The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer
For the general reader, Jackson J. Benson’s massive and richly satisfying biography provides a trove of documented material, but for the specialist the book offers few important new insights and only one mystery. The mystery concerns the title itself: The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. In the commonly understood meaning of the word, Steinbeck’s life was hardly “adventurous,” at least in comparison with that, say, of Ernest Hemingway. To be sure, during World War II Steinbeck picked up a rifle and fought briefly in the Italian campaign, violating the stipulations of his journalist’s contract, yet his wartime services to the country, at least creditable and perhaps heroic, did not climax a life of rugged adventure. Nor were Steinbeck’s numerous sexual liaisons typical of the picaresque lover-adventurer. Basically monogamous, Steinbeck was on the whole a faithful husband to his three wives, although he neglected his first wife, Carol, toward the end of their decaying relationship. As for the writer’s casual affairs with a few Hollywood stars—or starlets—between marriages: His attachment to them was cautious, just as his youthful flings before his first marriage had been brief and inconsequential. Although Steinbeck traveled widely rather late in his life, beginning in the 1940’s, his view of the world was that of a tourist and reporter rather than that of an adventurer. In fact, he was a working journalist, or a part-time diplomat with a job to accomplish. By most tests of romantic adventure, one might argue that Steinbeck’s life was curiously flat: Not until the late 1930’s did he attain to a considerable popular reputation. During the years of his obscure toil as well as those three years of celebrity afterward, he resolutely fought for his privacy, eschewing as much as possible the adulation that often attaches to a famous writer. Nevertheless, in one respect Benson’s title accurately describes the focus of his biography. Steinbeck’s adventures were those of a writer. In his craft as an artist he experienced the true adventures of his spirit. According to Benson, Steinbeck “didn’t write for fame, although occasionally he enjoyed being famous; he didn’t write for money, although there were times when he needed money; he wrote because he loved to write, because he was addicted to it.”
Stated so simply and directly, the biographer’s statement appears to be a truism applicable to many, perhaps most, serious artists. After all, George Orwell’s famous description (in “Why I Write”) of the reasons why a writer undertakes the labors of composition seems to cover all possible points: to revel in sheer egotism, to express aesthetic enthusiasm, to follow some historical impulse in order to store up facts for posterity, or to serve as partisan for a political purpose. None of these reasons quite covers Steinbeck’s case. As Benson views the writer, he did not work for any of these reasons, although he certainly had an ego to express, certainly enjoyed describing beautiful (or terrible) subjects, certainly wished—in most of his novels—to mirror the sociopolitical images of his time, and certainly professed beliefs that he needed to give form. None of these reasons, however, Benson helps the reader to understand, fully explains Steinbeck’s devotion to the hard work of creating literature. “What he cared about,” Benson says, “was writing itself.” To Steinbeck, living was less intense than writing.
For such a person—a type rare even among the most compulsive of authors—the activities of a lifetime are adventures only to the extent that they allow him source material as well as time for reflection and composition. So from a certain point of view—the reader’s point of view—the external episodes of Steinbeck’s life are far less interesting than those internal struggles that shaped his craft. These internal forces, however, remain mostly hidden, despite the great weight of documentation that Benson brings to bear on his subject. To be sure, the fault is not the biographer’s. Steinbeck was, on the whole, reluctant to discuss with others or reveal in print the matter of his creative struggles. Throughout his long, stubborn years of apprenticeship, culminating at last with the critical and popular successes in the 1930’s of Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Long Valley (1938), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Steinbeck changed very little from his essential nature. Somewhat more genial in social relations, somewhat more controlled in his manners, more assured, he nevertheless rejected, for the most part, the glamorous values that often go with success. Fame and money allowed him greater scope to travel, to meet and influence people in a wider stratum of society—including his friend Adlai Stevenson and American presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, yet the later years of his life failed to...
(The entire section is 2035 words.)