THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF JOHN STEINBECK, WRITER: A Biography by Jackson J. Benson

THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF JOHN STEINBECK, WRITER: A Biography

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Though over 1000 pages long, this undeniably informative--and numbingly detailed --biography of Nobel winner Steinbeck never manages to find depth or drama in his life story; nor does it offer much insight into the Steinbeck canon. Benson, who teaches at San Diego State College, follows young Steinbeek, ever so slowly, through early years in Salinas (JS developed a ""rich inner life"" and ""an ever-growing passion for language"" in response to ""social failure and separation""); he chronicles the off-andon Stanford studies, the variety of temporary jobs, the years of failure as a fledgling writer, the stormy first and second marriages; he ponders Steinbeck's relationships with friends (philosophical Ed Ricketts, above all); he stresses JS' ""biological view of man,"" in conflict with his yen for ""magic""; he examines, with insufficient skepticism, Steinbeck-as-philosopher--his ""organismic conception of nature as a whole,"" his ""adherence to non-teleological thinking."" As for politics, Benson reasonably--but too defensively--emphasizes JS' non-Party individualism. He belabors--and accepts at face value--the ""nausea of success"" that afflicted Steinbeck after Grapes of Wrath, with no real illumination of why he ""was so terrified of exposing himself personally."" Worst of all, Benson's view of the career itself is inconsistent, wishy-washy, and unpersuasive: the serious flaws in much of the work are more or less acknowledged; on the other hand, there are tetchy, sometimes inane attacks on Steinbeck's critics and the literary establishment (it has become ""far easier to justify psychopathic hatred, for example, than simple day-to-day kindness in a literary text""); Cannery Row and Winter of Our Discontent receive unconvincing paeans; there's a platitudinous, mythifying approach to the nature of a writer's life--as when Benson discusses Steinbeck's later miseries with his children. (""Part of the novelist's difficulty as a father is that a large part of what he wants to say or do is siphoned off by his work."") The lack of psychological sophistication is debilitating throughout, in fact--as is, perhaps, the dependence on the ""cooperation and help"" of Steinbeck's wife #3 Elaine. And the second half is particularly dull--with bland travel material dominating, along with the controversial Vietnam stands and Benson's lapses into subjective sentimentality. (""It seemed so damned hopeless, so damned useless to go on."") Still, the extensive discussion of little-known early Steinbeck work will interest specialists; the private-life minutiae (some of it sad and ugly) may attract intrepid browsers; and, though weakly written and fuzzily conceived, this massive assemblage will nonetheless be a source of sorts for all those who study Steinbeck.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Viking