In 1937, John Steinbeck began to be disturbed by unannounced visitors at the small cottage north of Monterey that he shared with his wife Carol. Steinbeck had just published “Of Mice and Men,” which he wrote at the kitchen table beside an open wood stove during the daylight hours, because the kerosene lamp gave him eyestrain. They had no telephone; when the stage play Steinbeck adapted with George S. Kaufman premiered on Broadway, he and Carol had to drive five miles to a neighbor’s house to hear how it was received. The sudden appearance of fans at his front door upended their spartan, happily impoverished life. Steinbeck built walls around the property and removed the sign with his name at the entrance. Zeppo Marx tried to reach him and Steinbeck refused to get back in touch. But he was sufficiently awed when Charlie Chaplin showed up one day in a stretch limo. They got along well, though Chaplin thought it strange that the Steinbecks didn’t have maids to do the cleaning.
As William Souder recounts in his biography “Mad at the World,” this was the start of Steinbeck’s painful transition “from struggling writer to Great Man of Letters.” It’s common enough to read about authors whose lives are at odds with their work, but has there ever been one so profoundly in conflict with his own popularity? Steinbeck is one of America’s few bona fide literary celebrities—perhaps only Twain and Hemingway enjoyed more international renown—yet he was horrified by public exposure and detested his fame, taking every opportunity to undermine it. Two clashing impulses provide the tension in Mr. Souder’s book: Steinbeck’s deep-seated distrust of success and the unyielding creative passion that brought his success about. As he was fending off admirers in the wake of “Of Mice and Men,” Steinbeck was also engrossed in his next book, a big, ambitious novel about Dust Bowl migrants that would spell the end of his remaining hopes for anonymity.
Like so much of Steinbeck’s life, the road to writing “The Grapes of Wrath” is marked by a refreshing lack of pretense. Born in 1902 in Salinas, Calif., he led an introverted childhood passed mostly in solitude in the natural world. Mr. Souder writes that his interest in books arrived with the force of a religious conversion at age 9, when a relative gave him a young-adult version of Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur.” From then on he read and wrote voraciously, drawn especially to mythology and legends, an affinity he would never outgrow.
Some writers are content to write nothing until they have something they need to say. Steinbeck was the opposite. From early on, writing was an addiction, a raison d’être: “[He] could no more stop writing than a fruit tree could stop bearing,” Mr. Souder says. He worked incessantly in his knockabout youth, moving from Stanford to New York to a hand-to-mouth, bohemian life with Carol back in California, but he lacked a compelling subject. His first novel, “Cup of Gold,” about the pirate Henry Morgan, is a boys’ adventure yarn that was repeatedly rejected and then, once published, ignored and quickly remaindered. He labored for years on “To a God Unknown,” a curious fable about animism, and he even tried his hand at a murder mystery. The impression Mr. Souder gives of these wilderness years is of a man who felt comfortable being overlooked. “I have come to be a complete fatalist about money,” he said in a letter in 1931. “Even the law of averages doesn’t hold with me. Any attempt to get me any kind of an award is pre-doomed to failure. Furthermore I seriously doubt my brand of literature will ever feed me.” Marriage, stimulating friendships, the companionship of dogs and the daily struggle with what he called the “sharp agony of words”—it made for a noble kind of penury.
If ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ were only a protest it would be respected but not beloved. It’s the epic romance that draws us in.
But once Steinbeck focused his writing on his native California, in books like “The Pastures of Heaven” and “Tortilla Flat,” he acquired a reputation as a regionalist. As well as being obsessively disciplined, he was a world-class listener, and many of his stories and ideas were openly borrowed from acquaintances. The most influential friend was the charismatic marine biologist Ed Ricketts, whose avatar would appear in no fewer than three of Steinbeck’s books. It was Ricketts who put him on to the philosophical theory of the phalanx, a version of biological determinism premised on the idea that the needs of groups rather than of individuals dictate human behavior, as with schools of fish or colonies of coral.