Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, John Steinbeck (1902–1968) was one of America’s most influential and prolific writers of the 20th century. Many of his books described the Depression-era hardships of the working class in his native California.
William Souder is the author of several acclaimed biographies, including Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America (2004)—a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (2012), and most recently Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck (2020).
Simply Charly: Do you feel your previous biographies of John James Audubon and Rachel Carson prepared you for writing about John Steinbeck?
William Souder: Sure. In a general sense, all writers learn, or should, from one book to the next. These lessons, which can be arduous, teach you to be a better researcher, to find a clearer voice, to forge a stronger connection with readers. But I suspect the question here is really more about whether there was anything specific about Audubon or Carson that was helpful to me in writing about Steinbeck. The answer is an emphatic yes with respect to Carson. Rachel Carson was deeply involved with the emergence of ecology in the middle years of the 20th Century—as both a science and as a frame of reference for preserving the natural order. The same was true of Steinbeck, particularly in 1951’s Sea of Cortez, which he co-authored with his great friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. In fact, Carson used Ricketts’s book about the intertidal zone, Between Pacific Tides, as a model for her third book about the ocean, The Edge of the Sea.
SC: What is it about Steinbeck that prompted you to write his biography?
WS: I’m interested in science, especially biology and ecology, in history and natural history, and in writers. So I look for subjects who embody these interests. Rachel Carson, for example, is regarded as the Godmother of the environmental movement. But she was first and foremost a writer who in her time was among the best-known and most beloved authors in the world. And it’s the same for Steinbeck, whose work remains widely read today. But there are many other factors that go into choosing whom to write about. Foremost for me is whether someone’s life is more than a chronology—whether it is also a story worth telling. My early career was in journalism, so storytelling is what I’m grounded in. And it’s what I believe makes a book compelling. I thought Steinbeck’s life was a wonderful story. He was a complex and imperfect man who saw enormous popular and financial success—not to mention his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature—but whose later life was a frustrating and at times demoralized struggle to live up to his earlier triumphs. Steinbeck could be, by turns, charming or abrasive. He stood up for the common people in his work, but often mistreated his own family. I was drawn to all this complexity, all the crosscurrents that made his life fascinating. You don’t have to love your subject, but you do have to love the story you can tell about your subject. It takes years to research and write a biography, so you want to be sure at the outset that you won’t lose interest as you go along. And Steinbeck, for all his faults and shortcomings, never let me down.
SC: Did it matter that other biographers had already grappled with your subject?
WS: That always matters. But it’s not a roadblock because there are different ways of telling the same story, different meanings to be found in a consequential life. And this is essential to the practice of biography, just as it is to the study of history. There is a constant churn and reassessment that comes with the territory. Steinbeck’s earlier biographers did admirable work, put down markers that all subsequent biographers must strive to live up to. But nobody gets the last word. As a practical matter, the two comprehensive biographies of Steinbeck had been around since 1984 and 1995. Apart from Susan Shillinglaw’s brilliant and more recent book about Steinbeck’s first marriage, he hadn’t been touched in a quarter-century. A new look at Steinbeck was overdue. And here’s one more thing: Because Steinbeck’s life had already been explored in detail, I was at liberty to tell the story again without the obligation to include every mundane detail. These things are rightly part of the record, but they don’t necessarily enhance the narrative. I don’t mean that my book is the result of simple subtraction—you can subtract from a block of stone with a chisel, but you won’t find a statue inside unless you can imagine one and know how to reveal it.
SC: Were there particular challenges in Steinbeck’s case—concerns you did not have with your other subjects?
WS: Steinbeck is tricky. Both Audubon and Carson completed their major works, the things for which they are remembered, near the end of their lives after a long climb from obscurity—a great convenience to me when I wrote about them. Their stories build to a natural conclusion. Steinbeck had his greatest success—with The Grapes of Wrath—at the age of thirty-seven. He lived and worked for another three decades, rich and famous but with only a shadow of his former brilliance. So his life did not translate into a story as easily as Audubon’s or Carson’s. I had to figure out how to make the second, duller phase of Steinbeck’s life as compelling as the earlier, more exhilarating part.
SC: Steinbeck’s fascination with the environment, biology, and ecology pervades his work, and of course he was influenced by marine biologist Ed Ricketts. How does that fascination and friendship with Ricketts inform both his life and work?
WS: As you suggest, Steinbeck’s interest in how the natural world works underpins much of his writing. It’s plainly the main subject in the Sea of Cortez, and it’s also a structural feature in The Grapes of Wrath, in Steinbeck’s depiction of the Joad family as a single biological entity armored against a hostile environment in the same way the tortoise seen at the beginning of the book is protected by its shell. One of my favorite passages in all of Steinbeck is in The Grapes of Wrath, when Ma Joad explains the difference between men and women. Men, she says—and I’m paraphrasing—are jangled by events, their passions inflamed by the jagged progress of life. Women, however, experience life more as if it were a river. The current is sometimes turbulent, but women go with the flow. What I think Steinbeck means, other than the obvious superiority of women, is that human ecology is accommodated in the natural world if we just let that happen.
SC: Biographies of literary figures are often criticized for either saying too much about the writer’s work and thus spoiling the narrative, or saying too little for readers who want a discussion of the writer’s work. How did you balance these competing elements of literary biography?
WS: By forgetting this problem. Seriously, I just tried to tell the story while commenting, I hope intelligently, on Steinbeck’s writing in a way that didn’t disrupt the momentum. True literary biography—the kind that delves deeply into the connections between the life and the work—is an art that can too easily fall into artifice. The risk is that the analysis becomes a protracted digression. Plus, one of the immutable rules of writing is that you should never pretend you know things that you don’t. Academic literary criticism is not what I do, and so I was careful to not attempt it. That said, I think you can closely inspect literature through your own response to it as a reader. For a number of years, I wrote film reviews. I think this was good training for writing a literary biography because I learned that the reader cares only slightly how the movie came to be, and is more interested in what it looks and sounds, and feels like. You can read about how Citizen Kane was made, but that’s not nearly as much fun as watching it. So what I tried to do in Mad at the World was to convey the essence of Steinbeck’s work as it comes off the page. If you read with an open mind, seeing what the text means comes naturally. I guess that’s my answer. I did what felt natural to me.
SC: Steinbeck married three times. You describe those marriages, although only the first one seems to have had a major impact on his writing. Why is that so?
WS: Carol Henning, Steinbeck’s first wife, was a gifted editor. And from the moment they met, when Steinbeck had yet to publish his first book, she believed in his talent and his commitment to writing. The timing was interesting—their life together began at the outset of the Great Depression. The struggle to get by strengthened their relationship, as did the community of writers and artists around Monterey who were all in the same boat. Broke and ambitious. I suppose all this was just luck—Steinbeck and Carol happened to meet, fell in love, and this culminated a decade later in The Grapes of Wrath, a book that Carol encouraged Steinbeck to write and then polished as she typed up the manuscript. Steinbeck insisted it was really Carol’s book. I think the disintegration of their marriage, which happened for reasons that nobody fully understands and commenced shortly after they’d finished The Grapes of Wrath, contributed enormously to the later decline in the quality of his work. He wasn’t the same writer without Carol. His second wife, Gwen, was a trophy—a glamorous, beautiful, much younger woman he could have because he was John Steinbeck, the acclaimed writer. Their marriage was a mess that was complicated by children whose presence seemed to annoy Steinbeck. The years with Gwen were sour and rife with regret, on both their parts. Wife number three, Elaine, was a confident, happy person content to be Steinbeck’s domestic rock. As I say in the book, Carol made Steinbeck a writer, Gwen made him crazy, and Elaine made him happy.
SC: At several points, you deal with Steinbeck’s obsession with Arthurian legend. Why was the legend so important to Steinbeck?
WS: When he was nine, one of Steinbeck’s aunts game him a copy of The Boy’s King Arthur, a simplified edition of Caxton’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Before then, he’d had trouble learning to read. But the story of King Arthur and his Roundtable captivated Steinbeck. He loved the archaic language, which he felt an affinity for that he believed was unique to him. And at the heart of the story was an idea that shaped his later life and work—the principle that those who wield power must stand for what is morally right. From an early age, Steinbeck hated bullies. No wonder he trained his anger on the big farm interests in California who exploited and yet despised the Dust Bowl refugees who poured into the state during the Depression. Years after that Steinbeck moved temporarily to rural England where he tried unsuccessfully to write an updated version of Arthur’s story. This was against nearly universal advice that it was a bad idea. Struggling, Steinbeck sent a pleading letter to his agent, trying to explain why he could never let go of the legend: “I believe in this thing,” he said. “There’s an unmistakable loneliness in it. There must be.” It was a strange way to put it, but I think it revealed something about Steinbeck that had always been present, a belief that everyone, ultimately, is alone in the world. He’s far from the only writer to ever think that, but Steinbeck shaped much of his work on the inverse proposition—that human behavior is a function of group dynamics—that we are the ecosystems we inhabit. And where’s the loneliness in that? Maybe the answer is that Steinbeck never got over the notion that the world would be a better place if it was protected by powerful knights and run by a benevolent king. That was Arthur’s world, a myth, a fantasy, an unattainable state of grace.
SC: Do you think there are aspects of Steinbeck’s work that are especially appealing or relevant to our times?
WS: Steinbeck’s Depression-era works—particularly Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath have an obvious resonance with some of the big issues of our time. Income inequality. Climate disaster. Homelessness. Forced human migration. It’s almost trite to argue that he’s relevant today. And it’s not really a necessary argument, since Steinbeck remains widely read. But let’s unpack this a little further. Literary works endure because we continue to relate to the stories they tell, the characters they bring to life, the glories and tragedies they depict. So I don’t think a literal bridge between older works and present-day reality is necessary to appreciate writers from earlier periods. If the words “To be or not to be” don’t make you at least a little uneasy—even though they’re more than 400 years old—well, you’re just not paying attention.
SC: Has Steinbeck led you to consider other subjects for biography?
WS: Oh yes. But I’m not telling.