1. Julius Caesar was born during the month of Quintilus circa the year 100. That month was renamed July in his honor.2. In his 20s, Caesar was captured by pirates. While traveling to the island of Rhodes to study under the Greek rhetorician, Apollonius, a group of bandits halted his boat and sought a ransom for the young Caesar’s life. Caesar was eventually set free and thereafter sent military personnel to find and execute the pirates who kidnapped him. 3. His family claimed to trace their ancestry back to Venus, the goddess of love, fertility, and prosperity. 4. Caesar and Cleopatra had a son together. In the midst of a civil war in Egypt between Cleopatra and her co-ruler Ptolemy XIII, Caesar, and the much younger Cleopatra had arranged to meet. As a result of this meeting, Cleopatra bore a son whom the Egyptians called Caesarion, or little caesar. It is thought that Cleopatra poisoned her co-ruler, Ptolemy XIV, hoping to install Caesarion as co-ruler. 5. Before Julius Caesar’s rule, the Roman calendar was 355 days long. However, after receiving advice from an astronomer, Caesar added 10 days to the calendar, making it 365 days long. 6. Along with changing the calendar year, Caesar intuited the implementation of leap years. Since the solar year is technically 365.25 days long, he added a leap year every four years to make up the difference. 7. He was the first Roman official to have his image minted on coins. He did this to assert his influence over Rome’s provinces and citizens. 8. Caesar’s name was not originally a title of authority. While he ruled, Rome was still a republic; however, the heir to his throne, Caesar Augustus, would take that title and use it to assert his monarchial power as Rome’s first emperor. 9. Caesar’s death was anything but peaceful. In 44 B.C., a coup of over 60 assailants who feared he would overthrow the Senate and institute tyrannical rule assassinated him. He endured 23 stab wounds before dying of a pierced aorta. 10. His subjects adored him. After Caesar's death, he left an inheritance of 300,000 sesterces (approximately $150,000 U.S. dollars) to every one of his citizens.
McLynn, a prolific historian with a body of work that includes a biography of Napoleon and a history of Britain’s 18th-century rise to global power, makes use of many contemporary sources for Marcus Aurelius such as Cassius Dios’ History of Rome and the Historia Augusta. He also culled useful information from contemporary coinage, statuary, and inscriptions.
McLynn argues that two particular events occupied much of the emperor’s reign. The first was the particularly devastating Antonine Plague of 165-180 AD; an outbreak brought to Rome by soldiers who had served in the Middle East. The second was his reluctant campaigns against German tribes threatening the empire’s northern frontier. For several years in the early 170s, Aurelius spent considerable time away from Rome conferring with his generals in the field. McLynn makes a convincing case that the drain on the empire’s coffers and its population were quite damaging. These events also sidetracked the emperor’s efforts early in his reign to conduct a massive public works program to restore a crumbling infrastructure.
Some historians consider Marcus Aurelius to be the archetypal example of a philosopher-king and one of the most enlightened rulers ever to ascend a throne. McLynn puts it well when he writes that although Aurelius was, “overwhelmed by circumstances mostly beyond the scope of any human being; even so he qualifies as the best-ever Roman emperor…” This emperor’s devotion to philosophy and particularly Stoicism shaped an already serious nature. McLynn covers in considerable detail how several ancient philosophers such as Socrates influenced young Aurelius. But it was the Stoic philosopher and teacher named Epictetus that had the most profound and lasting effect on a young Marcus.
Stoicism teaches its adherents to embrace fate, reason, and self-restraint. These are not the qualities normally associated with most Roman emperors, but McLynn provides ample evidence that Aurelius was unlike most Roman emperors. His thoughtful nature and deep-seated obligation to strive for justice drove him to treat subjects with fairness. We shouldn’t forget this was an era of absolute and arbitrary rule when rulers had the power of life and death over all their subjects. McLynn recounts how Aurelius spent a considerable amount of time hearing legal cases and attempting to adjudicate them fairly. Yet, he is quick to point out Aurelius was not without his faults. For example, the emperor, like many Romans who adhered to the traditional polytheism of the Olympian gods, saw Christianity as a grave and growing threat to the stability of the empire. Christians’ quiet confidence and zeal to attract new followers convinced Romans this growing Jewish sect was unique among the myriad counter-ideologies and religions of the day.
The intractable social, economic, and national security problems Aurelius faced during his reign frustrated his desire continuously to focus his attention on his study of philosophy. However, McLynn devotes a good amount of time explaining the importance of the book Aurelius wrote while he was campaigning against the German tribes. Meditations is a collection of notes, observations, and advice to himself about living according to Stoicism, as well as other ideas the emperor believed were helpful to him. McLynn includes several quotations from Meditations, including, “Never assume something’s impossible because you find it hard. You should recognize that, if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.” Aurelius did not intend to publish Meditations, but many people down the centuries have benefitted from its sage advice because others made it available. Almost 2,000 years later it is still in print, and modern readers find much in it that is relevant to them in their own century. Modern publishers sometimes market the book as a kind of self-help manual, but it is still regarded by scholars as a serious work that continues to be studied by historians and philosophers.
The extensive correspondence between a tutor named Fronto and a young Marcus has been the subject of debate among scholars since the letters were discovered in 1815. Some of the letters have been characterized as intimate and even as evidence of some form of romantic relationship. Amy Richlin makes this case in her 2006 book Marcus Aurelius in Love. McLynn dismisses this conclusion and maintains that the flowery language between the two reflects both the idioms of the 2nd century and the rhetoric lessons Fronto was teaching his young pupil.
McLynn has written a comprehensive portrait of one of the most significant people in Roman history. Many rulers of the era are known for their conquests and cruelty, but Marcus Aurelius stands above them as a man who tried to rule as a philosopher-king. McLynn emphasizes the tragedy that Aurelius’ reign was swamped by dire events that threatened the empire and forced him to become more a reluctant commander-in-chief than an enlightened statesman. While he may overstate Marcus Aurelius’ contemporary relevance a bit, it is true that like Homer, Aurelius is one of the few ancients still widely read today.
Charles Darwin (1809–1882) laid the foundations of evolutionary biology through the process of natural selection, which he outlined in his seminal work, On the Origin of Species.John Darnton is a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and best-selling novelist who has worked for The New York Times for over 40 years. His many books include Neanderthal, The Experiment, Mind Catcher, The Darwin Conspiracy, and most recently Black & White and Dead All Over Again. He joins us on Culture Insight to share his insight into the life and work of Charles Darwin.
1. Designer and architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris was born in Switzerland in 1887, but re-named himself Le Corbusier in the early 1920s, at a time when it was in vogue for creative folk to be known by one name. It was an homage to his grandfather, Lecorbésier.
2. Le Corbusier might have changed his name as a result of his starting a review called L'Esprit Nouveau with his friends, fellow artist Amédée Ozenfant and poet Paul Dermée. It was Ozenfant who started the Purism movement with Le Corbusier, which was meant to expand the artistic realm beyond Cubism and Dadaism.
3. After WWI, Le Corbusier took a job working with his architect cousin, Pierre Jeanneret. Though interested in architecture and design, he had chosen to spend the previous years perfecting his skills as a fine artist. When he finally broke out on his own, he became part of an architectural movement known as International Style.4. After World War II, Le Corbusier helped re-build France—with style. “Unité d'habitation” (1952) was a housing project that was much more than utilitarian. Modeled after the Greek Parthenon, he thought of each room as an artistic endeavor and even brought his friend Pablo Picasso in to admire it.
5. “Dom-ino” was the name given to a new method of steel-point supports Le Corbusier introduced with his “Oeuvre complete” style of architecture, which allowed for more open spaces in his designs.
7. Clearly, he wasn't striving for perfection. One of his most famous sayings was: “Decoration always hides a mistake in construction.”
8. Despite Le Corbusier's belief that a “house was a machine for living,” he made every effort to bring nature into the home to create a more humanistic effect.
9. Le Corbusier considered space, light, and order to be three essentials of life, having described them as “the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.” His desire to achieve the ultimate, orderly life was The Radiant City, designed to give its residents the most efficient living experience. This included, at Le Corbusier's suggestion, the women staying in the home, and a daycare center where children could be raised by scientifically trained caretakers.
10. When he died in 1965, the trend was a shift away from Modernism, a movement Le Corbusier had worked so hard to support. With 60 buildings erected during his life and 76 books written about his work, some consider him the most influential architect of the modern movement.
When climbing a mountain, it’s best to have a sherpa to aid your ascent, serving as a guide, helping you focus on the breathtaking views, and avoiding getting lost along the way. The landscape of Shakespeare’s works has attracted countless guides, many of them just as invaluable as their mountain-scaling brethren. Listed below are four such guides, each offering a vista that makes the experience of Shakespeare richer than a solo journey is likely to be.
Shakespeare, by Gabriel Egan, part of the Edinburgh Critical Guides series, opts for selectivity rather than comprehensiveness, focusing on a handful of the Bard’s plays. Egan, professor of Shakespeare Studies and Director of the Centre for Textual Studies at DeMontfort University (UK), is a prolific and highly respected critic of the period, and his knowledge of the context of Shakespeare’s plays is impressively displayed throughout the book, which has separate chapters on the comedies, histories, tragedies, and the problem plays and romances. General readers will get the most from the wide-ranging introduction, with an especially good discussion of how theater companies formed during the Elizabethan era (Shakespeare was, after all, a businessman, and this discussion of the business side of theater is a good counter-balance to the iconic “poetic genius” that we’ve been bequeathed.)
In the discussion of individual plays, however, the reader should be prepared to deal with some thoughtful-but-academically-inflected prose. References abound to “transformative quasi-theatrical events” and “the contradictory conditions of nascent bourgeois ideological practice within a framework of political repression.” As an example:
In the long term, an unhealthy society cannot survive, as Marxist critic Terry Eagleton quoted Freud observing: “A civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them to revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.” It is important to realize that we are here still in the conceptual domain mapped out by Plato.”
Marx, Eagleton, Freud, and Plato all have important things to say, of course, but sometimes it can seem like Shakespeare himself is getting shouldered out of the discussion. Still, for those already conversant with the critical contours of the plays under consideration, the book offers a valuable excavation through the bedrock layers of some of Shakespeare’s work.
Sometimes a fly-over can yield as valuable a perspective as a close-up inspection. Such is the comprehensive approach of Emma Smith’s The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare, a book that “does not assume any prior knowledge. Instead, it develops ways of thinking and provides the reader with resources for independent research.” The Cambridge Introductions are always useful, and Smith’s contribution to the series represents a perfect match between subject and author. A Fellow and Tutor in English at Hertford College, University of Oxford, Smith is an eminent Elizabethan scholar (her lectures on Shakespeare have even been released as a podcast). She knows how to break down complex ideas into clear and helpful language. The seven chapters of the book cover most of the essentials (though a bit more biography and history of the period might be useful to the Shakespeare newbie). But, as Smith notes in her introduction, the book “engages less with facts than with critical approaches to Shakespeare.”
The opening chapter focuses on what for many readers is Shakespeare’s prime legacy: his characters. Hamlet, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Falstaff—these and dozens of others are what many readers of the plays most remember. And their qualities have become a sort of shorthand for modern pop-psychologizing: we know what it means to label someone an “Iago” (opportunistic, scheming, treacherous) or a “Romeo” (romantic, impulsive, idealistic). Smith notes “The first appreciations of Shakespeare tended to praise his characterization above all other aspects of his work.” But she also explores the modern propensity to see Shakespeare’s characters as real people, reminding us that “Shakespearean characters are writing first, people second.” Her insights into character are always helpful, and often quite pithy, as when she discusses how the works are seen by some as poetry rather than scripts to be performed: “Poems don’t tend to come over very well on the stage; people do.”
She offers a very detailed discussion of the sometimes-chewy subject of the transmission of the texts through various editors and editions, and how the plays finally made it into the printed versions we have today (and why these versions differ—often markedly—from one another). Her deep consideration of the textual questions that surround the Shakespearean canon is so informed that one can’t but be a little disappointed that she never even mentions the authorship controversy—the quarrelsome but persistent debate that some scholars still regard with seriousness.
Throughout the book, Smith’s lucidity never desserts her, even in the somewhat technical issue of how the five-act plays are structured, and what elements comprise a comedy, or a tragedy, or the subdivisions of those categories into “problem plays.” Smith states simply: “If things end up better than when you started out, at least for the central character, the world is a comic one; it’s a tragedy where they are getting worse.”
Any author confident enough to start a discussion of Shakespeare by bringing up the O.J. Simpson trial probably deserves a reader’s ear. Such is the case with Laurie E. Maguire’s Studying Shakespeare: A Guide to the Plays. The book reads like a series of really engaging lectures on the plays, a kind of Shakespeare 101, aimed at an audience of undergraduates (or those who wish they had paid more attention as undergraduates). Maguire, professor of English at Magdalen College, Oxford, deserves great credit for connecting the dots between Shakespeare and the modern reader. She doesn’t stint on historical discussions of the period—she knows the terrain very well—but she is good at analogies that make the past come alive in the present. Not for her the lamentable trend in some quarters of academia to relegate Shakespeare to the dust bin of Western Culture. In fact, she finds the Bard more necessary than ever—and not just in the classroom:
This book is also a defense of Shakespeare’s relevance in a century in which his place in the curriculum is increasingly challenged, and so, by extension, a defense of the relevance of literature to our lives today. In a recent survey of 700 senior business leaders, 55 percent chose fiction or poetry rather than a book on business or management as the work that most influenced their career.
The book is comprised of chapters bunched under some useful themes, such as “Private Life: Shakespeare and Selfhood,” “Marital Life: Shakespeare and Romance,” and “Real Life: Shakespeare and Suffering.” Every heading comprises individual chapters on the plays, each tied in some way to the theme under consideration. Elements that would be potentially lost by limiting individual plays as representative of certain themes are more than offset by the careful discussion of each work as an example of some enduring component of the human enterprise, often distilled in simple yet profound utterances, as when she addresses the idea of mourning in Hamlet: “Life has 100% mortality. This is the message Claudius gives Hamlet at their first meeting in the play.”
David Bevington, editor of one of the most widely used and reader-friendly editions of Shakespeare (the single-volume Longman edition, usually referred to by academics simply as “The Bevington”) has amassed a small mountain of work on the towering Shakespeare. His book, Shakespeare’s Ideas: More Things in Heaven and Earth, reads more like a reflective fireside chat after a mountain climb rather than a Baedeker guide to the terrain.
Bevington adopts an almost avuncular tone, his book reflecting “a lifetime of reading and teaching and intellectual conversation.” His insights are so deeply informed yet so congenially dispatched that one senses the lifelong learning and thinking processes that went into their formation. Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, Bevington explores in this work the idea of Shakespeare as a great thinker, regardless of whether he was “learned or not” in philosophy, for “the plays and poems are full of ideas.”
And the range of ideas he considers reveals a myriad-mindedness worthy of his subject, ranging from religion and politics to sex and gender, and even acting. (“What does it mean to say that acting is an imitation? … What styles of acting can best achieve theatre’s function of holding the mirror up to nature? These things seem to matter greatly to Shakespeare.”)
Though the book will certainly be of interest to readers who (to borrow a phrase from the First Folio), the most able to him that can but spell, those with a long-simmering acquaintance with the Bard will likely find the work most illuminating, as it deals with some famous—and long-standing—issues that have been dissected by readers and critics of the plays for four centuries. But one will also find some unexpected critical epiphanies along the way, as in this final chapter dealing with the idea of closure in Shakespeare:
It is as though Shakespeare works his way through a dialectic of thesis and antithesis toward synthesis. In an artistically self-aware gesture, he seems interested in how a play ends and how a writer’s career should end. Shakespeare seems to be summing up what it means to be a person, a man, a husband and father, a writer, a dramatist.
In other words, a grand summing up by a master—which could also be said of Bevington’s book.
Thanks to his groundbreaking work in logic, the philosophy of mind, mathematics, and language, as well as two published works, Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) played a leading role in the 20th-century analytic philosophy.Jaakko Hintikka was Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. Author of over 30 books, he was the main architect of game-theoretical semantics and of the interrogative approach to inquiry, and also one of the architects of distributive normal forms, possible-worlds semantics, tree methods, infinitely deep logics, and the present-day theory of inductive generalization. He joins us on Culture Insight to share his insight into the life and work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
When the great Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős died in 1996 at 83, he left behind a staggering body of work. With nearly 1,500 academic articles to his credit—by far the most extensive publishin...
The Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) was one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. His career spanned from the early twentieth century, when he composed ballets inspired by Russian myth and the era's revived interest in distinctly Russian culture, to the experimentation in compositional styles that followed the Second World War. Though born in the nineteenth century, he lived and worked long enough to see his works inspire progressive rock music, just as he himself had been inspired by earlier masters like Bach and Tchaikovsky. His importance in the history of music is unquestionable.John Heiss is an active composer, conductor, flutist, and teacher. He is the Director of the Contemporary Ensemble at New England Conservatory, where he teaches in the flute, chamber music, composition, music history, and music theory departments. He joins us on Culture Insight to share his insight into the life and work of Igor Stravinsky. RECOMMENDED [table id=43 /]
Simply Charly: Your book John Coltrane: His Life and Music published in 2000 is widely regarded as the definitive biography of Coltrane. One critic praised it as “a triumphant labor of scholarship,” while another called it “the most reliable source of information on his music.” How much research went into your book before it was finally published? Lewis Porter: Thank you. I had an epiphany one day in 1978 while listening to A Love Supreme for the umpteenth time. I decided then that I had to write about Coltrane’s music. Some years later, I decided to research his life as well. The book was published at the end of 1997. So I worked on it off and on for 19 years! Of course, I did many other things during those years as well, including raising two kids, completing other books, teaching music full-time, etc. SC: And what do you think sets it apart from other Coltrane biographies? LP: I’m reluctant to brag, so let me simply point out that I am the only Coltrane biographer, and one of the only jazz biographers, who is both a professional jazz performer (pianist) and a trained researcher (Ph.D. in music history). This background helps tremendously. By the way, your international readers will be interested to know that the book is available in French, Italian, and Russian translations. And I’m posting my current research on Coltrane—as well as Billie Holiday, Tatum, Monk, and many others—every week in my newsletter on Substack. SC: One of the main reasons you cite for producing a new biography on Coltrane is the paucity of comprehensive and reliable ones. Why do you suppose that there haven’t been good biographies for such a towering jazz figure? LP: It is rather peculiar that immediately following John Coltrane's passing in 1967, there were no biographies dedicated to his life. It wasn't until 1975 that the first two were published. However, this absence of reliable biographies extends beyond Coltrane and permeates the jazz realm at large. Fortunately, in recent years, we have witnessed the emergence of notable works such as Robin Kelley's insightful biography on Monk and Aidan Levy's comprehensive tome on Sonny Rollins. Yet, there still remains a plethora of hastily assembled books lacking thorough research and lacking a cohesive vision of effective organization. SC: Jazz critic Ben Ratliff has said of Coltrane that “he is one of the five or so major figures of jazz whose playing you still routinely hear through the instruments of younger musicians; both in his sound and in his intellectual rigor, he was the next great saxophone icon after Charlie Parker.” Why do you think he has resonated with so many young players? LP: By about 1960, he showed a way forward that no longer relied upon Charlie Parker. His playing was so rich that it opened up many avenues to explore. One could choose just one of Coltrane’s many innovations and explore it for a lifetime. And that’s exactly what many musicians did. And of course, his influence went far beyond saxophonists. But what especially is appealing about his music is that he functioned on the highest possible level with his whole being—intellectually, technically, and emotionally. It’s inspiring to all musicians. SC: Your book delves into Coltrane's collaborations with other jazz legends such as Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. How did these collaborations shape Coltrane's music, and what did he bring to these musical partnerships? LP: Of course, that could be a book in itself. In brief, his interviews reveal that he highly respected both of them, but felt closer and safer with Monk personally. He once said that he felt he had to tiptoe around Miles because of his tendency to get angry. Nevertheless, it was Miles who encouraged him to go into modal music, which, of course, became a signature for him. And before that, it was Monk who allowed him to explore the very limits of the saxophone and of harmonic complexity, often without piano accompaniment behind him. SC: One of the many fascinating details uncovered in your book is how Coltrane appropriated ideas from existing works for some of his compositions. For example, one of his best-known compositions Impressions was directly lifted from a Morton Gould composition entitled Pavanne. This is impressive detective work on your part. How did you stumble upon this little-known aspect of Coltrane’s music? And can you cite other examples of his compositions that are taken directly from others? LP: One thing about research is that you cannot do it on a schedule. You never know when you're going to discover something. In the case of “Impressions,” I have to say that that was out there in the air. There were musicians who knew about the Morton Gould connection. But I recently discovered that Coltrane got the title for “Impressions” from Erroll Garner, which nobody knew before. There are many more examples like this in my newsletter at Substack, including the origins of “Spiritual” and “Big Nick.” Soon I’ll be posting about the origins of “India” and “Ogunde.” I'm currently looking for the source of his piece “Africa,” so wish me luck on that one! SC: One of Coltrane’s landmark recordings was his 1960 album entitled Giant Steps. The album exemplifies Coltrane’s signature “sheets of sound” and penchant for chromatic third relations. Can you elaborate on these two devices found in his music? LP: Jazz critic Ira Gitler was also an amateur saxophonist, and he coined the expression “sheets of sound” simply to refer to long, flowing lines up and down the saxophone made up of 16ths or even faster notes. The interesting thing is that Coltrane not only accepted this phrase—unlike most musicians who reject things that critics say—but he came up with his own meaning for it. He wrote in 1960 that he did not think it applied to all fast runs, but only runs that suggested a variety of tonal centers very quickly, one after the other. Given that, you would think that both Gitler and Coltrane would have applied it to the title piece of “Giant Steps,” since the whole point of that song was to move through a lot of tonal centers very quickly. But because Coltrane solos on it almost entirely in eighth notes, neither he nor Gitler considered that to be an example of sheets of sound. Coltrane used sheets of sound more during the year 1958 than at any other time in his life. SC: The album which brought Coltrane widespread fame was his 1961 release entitled My Favorite Things. It was the first time he was featured playing the soprano saxophone. How did this change in instrumentation affect his sound and style, and what impact did it have on his career moving forward? LP: Coltrane said in a 1966 interview that he was well aware that he played differently on soprano. Whereas the tenor saxophone was what he called "the power horn,” on the soprano he tended to play, appropriately, sprightly, and with winding lines. It has not been noted that when he began his contract with Impulse Records, they explicitly pressured him to come up with another soprano saxophone hit like “My Favorite Things.” It never happened, but when A Love Supreme became a far bigger hit they realized that you just can't plan or manufacture that type of success. https://youtu.be/ehYM_cg2DHI SC: In your book, you examine the spiritual and philosophical influences on Coltrane's music, particularly his later works such as A Love Supreme. How did these influences shape his music, and how did they reflect his personal beliefs and experiences? LP: It is probably not fair to try to answer this in a paragraph. But I will say that beginning around 1957 Coltrane was interested in getting out of his strictly Christian upbringing and exploring all possible spiritual beliefs and practices. A Love Supreme was very explicitly non-denominational, and without a doubt, that's the direction that Coltrane was moving in toward the end of his life. As far as how that is reflected in his music, he had a very particular sense of what spiritual music sounded like—a slow introduction, modal open-ended structures, vamps, and chant-like melodies. In my Substack newsletter, I posted an essay on his spirituality with the provocative title, “Coltrane did not want to be a saint.” SC: Coltrane's music often pushed the boundaries of traditional jazz structures and forms. How did he innovate and experiment with the conventions of jazz, and what impact did this have on the genre as a whole? In your opinion, what is Coltrane's most significant contribution to jazz music, and why do you think his music continues to resonate with audiences today? LP: As far as his contribution musically, he showed by his own work, that is, by doing, that an open mind and an interest in everything can contribute to one’s musical art. We jazz musicians do not have to be bound by the idea that we can only draw upon the “jazz tradition.” Anything and everything can be incorporated into this musical art. Beyond that, he persuasively and successfully made the case that pursuing one’s goals as a jazz performer is just as meaningful as any and all other artistic endeavors. He helped to get rid of the idea that it was a pursuit only fit for dingy nightclubs and that it had to be accompanied by a sort of questionable lifestyle. He famously “cleaned up his act.” In this, he had a positive impact not only on the musicians and their attitude towards what they were doing, but to the whole attitude of society towards jazz and jazz artists.
Divorced from Carol shortly after the triumph of Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck married Gwyndolyn “Gwyn” Conger. During their fraught union, torn apart by the drinking and affairs of both husband and wife, Steinbeck seemed to lose his way as a writer. With his third marriage to Elaine Scott (divorced wife of actor Zachary Scott), Steinbeck recovered his equilibrium. While Elaine did not offer the kind of critical eye that Carol brought to Steinbeck’s career, she became an enthusiast that bolstered his later career efforts with novels such as the epic East of Eden (1952) and the charming Travels with Charley (1962). Souder tells the story of Steinbeck’s marriages with sensitivity and acuity, observing an ebullient Elaine who I met in 1995 when she was enthusiastically touting Jay Parini’s biography.
William Souder, author of biographies of John James Audubon and Rachel Carson, is a natural to take on the life of a writer so immersed in the biology and ecology of human existence. When I reviewed Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of Birds of America (2014), I praised Souder’s “fresh, unsentimental, and complex view of his subject.” I can say the same of Mad at the World, which captures a relentless writer of protest literature. Susan Shillinglaw in these pages (“The Migrant’s Tale”) identifies Steinbeck’s enduring legacy as his concern with the “down and out,” in timeless stories of the “marginalized” that are “still a part of our history. Steinbeck asks us to understand, empathize.” Steinbeck elevated the lives of common men and women, the workers and inhabitants of Cannery Row in the Monterey fisheries and in the Salinas Valley, including the so-called Okies and others who streamed into California from dust bowl Oklahoma and other states during the Depression looking for the land of milk and honey. The figure of Tom Joad, played to perfection by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, ennobled and some would say sentimentalized the power of the people.
Souder sees Steinbeck’s empathy growing out of his powerful bond with the land, which becomes in both Steinbeck’s work and in Souder’s a living organism, almost a character. Steinbeck’s greatest work, Grapes of Wrath, begins: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.” Only a thin crust is left, we learn, from all the plowing that has destroyed the ecology of the land, and the soil will blow away like the lives of the farmers bulldozed out of homes they can no longer afford, so that they see in their hard journey to California another start, another home but are treated as contemptible refugees and exploited labor. Here is the first paragraph of Mad at the World:
A natural inevitability saturates Souder’s prose as he describes Steinbeck’s own lament for a life that cycled through itself like the seasons, sometimes making him feel as displaced as the characters he created.
In the California winter, after the sun is down and the land has gone dark, the cool air slips down the mountainsides that flank the great Central Valley, settling over the fields and tules below. When conditions are right, the night air forms a fog so dense that you cannot see your own feet on the ground. These fogs can last for days, and sometimes fill all 450 miles of the valley.
In Souder’s biography, Steinbeck moves about in search of places to live and write with the fog following him: “The warm sun in LA, which was so different from the damp and fog up north, made Steinbeck happy. . . . After months of shifting from one temporary home to the next in Los Angeles, it was a relief to be back in the little cottage on Eleventh Street. Pacific Grove was cool and foggy and felt lush compared to Southern California.” Inner and outer realities become biological in novels like Of Mice and Men as they do in Souder’s biography: “Steinbeck said there was a fog and a wet wind over the peninsula that seemed almost to be coming from inside his head.”
What makes Steinbeck so appealing is his unity of purpose in portraying the inside and outside of ourselves. So long as we are sentient beings, I don’t see how any sniping critic can take that Steinbeck away from us. Understanding that bond with readers also endows Souder’s biography with great unity of purpose. The scenes set on Cannery Row in Monterey, where Steinbeck’s close friend and collaborator on Sea of Cortez, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, had his lab, become extensions of that fog forming the first paragraph of Souder’s biography: “Visitors to the lab loved its narrow view of the ocean and the sounds of the waves breaking against the pilings and sea lions barking and the distant tolling of bell buoys through the fog late at night as Ricketts and his friends talked and drank beer into the wee hours.”
Souder knows exactly how much to say and when to let Steinbeck alone to do the work, quoting this passage from Tortilla Flat:
The night came down as they walked into the forest. Their feet found the pine-needle beds. Now Pilon knew it for a perfect night. A high fog covered the sky, and behind it the moon shone, so that the forest was filled with a gauzelike light. There was none of the sharp outline we think of as reality. The tree trunks were not black columns of wood, but soft and unsubstantial shadows. The patches of brush were formless and shifting in the queer light. Ghosts could walk freely tonight, without fear of the disbelief of men; for this night was haunted, and it would be an insensitive man who did not know it.
What to say about such a beautiful passage? Souder marks the telling phrase with italics: “Without fear of the disbelief of men” and then adds: “words that describe what every writer longs for.”
Souder does not quarrel with Steinbeck’s critics—or rather he measures his words against only the best of them, Edmund Wilson, who “would not surrender himself to Steinbeck, would never let himself believe freely in Steinbeck’s imagination or allow for the possibility that he simply did not understand Steinbeck’s world, which was so often cloaked in fog and hidden away in a far-off valley.”
Souder never makes excuses for Steinbeck, acknowledging the work that is weak, but the aim of his biography is to immerse us in Steinbeck’s world and in his imagination. So it is not surprising when we learn after living in New York, Steinbeck wanted to return to Monterey: “he missed the fog.” Sometimes in a panic about his work Steinbeck just “sat by the fire as the fog rolled in and the tolling of the bell buoy and the barking of sea lions sounded in the distance.” Steinbeck’s appeal is visceral, and so is Souder’s.
The uncanny quality of this biography runs right through to the last sentences: “Steinbeck told many stories, and many were told about him, including this one: A long time ago, late at night in the town of Salinas, California, a boy named Glenn Graves stirred in his sleep. He got up and walked in his pajamas to the window, rubbing his eyes. He looked out and saw curtains of fog hanging above Central Avenue. It was quiet. Nothing moved. But he could see across the way, to a window in the upstairs bedroom of the big house on the other side, and there was a light on in it.”