William Souder’s extraordinary new biography of John Steinbeck has thrown me back into my youth in ways I’d not imagined possible. I’ll explain in a moment. “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck” is a nuanced and scrupulous volume and it’s also a study in depth psychology without the turgid rhetoric of Jung and Freud–it’s a book about a life of ambitious heartbreaks. It is quite frankly one of the best biographies I’ve read in years ranking alongside Richard Ellmann’s “Oscar Wilde” and Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt” in its shrewd and empathetic treatment of the doubts and drives inside a creative human being.
Of my youth I’ll just say that between the ages of 22 and 27 I lived the driven torture of “the imagination” often hiding in lonely places just to afford the luxury of writing without income. All writers have these periods I think but Souder brings out the exquisite, clarifying, haunted precision of early seeing that hurts, fascinates, and ultimately makes one who’d deign to write. He brought back for me the loneliness of perception, the cold wind of it. One night at twenty I went out, got down on all fours in a cemetery and chewed the grass because Lorca said something about it in a poem. Yes I was blind. Yes the moon was up. Yes I was wildly alive.
“Mad at the World” is not a staid biography, it’s almost a nonfiction bildungsroman about a man who was richly alive with all the triumphs and tragedies inherent in a writing life. The cliche is “warts and all” but Souder gives us Steinbeck’s blemishes with the light and space to take them in:
“One of the mysteries of writing is how it sometimes happens in spite of everything. Many writers cannot bear distractions. Steinbeck, always brittle and impossible to be around when he was in the middle of a book, had been fiercely protective of his writing time, and nobody who knew him even a little dared interrupt him when he was working. Maybe being alone with his dying mother felt perversely like the kind of isolation he craved. Or perhaps he discovered at last that writing well is impervious to the noise and clamor of everyday life. It happens. Life (or death) taps you on the shoulder, interrupts what you’re doing, and suddenly you find that nobody has been bothering you but yourself. Indulgences disappear, instincts take over, mistrust of your own work fades, and the tendency toward self-doubt is carried away. And so it was with Steinbeck in that terrible time. He actually enjoyed himself while writing Tortilla Flat and the short stories that fell so easily onto his pages. It did not seem possible that this was the beginning of everything. But it was.”
One may say an open hand is nearly always empty but fate has other things to give and it’s sometimes a tenderness, an illuminated private station and Souder shows us how it worked for John Steinbeck. For my money this is one hell of a compelling book about a writer’s life, the lived life of the unaffiliated places inside.
One night, blind and alone in Helsinki, Finland I found a frozen spoon in the snow. I talked to it. Said: “we’re in equilibrium. It all balances.” It was snowing hard.
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