BOOK REVIEW / We still don't know the gripes of Steinbeck: 'John Steinbeck: a biography' - Jay Parini: Heinemann, 17.99

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The Independent Online
AS John Steinbeck lay dying on 20 December 1968, his wife asked him what was the best time they had had together. He said: 'I'm dying and you'll just agree with me.' So she wrote down her own thought, as if in a quiz show for old couples. Steinbeck hit on the same answer: Somerset, 1959.

John Steinbeck was rarely at ease, especially in America. He was born into a middle- class California family in 1902. His grandparents were Lutherans from Dusseldorf, and his parents (powerful mother, passive father) were in flour milling. They had suffered in business, but had enough money to help Steinbeck through the Depression in the Thirties and effectively to prolong his dependency. He grew up a country boy with urban needs; hence his Upper East Side brownstones with gardens he could dig.

After he flunked Stanford, Steinbeck became a literary vagrant, between Monterey in the West and Sag Harbor in the East. As a writer he turned restlessness into strength. The variety of work is remarkable: plays, short stories and epic novels alongside dabblings in Arthuriana and Darwinism. But Steinbeck still needed two fortunes and three marriages en route to the Pulitzer Prize (for The Grapes of Wrath) and the Nobel Prize.

He leaned heavily on his publisher, Pat Covici, and his agent, Elizabeth Otis. But he gave his Pulitzer prize-money to one friend to enable him to finish a novel; and tried to fund another through graduate school. He kept up a fascinating correspondence with two men: Dook Sheffield, a Stanford friend, and Ed Ricketts, with whom Steinbeck discussed scientific thinking, looking at society as an organism and men as parts of it, the basis of The Grapes of Wrath.

This great American moralist with the look of Burl Ives was a diverse man of great energies. He wrote 26 books and plays, as well as short stories and articles. He spent the war writing for the Foreign Information Service (collected in Once There was a War); and went to Vietnam, where he supported US involvement.

But Jay Parini's biography leaves Steinbeck out of focus. It is neither personal enough nor broad enough. At the half- dozen places in this hefty 600- pager where Parini accounts for rather than just describes Steinbeck, too much is left unsaid. In the last quarter of the book, Parini offers this: 'A gulf does seem to have existed between the private man and the public man, a subtle estrangement from the 'real' world . . .' A biographer has to come up with images of this resonating throughout the life; and the lack of unifying personal themes weakens this otherwise strong work.

More is needed on Steinbeck in Hollywood, where he was friends with Burgess Meredith and Charlie Chaplin. His fame converted into dollars: he received dollars 75,000 in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath, not bad for a writer who had earned only dollars 870 in the seven years before 1934. And more should have been said about Steinbeck's contemporaries, Stein, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and even Kerouac.

Parini's book closes strangely, with an academic eulogy from a Dean of Steinbeck Studies. His own judgements are tentative and over- respectful. The comparative academic silence over Steinbeck is only temporary - the pressure to publish will alter that - but without the glitz of Fitzgerald or the grit of Hemingway, Steinbeck seems lost in America.

The best novels, The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, stay in the mind like something lived rather than read. The great closing scene in The Grapes of Wrath, where a childless woman breastfeeds a starving man, is one of the hardest won images in modern literature. But while Parini finds Steinbeck worried about money, obsessively sharpening pencils or remorselessly gathering data, he misses out the real pleasures and pains of Steinbeck's life. Here was a man who grew rich writing about poverty, a writer who craved fame in America but was happiest in Somerset.