Review: "Mad at the World" | Reviewed by William Winkler
Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck is the subject of William Souder’s biography “Mad at the World.” Souder has previously documented the lives of ornithologist John James Audubon and environmentalist Rachel Carson.
The book documents Steinbeck’s early years as a youth in Salinas, California, a town eight miles from the Pacific coast and just west of the central valley. Steinbeck is described as a solitary youth who found solace in books and had few friends. A less than stellar student, he excelled in English, where his assigned essays were often read aloud in class. A classmate later recalled, “He was a deep thinker. People thought he was antisocial. But he was really just thinking.”
Steinbeck spent the summers of his high school years working in the Monterey County sugar beet fields. Here he had his first exposure to migrant workers, whose plight in the Depression years would form the basis of his 1935 novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” After high school he attended Stanford University, but he did not graduate. He traveled to New York City, where he worked a series of odd jobs while trying to develop a writing career. Failing this, he returned to California where his parents supported him so that he could work at his writing full time.
In 1928, while working as a tour guide at Lake Tahoe, Steinbeck met Carol Henning, whom he married in 1930. Henning typed and actively revised Steinbeck’s handwritten manuscript of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Their marriage ended acrimoniously in 1941 when Steinbeck was involved in an affair with Gwen Conger, who became his second wife in 1942.
Although Steinbeck published several novels and collections of short stories his first critical and commercial success came with his comic novel “Tortilla Flat,” published in 1935. This was followed by the novella “Of Mice and Men” in 1937, and the novel that many consider his masterpiece, “The Grapes of Wrath,” in 1939. He continued to publish until several years before his death in 1968. Although early in his career he suffered significant financial difficulties he was financially secure at the time of his death.
Some critics have complained that Steinbeck never found a consistent voice in his writing. Souder admits that there is some validity to this observation. He notes, however, that a theme that runs through most of Steinbeck’s work is anger at man’s inhumanity to man and man’s indifference to the environment, hence the book’s title.
Those who have appreciated Steinbeck’s work, and his status as a major figure in 20th century American letters will value the trove of details Souder has unearthed to bring this book to print.