John Steinbeck just might be the novelist for our time. In his sprawling epic The Grapes of Wrath, he captured Americans’ peculiar yearning for a life not their own, the promise of wealth beyond the veil of desolation and the wretched impossibility of such a promise. Steinbeck’s other epic, East of Eden, illustrates the ragged desperation of human nature, wreaking destruction rather than carrying hope. William Souder’s bracing Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck vividly portrays the brooding and moody writer who could never stop writing and who never fit comfortably in the society in which he lived.
Souder, whose biography of John James Audobon was a Pulitzer finalist, traces Steinbeck’s love of story and storytelling to his childhood. As a teenager, Steinbeck immersed himself in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which he translated later in life, and in adventure tales and classics such as Treasure Island, Madame Bovary and Crime and Punishment. This early reading gave him glimpses into the shadowy corners of the human heart and provided him with models for telling tales of people engaged in heroic struggles against the injustices of their eras.
Steinbeck was a born storyteller, a writer who was not happy unless he was working, a novelist a bit out of step with his times (many of his social realist novels appeared during the innovations of modernism) and a reticent man who would rather write than talk publicly about his writing. Steinbeck’s greatest virtue, according to Souder, was his “ability to live inside other cultures, other races; he brought people to life who were otherwise invisible and voiceless.” The first Steinbeck biography since Jay Parini’s more psychological John Steinbeck: A Biography (1995), Mad at the World vibrantly illuminates the life and work of a writer who is still widely read and relevant today.