The Poison Cup of Gold

From The Wall Street Journal:

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

It’s easy to forget the role this theory plays in “The Grapes of Wrath,” given the novel’s fame as the pre-eminent fictional account of the Great Depression. The book sprang from a series of articles Steinbeck wrote for the San Francisco News titled “The Harvest Gypsies,” which revealed the squalor and disease endured by migrant fruit pickers but also the spirit of community that persisted among their ranks. Now, in writing his novel, his usual creative monomania was intensified by political outrage, and he had a wealth of firsthand details he was desperate to convey. The Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw has pointed out that in the early pages of the manuscript, he took care to make the text large so that his wife would have an easier time typing it up, but soon, as the story possessed him, he began omitting punctuation and paragraph breaks and his handwriting grew minuscule and frenzied.

If “The Grapes of Wrath” were strictly a work of naturalism, it would be respected but not beloved. But Steinbeck wove his theories about the group-man into the story, endowing it with broader allegorical possibilities. 

. . . .

“The Grapes of Wrath” won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted for the screen by John Ford, and the acclaim drove Steinbeck to a nervous breakdown. The worst casualty was his marriage to Carol, which was already dissolving in a haze of alcohol and paranoia when Steinbeck began an affair with 19-year-old Gwyn Conger while in Los Angeles to learn the movie business. Their marriage, though it gave Steinbeck two sons, was short and miserable and was quickly succeeded by a third, to a more mature woman named Elaine Scott. By this point Steinbeck was fully ensconced in his “second life” as a public figure, contending with chronic depression, health problems, money troubles that had never arisen when he was poor and unknown, and behind everything the steady throb of what an earlier biographer, Jackson J. Benson, called “the nausea of success.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

When PG visited the Amazon page for the books, he noticed it was the #1 Bestseller in British & Irish Literary Criticism. You don’t get more American than Steinbeck and, when PG checked, it appears that the author of the book lives in Minnesota.

Evidently, the intern at the publisher, W. W. Norton, who put up the Amazon listing was not particularly familiar with Steinbeck. When PG just checked, he noticed that the book is also #4 in British & Irish Literary Criticism (Books)

Note: Mad at the World is on preorder, so the Kindle Preview won’t work yet. PG just put the link in because he liked the cover. Here’s a link to the book’s Amazon page again.