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'Mad at the World': The mad life of John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck's troubled life is the subject of

John Steinbeck's troubled life is the subject of William Souder's new biography. Credit: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

MAD AT THE WORLD: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Souder (W.W. Norton, 464 pp., $32)

In his newest biography, the smart, soulful and panoramic "Mad at the World," William Souder paints a portrait of John Steinbeck as a loner who refined his craft through mature, dogged, self-punishing industry.

"Steinbeck eventually came to believe that you could not understand humankind by looking at individuals — any more than you could interpret a human being's behavior by looking at one of their cells," Souder explains. "The answers were all in the phalanx, the superorganism, the group unit." The phalanx, Steinbeck believed, is a repository of knowledge about all that humanity has endured, including, in his words, "destruction, war, migration, hatred, and fear."

Despite fame, the glamour of movie and stage adaptations, and a fortune that somehow still always left him scrambling at tax time, Steinbeck — tall, rugged, charismatic — was deeply troubled. As a father, he demonstrated a neglect bordering on abuse that echoed his distance from his own father, whose middle-class status was somewhat precarious and who always seemed to be at the office.

Steinbeck worked brief stints as a war correspondent in Africa and Europe during World War II and decades later, in a hawkish vein, in Vietnam. In the public's mind, and even more so in Steinbeck's own, Ernest Hemingway loomed large as a figure of comparison. Steinbeck might be considered a more American-centered version of Hemingway as Papa elbowed his way around the world.

Souder explores the very real possibility that their behaviors and depression as men in their 60s might have parallels as well — both likely from head trauma in their war reporting and other endeavors. "Ironically," Souder writes, "the only time he and Steinbeck met — at a bar in New York in the spring of 1944 — Hemingway had interrupted the otherwise dull evening by breaking a walking stick over his own head to prove he could."

Out of touch, Steinbeck endeavored to reacquaint himself with America in the charming and bogus "Travels With Charley," an early-1960s quest, with his wife Elaine's standard poodle, into the heartland. Published just six years before his death at age 66, the book masqueraded as reporting but was mostly another reach of the imagination. Steinbeck made the trek in defiance of doctors' orders after recovering from what was probably a stroke. His explanation drips with droll, self-sabotaging stubbornness:

"I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I've lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby."

The author remained humble before the phalanx of literature, as his characters are humbled by the phalanxes of life. Asked if he deserved the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature, he responded, "Frankly, no."

Steinbeck, of course, absolutely deserved the prize. He captured quintessentially American moments in indelible literary hues, from the demonic to the hopeless to the unstoppable. And Souder, in his own humble style, has brought a deeply human Steinbeck forth in all his flawed, melancholy, brilliant complication.

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