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Liking Steinbeck

ISSUE:  Winter 1996

John Steinbeck: A Biography.
By Jay Parini. Henry Holt. $30.00.

Steinbeck didn’t much—like Steinbeck. Well into his forties he remained self-dismissive. As a young man his chosen emblem was Pigasus, the flying pig. Sensitive about his appearance— the protruding ears, hulking upper body, Oil Can Harry mustache, and, later, pointy goatee—he likened himself to the devil. “Don’t you go liking people, Jim. We can’t waste time liking people.” Mac issues this warning in the novel In Dubious Battle. “Most people do not like themselves at all,” Steinbeck wrote in his eulogy for friend Ed Ricketts. “They distrust themselves, put on masks and pomposities. They quarrel and boast and pretend and are jealous because they do not like themselves. But mostly they do not even know themselves well enough to form a true liking.”

Jay Parini quotes these sentences in his new biography of Steinbeck. Written in an engaged and economical style, this is a book that likes its subject. It comes in at under half the length of Jackson Benson’s authoritative The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, and it exceeds in every regard the first stab at a biography undertaken by Thomas Kiernan’s The Intricate Music. While it does contain some new material—a good four pages on first wife Carol’s attraction to Joseph Campbell, for instance—Parini has not written a scholarly book. Benson’s massive research provides, instead, the foundation for a writer’s appreciation of a fellow writer.

“Like many men who consider themselves “ugly,” Steinbeck was dependent on women.” This sentence reveals Parini’s method as well as his central theme. He allows the details of Steinbeck’s story to provoke him into a kind of generalizing wisdom, and he focuses these claims around the issue of self-esteem. Although the story Parini tells is, for the most part, a familiar one, his open sympathy foregrounds Steinbeck’s effort toward acceptance of self, one gained through the twin challenges of writing and marriage.

Steinbeck’s first marriage to Carol Henning began to turn bad in the middle thirties. In 1932, Carol initiated and then broke off the affair with Campbell. In 1933, Steinbeck’s parents began their long day’s dying, and both Carol and John spent many weeks in the next two years caring for them. Carol grew restless in the role, while Steinbeck, according to Parini, “was unable to recover his trust” in Carol in the wake of the affair. Meanwhile, Steinbeck wrote ferociously. He finished To a God Unknown in the summer of 1933 and quickly began work on “The Red Pony” as well as many of the stories that would fill out The Long Valley. That fall he wrote three-quarters of Tortilla Flat in a month. Olive Steinbeck died in February 1934. John finished Tortilla Flat during the following month and then began a novel about a strike in an apple orchard. He completed In Dubious Battle by February 1935 and described it as a book about “self-hate.” John’s father died in late May, five days before the publication of Tortilla Flat, the book that was to make him his first real money and to make his name.

The price of this ordeal of achievement—Steinbeck’s periods of creativity were typically intense and intermittent—was the loss of the first marriage, although Carol and John would patch things together until separating in 1941. In 1943 he married Gwendolyn Conger, a decision he later described as a mistake from the start. In 1948 he separated from Gwyn, and, in the next year, finally met the woman with whom, he believed, he could be himself. He married Elaine Scott in 1950 and spent 20 happy years with her. The years in which he ended his second marriage and began his third provide a marked contrast to those in which he inaugurated his career.

The Wayward Bus had been published in 1947. It was described by one critic as a story about a man who intentionally enters traps. Parini finds here a new “sympathy for the humiliations and depredations that women in their traditional roles must undergo.” The Book-of-the-Month Club sold 600,000 copies and Viking unloaded another 150,000 before the trade publication, “making it the author’s most successful book, commercially, to date.” In May 1948, Steinbeck’s dearest friend, Ed Ricketts—the man who had mentored him in his theories about the “phalanx” and “non-teleological thinking”— was killed while crossing a railroad track in Monterey. When John came back to New York after the funeral, Gwyn asked for a divorce, as well as for custody of their two sons. Thus began an interrupted relation that would lead Steinbeck to conclude, as Parini argues, that “he had failed” as a father. After the confrontation with Gywn, Steinbeck moved back to the family cottage in Pacific Grove, began gardening, and, nine months later, met Elaine Scott while on a date with Ann Southern. In falling in love with Elaine, and in marrying her, he thought he had merged the “two things,” as he wrote John O’Hara, he could not do without: “work and women.”

“What John really wanted,” friend Toby Scott said some years later, “was a home, a steady place to work, a garden, and love.” Did Steinbeck finally get it all? Most critics trace a decline in his work after the 1939 The Grapes of Wrath. This would confine the best work to the period of the first marriage. Even sympathetic critics usually write-off the work of the 1940’s, the years that correspond to the marriage to Gywn. If the 20 years with Elaine are to be seen as a time when Steinbeck did successfully blend arbeiten und lieben, the case must rest on books like East of Eden and The Winter of Our Discontent. East of Eden deserves and is beginning to receive a critical reappraisal. While Parini describes The Winter of Our Discontent as a novel of “satisfying veracity and authority,” the case for Steinbeck’s last novel remains to be made.

Unlike Hemingway and Faulkner, who saw writing as performative or agonistic, Steinbeck viewed it as a pragmatic, even a therapeutic activity. “A novel may be said to be the man who writes it,” he wrote in a letter from Rome in 1957. “Now it is nearly always true that a novelist, perhaps unconsciously, identifies himself with one chief or central character in his novel. Into this character he puts not only what he thinks he is but what he hopes to be. We can call this spokesman the self-character. You will find one in every one of my books and in the novels of everyone I can remember.” Steinbeck’s embrace of fiction as expressive form allows him to use writing as a way of working through that frees up energy needed to experience pleasure in his personal life. Although this process was largely complete by 1940, Steinbeck was unable to take full advantage of his imaginative realizations until the late 1940’s, when he met Elaine Scott.

Parini does establish, once again, that on his third try Steinbeck achieved a remarkable happiness in his married life. Perhaps this was possible for him because he had earned, through hard and bitter experience, the right to like himself. All of his life he remained consistent in defining the human enterprise as a curtailment of the will. His fascination with group behavior marked an attempt to get beyond the egotism—even the narcissism—that so disfigures the unsponsored modern self. In a 1934 letter he wrote that his mother and father “are the only two things which make me conscious of myself as a unit. Except for them I spread out and over landscape and people like an enormous jelly fish, having neither personality nor boundaries. That is as I wish it, complete destruction of anything which can be called a me.” Tom Joad’s speech, in which he will become nothing but be everywhere, echoes this. The movement “from “T” to “we” “marks not only the dynamic of his greatest novel, but of its author’s life effort itself, one in which a complex disciplining of the ego led, at last, to the capacity to love.

The irony in Steinbeck’s case is that in order to love, he had to learn to think more rather than less of himself. He could only do this by reconceiving the kind of self that a “me” should be. “The whole early part of my life was poisoned with egotism,” he wrote in 1935. “A reverse egotism, of course, beginning with self-consciousness.” The enemy that had to be fought off was an inflated and demanding ego-ideal. It was only as his first marriage failed, and as he began to enter the death-haunted passage called middle age—a passage he attempted to abort by marrying a much younger and even more self-absorbed person—that Steinbeck began to abandon the very American pastime of turning the self into a project. One is special, he came to see, neither in one’s goodness or one’s badness. In a 1941 letter held at the University of Virginia and quoted by none of his biographers, Steinbeck breaks through to the knowledge that a true liking of the self is based not on striving after admiration but rather on the gentle acknowledgement of the shadow. Although Parini may not have seen this letter, it serves as a kind of epilogue for his warm and welcome book:


I must have got from my father (a man who never lived fully until it came his time to die) a feeling that I should so live and think and act that I could admire myself, that I could feel that I was just and good and decent. I tried that for a long time. There’s no better way of cutting oneself off. Now I don’t admire myself at all and I know I have been unjust and not good and decent and far from being a bad thing it makes me feel very much related to people and things. If I can grow through these things to actually like myself that will be good.



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