Jay Parini’s biography of John Steinbeck chronicles the life of one of America’s most beloved writers, a life of disappointments and paradoxes. Although Steinbeck was a prolific author, producing some twenty-six volumes of fiction and nonfiction, he never seemed satisfied with his achievement. Hard-drinking and depressive, driven by anxieties imprinted on his character by his parents, he vacillated between shyness and angry aggression, between conceited self-assertiveness and tortured self-doubt. To unravel the complicated knots of his life, Parini draws on the evidence contained in letters and in interviews with those who knew him. Unfortunately, the biography also relies on the trendy views of modern academe and sometimes degenerates into an exercise in detecting Steinbeck’s politically incorrect thinking.
Parini begins with a compelling psychological interpretation of the effects of childhood on Steinbeck’s adult life. Steinbeck was born February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California, to John Ernst and Olive Hamilton Steinbeck. He exhibited a lifelong fear of failure that Parini believes was caused by his father’s failure in business and his mother’s perfectionism. Steinbeck would never find satisfaction in success; he mistrusted it and deprecated his achievements. Parini notes a contradiction between his self-destructiveness and his ambition to achieve: “He both wanted and feared recognition and approbation; he sought them, and when they appeared, he did his best to resist them.” Considerable evidence throughout the biography supports Parini’s interpretation.
Parini’s sociological and political interpretations are less compelling. Steinbeck, it seems, was deplorably limited by his class and gender. He either tragically came to that realization or else held benighted and narrow views throughout his life. When he first went to Stanford University at age seventeen, he chafed at the role of traditional student and seemed purposely to defy his parents’ desire that he make something respectable of himself. He hobnobbed with a bohemian set of writers and lived in an apartment, the squalor of which he seemed to relish. Parini believes that his interest in the working class was also a kind of rebellion against his middle-class upbringing. A strong man, he took several manual labor jobs, and his experience would bear fruit in his portraits of working-class Mexicans and bindle stiffs such as Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men(1937).
These instances, coupled with the angry protest of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), indicate to Parini that Steinbeck had a crisis of guilt and revulsion about his middle-class upbringing: “What appalled him was that local bankers and businessmen, the class of people he in a sense came from, did everything they could to thwart the migrants, hoping to drive them back to the Dust Bowl.” One wonders about Parini’s helpful appositive. Did Steinbeck really associate himself with the wrong side in a class war, or feel guilty about it? This interpretation, lacking documentary evidence from letters or interviews, seems too neatly Marxian. For all of his association with the Left, Steinbeck probably had less exposure to Marxist thought than his biographer.
This effort to fit Steinbeck’s life into a Marxian paradigm occurs later in the biography as well. That Steinbeck had two sons and lived in a New York City brownstone is interpreted as a lapse into his deplorable middle-class upbringing: “For all his hatred of the bourgeoisie, this was after all the class he was born into; he felt comfortable in a large brownstone, with housekeepers, nurses, maids, and nannies.” Such an interpretation seems strained and condescending.
Steinbeck also fails to measure up to a 1990’s standard of correct thinking about gender. As books such as To a God Unknown (1933) and East of Eden (1952) attest, he was a writer who drew on the powerful myths of Western civilization. One of those was of the fall of humankind. Parini notes that female characters from Of Mice and Men and East of Eden serve as Eves, temptresses who ruin a male world of tranquillity. That Steinbeck would resort to these myths is, in Parini’s view, simply sexist. Parini also editorializes at the expense of Steinbeck’s expressions of love for his third wife. A few months before his death, as he contemplated leaving Elaine behind, Steinbeck wrote, “I love Elaine more than myself. Her well being and comfort and happiness are more important than my own. And I would go to any length to withhold from her any pain or sorrow that is not needful for her own enrichment.” Parini comments that this is “touching (if somewhat paternalistic).” Thus are the complexity of Steinbeck’s craft and the love of his wife reduced to fit into a politically correct paradigm.
Similarly, Steinbeck’s politics are examined, but only to measure the degree to which they correspond to a norm that is decidedly left of center. Both The Grapes of Wrath and the earlier In Dubious Battle (1936) were written in a political...
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