Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck
by William Souder
W. W. Norton & Co.
Published: October 2020
Published last fall, William Souder’s “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck” is the first comprehensive biography of Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Steinbeck in twenty-five years. Souder is a journalist and the author of three previous books including biographies of John James Audubon (a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist) and conservationist Rachel Carson.
Given his exalted standing in American literature it is surprising there are so few places to turn for cradle-to-grave insight into Steinbeck. The classic biography of his life is Jackson J. Benson’s monumental tome “John Steinbeck, Writer” which was first published in 1984. The most notable other biography is Jay Parini’s 1995 “John Steinbeck: A Biography.” So to suggest that Souder’s biography of John Steinbeck was widely-anticipated may be an understatement.
With a 368-page narrative, Souder’s well-researched and refreshingly clear biography is easily the most concise of the bunch. It also proves extremely balanced. For all of Steinbeck’s marvelous literary talent, there is much about him not to be admired and his flaws (most conspicuously as a husband and father) are fully exposed.
Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald – whose definitive biography I recently read – John Steinbeck is not an especially lively or colorful figure. More often than not he isn’t even a very interesting one. But even dour, self-doubting artists can make compelling biographical subjects and Steinbeck is no exception. And the way Souder connects Steinbeck’s personality and life experiences to his writing is often masterful.
But Souder’s writing style is both economical and straightforward in a way that will strike many readers as too informal. In addition, his narrative tends to lack the depth and penetrating insight offered by some of the very best biographies. This may be intentional, though, as “Mad at the World” appears to have been written for a broad audience likely to find the casual style more accessible and unpretentious.
Steinbeck’s early life does not seem particularly well-covered…or revealing. But the biography becomes more compelling once Steinbeck begins achieving success as a writer. And by the time his writing career has fully matured (and his personal life has largely disintegrated) the biography hits full stride. But despite the book’s title Steinbeck never seems “mad at the world” – just sour, oddly reclusive and decidedly insecure.
The last two decades of Steinbeck’s life – from just before his third marriage to his death in 1968 – feel rushed. Whether little of consequence unfolded during this period is not entirely clear, but it almost seems as though the book’s length was arbitrarily limited and Souder simply ran out of space. Unfortunately, the biography also lacks a backward looking review or assessment of Steinbeck’s life and legacy.
Overall, “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck” provides readers a fine overview of the life of one of America’s most acclaimed 20th century authors. Readers seeking an easy introduction to this perpetually gloomy writer will find the biography wonderfully accessible. But anyone seeking a more nuanced, colorful or detailed exploration of Steinbeck’s life may wish to turn to other alternatives for a deeper dive.
Overall rating: 3¼ stars