Book Review: Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Sounder

Before I start this review, I have to get something off my chest, because it rankles every time I see it. I can’t understand why the author of this biography titled it “A” life of John Steinbeck instead of “The” life of John Steinbeck. How many lives did Steinbeck live? After all, he wasn’t a cat; he didn’t have nine of them – just the one as far as I know. And I doubt that Sounder was considering a theory of alternate universes (fairly common in science fiction) in which there are an endless variety of John Steinbecks, each one of them a little bit different. I suppose that he or the publishers thought that since there were several biographies of Steinbeck already published, they would acknowledge that fact by their odd choice of title. Or maybe they figured that each biography about a person is a different interpretation of the life. If they thought that, they’re wrong. A biography is supposed to be nonfiction, not fiction based on fact. It is supposed to be accurate, at least as much as it is in the writer’s power.

All right, enough of the rant; let’s get to Steinbeck. John Steinbeck was one of the first writers that I deeply enjoyed, way back in high school. I was assigned to read his short novel The Pearl, and I liked it and sought out other books of his. I read the massive tomes The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, of course, but I liked even more his shorter works such as Cannery Row. Travels with Charley was a great read, and it made me want to get out on the road, which I eventually did. My favorite of Steinbeck’s books, though, which oddly enough is the one that Sounder is most dismissive of, was and is Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row. I loved that Steinbeck combined the gritty realistic and comedic feel of Cannery Row with a sweet love story.

The summer before last, two of my sons and I went on a literary road trip to northern California, and one of our stops was at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. It’s a great little museum with exhibits and displays arranged around his books. Later we drove to Monterrey and walked around Cannery Row and the rest of the waterfront. I haven’t read much Steinbeck in recent years, but on this trip I picked up a copy of Travels with Charley and reread it. It made me want to take off in a camper again. Go figure.

Anyway, despite my respect for Steinbeck as a writer, I had never read a biography about him, so I decided to check out this new one. It is well written and an interesting read. If anything, I would say that it is too short. It skims over portions of Steinbeck’s life, numerous portions in fact, about which I would have liked to have known more.

Steinbeck had the usual insecurities as a writer. He seldom thought that his work was good and usually read reviews, either good or bad, with apprehension and chagrin. He drank too much and smoked too much and often treated the people around him badly. Having five sons myself, I was especially disturbed by the descriptions of his frequent ill-treatment of his sons. Another thing that disturbed me was his lack of gratitude for his fame and fortune. He was an extremely popular writer, made a lot of money, and traveled extensively in his later years, and yet even these luxuries did not make him content. He was frequently moody, irritable, and abusive. As a struggling writer who works hard and hopes someday to break out into a measure of fame and financial security, I have little sympathy for someone who takes these things for granted and insists on clinging to a melancholy attitude regardless.

I have found, though, through studying the lives of famous people, that this is frequently the case. Steve Jobs, for example, was much more rich and famous but was also morose, frequently depressed, and abusive. It really is a truism that money can’t buy happiness.

Of course, we don’t read books about famous people because we expect to find solutions to our problems. In fact, most of the people I read about have (or had) far more problems than I do.

Before I close, I want to mention one of Steinbeck’s very good habits that he carried on throughout his entire life, and that is his schedule of writing every morning no matter what. There were gaps when he was ill or between projects, but for the most part he kept up his writing regimen. He had to write. His life revolved around it, and he did not feel fulfilled or satisfied unless he was working on something. That, at least, he and I have in common.

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