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Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck


Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck is a national treasure, and to capture his essence and life in a few hundred pages is nearly impossible. He very well may be my favorite American writer, so my expectations for MAD AT THE WORLD were high. It turns out that biographer William Souder, who previously had written books about Rachel Carson and James Audubon, was up for the challenge.

Steinbeck lived only 66 years, was married three times, and passed on the legacy of his own name to one of his two children: John Steinbeck IV. During this time, he published 33 books and a handful of adaptations of his work for the stage, and even wrote the screenplay for Elia Kazan's 1952 version of Viva Zapata! that starred Marlon Brando. Based on the majority of his work, some would think that he and his family grew up destitute. In MAD AT THE WORLD, Souder will fill in the blanks and open your eyes to this legendary author’s life and times.

Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, an area that left such an impression on him that much of his work was based on it. Unlike many about whom he wrote, his family was fortunate not to have struggled. His father, John Ernst Steinbeck II, was a practicing accountant, which he spun into a life of office service that included work in local government as Monterey County treasurer, an electable position. Because they lived amongst ranches and Dust Bowl territory, Steinbeck spent many hours speaking with ranch hands and foremen to learn about their livelihood.

It is well-known that Steinbeck loved dogs, and most of his life was spent with several who had a huge impact on him. His family was also fortunate to have a pony named Jill who became an instant infatuation for him and his younger sister, Mary. Jill also would be the impetus for his beloved story, THE RED PONY.

"I salute William Souder for taking a beloved and complex character like John Steinbeck and showing why he was so revered by all who knew him."

Following high school, Steinbeck was accepted to Stanford University where he would pursue the only thing he ever really wanted to do --- write. He had joined the ROTC, made the football team and even took up boat rowing/crew work. None of these activities appealed much to him, and he gave up on them almost as quickly as he started them. He was quite confident in his ability to be a writer, but needed to know how to take things to the next level and become a published author. He was intimidated by some of the other young American authors of the time who already were seeing success while he was laboring in classrooms, namely Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, he could not even bring himself to read their bestselling novels.

Steinbeck eventually left Stanford and moved to New York City. His older sister, Beth, was living in Brooklyn and offered to put him up until he was established. He supported himself as a laborer, actually pouring the cement and helping to build what is the current incarnation of Madison Square Garden. He enjoyed this work and the time spent among other laborers who were the lifeblood of the country, as well as most of his fiction. He finally got a break when his first published short story was placed in The Smokers Companion magazine.

Steinbeck met his first wife, Carol, and she became a huge supporter of his writing. She also helped him get his first full-length novel, CUP OF GOLD, out there, typing up the manuscript and placing it in the right hands. Unfortunately, it was not well-received. What got things rolling was a change of scenery and a move back to California. Here, they were among contemporaries --- artists and workers in many different areas --- and they didn’t feel the pressure of the big city. One of Steinbeck’s lifelong friends during this time, Ed Ricketts, even worked with him on the novel SEA OF CORTEZ and other research projects.

On his 30th birthday, Steinbeck received the best news of his career thus far --- the announcement of the publication of his first big novel, THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN, in 1932.  Now, the floodgates were opened and soon led to THE RED PONY and TO A GOD UNKNOWN. He was enjoying writing more than ever, and his next novel, TORTILLA FLAT, opened up a new avenue for him: Hollywood. Many of his books were turned into award-winning screen adaptations --- including THE GRAPES OF WRATH, OF MICE AND MEN and EAST OF EDEN --- but it was the well-received film version of TORTILLA FLAT, starring Oscar winner Spencer Tracy, that started it all.

Sadly, Steinbeck lost both of his parents in the midst of this period of great success. Right before passing away, his father admitted that he never did what he really wanted to do in life and felt like he missed out on everything. This deathbed confession had quite an impact on Steinbeck, and he would transcribe these feelings through many of the characters he would later create.

OF MICE AND MEN, which was adapted into an outstanding film starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr., also was the first of Steinbeck’s novels to appear on the stage. In 1937, it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play and in recent decades was revived on Broadway in another award-winning adaptation that starred Gary Sinise and John Malkovich.

His longest book up to that point was one that many consider his masterpiece, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, which spoke to a nation that had come through the Great Depression. His character, Tom Joad, was symbolic of the struggling American everyman, desperate to keep his family together and alive. He was indelibly portrayed on the big screen by the legendary Henry Fonda and was the subject of a song by Bruce Springsteen.

Steinbeck mused that a book has two lives. The first is with the author when it is like a difficult child being coaxed to behave. In the second, it leaves home and makes its way in an uncertain world as the author watches and hopes for the best. He really got to experience that with THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and it was around this time that he met his second wife, Gwen. Success followed Steinbeck at every turn, and he saw himself winning awards that authors like Hemingway had done decades earlier when he claimed both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and later the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Prior to his passing in 1968, Steinbeck penned one of my favorite books, the nonfiction delight TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY. It revolved around him and his poodle, Charley, and their journey cross-country and back again to their Long Island home. Along the way, he would depict an America he loved and revel at how similar people were wherever they went.

I salute William Souder for taking a beloved and complex character like John Steinbeck and showing why he was so revered by all who knew him. I never really saw any of the “angry young man” sentiment that the biography’s title might suggest. Instead, I saw a man who was driven and never gave up on his only dream. How fortunate we all have been to have shared in this dream through the many works he left behind.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 23, 2020

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

  • Publication Date: October 26, 2021
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 039386832X
  • ISBN-13: 9780393868326