but unlike Stephen he worked at writing, as if the labor itself were a test of virtue. (He often wrote in rented offices: “Four doleful walls and a ground glass door are about my speed, particularly if the door says ‘accountant.”‘) Maybe Benson makes too much of Steinbeck’s modesty, his indifference to fame and money, his embarrassment about the Nobel prize, but it seems clear that for him the main thing was working, not what the work led to, as he said in an ecstatic journal entry:
Oh Lord how good this paper feels under this pen. I can sit here writing and the words slipping out like grapes out of their skins and I feel so good doing it…. You start out putting words down and there are three things—you, the pen, and the page. Then gradually the three things merge until they are all one and you feel about the page as you do about your arm. Only you love it more than you do your arm.
If there was some affectation in his preference for the company of working people (in later years he had his own table at 21), there was also something genuine in it, and Benson may be right in claiming that he supported the Vietnam war largely because of his sympathetic identification with the troops he observed doing their awful job.
Mingled with the work ethic was the romanticism he never outgrew. His earliest models were arty mannerists like James Branch Cabell and B.O. Donn-Byrne, as well as commercial romancers like Raphael Sabatini; his first published novel was a high-flown fantasy called Cup of Gold, about pirates. He soon found subjects closer to home, where gritty realism might have seemed appropriate—the lives of farmers, drifters, street people, migrant workers, the marginal people of Depression America—but a distinct romanticism persisted, a lyric largeness of style that expressed the symbolic or mythic value of persons and events more than their hard particularity. Hemingway cruelly said of the ending of The Grapes of Wrath, where Rose of Sharon offers her breast to a starving man, that it was “hardly the solution to our economic problem,” and Benson notes that In Dubious Battle deals only with Anglo farm workers whereas the real ones were mostly Mexicans.
Even with “proletarian” subjects Steinbeck’s art was not congenial to social insight or polemic. But it was highly congenial to another art that flourished in the 1930s, one that now represents the period more vividly (if not necessarily more accurately) than its literature can. Trying to recollect Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, I found that I could not clearly remember reading them; what I remembered was a strange, unsortable amalgam of written language and visual images, as if Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr., and Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell and all the others had somehow been in the books from the start. Steinbeck’s novels, with their “mythic” simplifications and “symbolic” soft focuses, seem made to be filmed. Indeed, after the success of the stage and movie versions of Of Mice and Men, he conceived and sometimes even wrote (or dictated) most of his fiction as scripts, and he worked on film stories unrelated to his own books for Pare Lorentz, Hitchcock, Zanuck, and others, and dreamed in vain of success as a playwright.
This mingling of genres surely was unhealthy for his writing, though it may account for the continued popularity of his novels with high-school English teachers, who hope that their reluctant clientele may yet respond to cinematic pacing and rhetoric. Personally it was damaging too. For all his alternating shyness and excitability, Steinbeck had real gifts for friendship. The companions of his earlier years, many of them “literary” in some hopeful way, never succeeded as he did, and many of them drifted away out of envy or shame. Yet he was never at ease in the company of literary peers like Hemingway or Faulkner. (Hemingway, at their only meeting, denounced as a fake O’Hara’s blackthorn walking stick, a present from Steinbeck, breaking it over his own head to prove his point.)
After his success in the late 1930s had involved him with Hollywood and Broadway, his friends were mostly either people professionally concerned with his career—his agent, Elizabeth Otis, and his editor, Pascal Covici—or congenial souls in show business or on its literary margins: Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith, Spencer Tracy, Robert Capa, Arthur Miller, Nathaniel Benchley, Eddie Condon (who, with the jazz man’s proverbial unworldliness, for a while supposed that Steinbeck was “some kind of labor leader”).
Talented and interesting people, no doubt, but not a cultural ambiance calculated to draw the best out of a serious writer. He never stopped reading (Benson reports his admiration of Below and Updike); but if Covici’s verdict that he was ruined by associating with “second-raters” is too harsh on both him and them, there seems no doubt that he worked out a life that did his talent little good.
Hollywood entered into his marriages as well. His strong and tough-minded first wife, who kept him going in hard times, divorced him in 1943, after he’d fallen in love with a young sister and movie extra, who became his second wife. This new marriage almost destroyed him, emotionally and financially; when it broke up in 1948, he met and eventually married Elaine Scott, the former wife of the actor Zachary Scott, with whom he lived contentedly until his death in 1968. But he was never again the writer he was in the 1930s. His later years were occupied with false starts, like his uncompleted modernization of Malory, and minor books, like Sweet Thursday (whose stage version was one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s few flops), The Short Reign of Pippin IV, The Winter of Our Discontent, and Travels with Charley, while he paid his considerable bills by writing for Collier’s, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Saturday Review, Holiday, and various newspapers.
In these years Monterey and Salinas saw him seldom and briefly; he lived in New York and on Long Island, he traveled widely in the Americas, Europe, and eventually Southeast Asia, and his mind turned to the larger world and its problems. In the 1930s he had called himself a “New Deal Democrat” and he came to know Roosevelt personally during the war, but politics did not yet interest him much. During the 1950s, however, he became a passionate partisan and eventually a friend of Adlai Stevenson, whom he helped a little with speeches. He was no great admirer of John Kennedy, but Lyndon Johnson, with his way of absorbing those who might be useful, drew him into a close if complicated relationship which, despite Steinbeck’s Stevensonian doubts about Johnson’s principles, grew stronger as the protests about Vietnam grew louder.
Politics for Steinbeck seems to have been largely a matter of personal knowledge and feeling. Benson pictures him during the 1930s as so intently involved in his literary work that he scarcely noticed the Depression and its ideological turmoil. He wrote The Grapes of Wrath because he had seen and cared about the suffering of the Okies in California, not, evidently, because he intended any larger political statement. Similarly, the outrage over his novel (and play) about occupied Norway, The Moon Is Down, for portraying Nazis as human beings bewildered him, even though he was also writing propaganda stories and movies for the Air Corps and (surely his least forgivable artistic offense) encouraging Frank Loesser to write “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” His dabbling in politics was less inspired by consistent views than by personal contact with leaders he could understand and admire humanly, just as his fierceness about Vietnam had something to do with the fact that one of his sons was fighting there.
The personality suggested is one of remarkable innocence, which jibes with Arthur Miller’s way of remembering him:
That man was always so moved with everything…. He agonized about everything—he never knew how to handle all that. He always reminded me of an adolescent…. And he could blush—one of the few people I had ever met who could blush. His sensitivity must have been driving him crazy. That’s what I mean, too, by saying that there was something of a country boy about him…there was a blessed naïveté here…. He was not inured by life, I thought.
Benson’s stories support this view. Steinbeck’s love of parties, the hard social drinking which he could cut off when work beckoned, the uncritical enthusiasms for people and ideas, the delight in gadgets, toys, pets, cars, boats, and fireworks, the pleasure in dressing up (he wore a cap and a broad-brimmed hat in New York and wondered why people were staring at him), the pride in his gardening and handicrafts, the deep hypochondria, the need for the company and approval of women, the mixture of whimsy and obsession in his secret acquisition of a small cannon so that, “dressed in blazer and captain’s hat,” he could fire a forty-one-gun salute to his wife on her birthday—if this too sounds like TV comedy, with its insistence on the unreconstructed boy inside every grown man, there’s too much evidence for it to be wrong about him.
There was innocence too in his approach to writing fiction, his assumption that one begins not with words or people or situations but with ideas. His letters and journals show him fussing endlessly about what he means to do with a piece of writing, making up elaborate plans and theories about style and technique. (How many readers can have noticed that The Winter of Our Discontent is a novel “in the sonnet form”—and specifically the Shakespearean form?) He had the anxiety about thinking it all out that keeps most would-be writers from finishing anything. “This story has grown since I started it,” he wrote to a friend while working on a minor early book, To a God Unknown:
From a novel about people, it has become a novel about the world. And you must never tell it. Let it be found out. The new eye is being opened in the west—the new seeing…. There are things in my mind as strong as pure as good as anything in the structure of literature. If I do not put them down, it will be because I have not the technique…. The story is a parable, Duke. The story of a race, growth and death. Each figure is a population, and the stones, the trees, the muscled mountains are the world—but not the world apart from man—the world and man—the one inseparable unit man plus the environment.
He was thirty-one, and young writers talk like this sometimes; but though his rhetoric toughened later, he never really stopped. By no accident, the “things in [his] mind” here seeking release through the mechanisms of “technique” reflect the decisive event in his intellectual life, his friendship—nearly a discipleship—with Ed Ricketts, a largely self-taught marine biologist and lay philosopher who figures in Sea of Cortez, In Dubious Battle, and Cannery Row. The two men first met in Monterey in 1930, and Ricketts’s accidental death in 1948 may have damaged Steinbeck as much as his second divorce at about the same time. From Ricketts he learned (or learned to complete) his “nonteleological” sense of life, which teaches that neither God’s plan nor human desires govern a world that includes man only in the way that it includes all other natural things. Benson seems to take this unremarkable philosophy almost as seriously as Steinbeck did, but it does help to explain why the books are so little concerned with disillusionment, irony, tragedy, or any complex feeling, and so bent on a calm, detached acceptance of the way things are.
The literary results of Rickett’s influence were by no means wholly bad. The Log from The Sea of Cortez (1951), which collects the “narrative” portions of the earlier collaborative work (and which, as Benson acknowledges, owes more to Rickett’s journals than Steinbeck quite made clear), is in fact an absorbing book. Here for once Steinbeck is free from the requirement of fiction that human subjects be treated as special and privileged. The narrative dwells upon natural creatures (the marine life of the Gulf of California), upon objects (boats, motors), upon processes (navigation, specimen collecting). The principal voyagers, Steinbeck, his wife, and Ricketts, are never introduced or mentioned and when other people intrude—the crew of the Western Flyer, the Mexicans they encounter—these can be treated as “representative” of their occupations or social or ethnic backgrounds and not as the full, complex characters a good novel must provide. In its purity of motive and ease of performance, the Log shows that Steinbeck’s aspiration to absorb human experience into a grand ecology of being could produce interesting writing.
And yet that aspiration conflicted with what are ordinarily taken to be the needs of serious fiction, and of serious intellectual and moral understanding. It seems a mark of Steinbeck’s innocence, and of his remoteness from the intellectual currents of his time, that Ricketts’s world view should have so impressed him, and that he could grandly assert (in 1933) that many masterminds—Ellsworth Huntington, Spengler, Ouspensky, Jung, Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, and others—were unknowingly headed “toward my thesis.” That “thesis” accounts for the odd dispassion in his accounts of even the most awful human occasions, and perhaps for his popularity with uncritically hopeful readers even while the intellectual heathen raged. Steinbeck’s was an innocent talent, particularly American in its trust in homemade theory and its confidence that “technique” can supply any deficiency of culture or genius, and it deserves to be understood and judged fairly. But it will take a shorter and more rigorously conceived study than Benson’s, one more interested in analysis than in entertainment and less determined to acquit its subject of all major charges, to do justice to Steinbeck.
February 16, 1984