Steinbeck: not so saintly: He was a spoilt rich kid who mistreated his wife. David Lister looks at a new biography of the author

David Lister
Sunday 27 March 1994 02:02

JOHN STEINBECK, author of The Grapes Of Wrath, whose idealism and identification with the downtrodden poor continues to inspire the young 26 years after his death, was a spoilt rich kid who forced his first wife to have an abortion, according to a new biography.

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist's first wife, Carol, typed and edited his early manuscripts and suggested the title for The Grapes Of Wrath. A friend of the Steinbecks, Alison Harley, told the biographer: 'Carol had felt for some time that they should have a child, but Steinbeck was afraid that fatherhood would interfere with his writing.' He insisted she have an abortion.

The operation was not a success, leading to an infection in the uterine tubes, and she had to have a hysterectomy. 'Carol never got over the bitterness of this,' Ms Harley said.

John Steinbeck, by Oxford academic Jay Parini, will be launched tomorrow at a reception at the US embassy in London, attended by Steinbeck's widow, Elaine. She will also be inaugurating, with Steinbeck's publishers, Heinemann, a new pounds 10,000 literary prize for young writers 'for a novel written in the spirit of Steinbeck, e g, a work dedicated to issues of poverty, race or political injustice'.

Steinbeck's most popular works, The Grapes Of Wrath, Of Mice And Men, Cannery Row and East of Eden, continue to sell in large numbers. The Grapes Of Wrath, the deeply affecting story of the oppression of migrant workers during the Depression, sells 50,000 copies in the US each year.

But while the author's work has been well known since the Thirties, his life has been neglected. Only one biography has been published, by an academic in the US about 15 years ago, and that did not deal with what Mr Parini terms 'the darker side' of Steinbeck's life.

Parini, himself an American, spent five years researching the biography and talked at length to Steinbeck's sister Beth just before she died last year. He also had access to the journals of the late Joseph Campbell, an author friend of both Parini and Steinbeck, and guru to the Californian hippies of the Sixties. who had an affair with Carol Steinbeck shortly after her abortion in 1939. The journals recall their intimate discussions: 'Do you realise that in all our lives this is probably the only hour we'll ever have together?' 'Kiss me just once, Joe. Crucify me with a kiss.'

Carol, an active socialist and much farther to the left than Steinbeck, suggested The Grapes Of Wrath as a title after seeing the phrase in her husband's manuscript. She left him after their marriage disintegrated and she discovered that he was having an affair.

Campbell said years later: 'I don't happen to have good feelings for men who stay with a wife through the tough years and then, when things begin coming in, move to another wife.' Parini, a Steinbeck devotee, adds: 'Indeed, Steinbeck must be castigated for his treatment of Carol, which borders on gross inhumanity. He seems not to have appreciated the massive efforts she made on his behalf: the sacrifices, the endless adjustments to meet his schedule, the willingness to type manuscripts on demand, the self-repression.' A few years later, Steinbeck had two sons by his second wife, Gwyn.

Parini's book also punctures the belief that Steinbeck shared to some degree the lifestyle of the poverty-stricken farmworkers he wrote about. His father's business collapsed when he was a small boy, but Steinbeck senior was not out of work long, eventually becoming treasurer of Monterey County, California. Right up to the publication of his first novel, Cup Of Gold, in 1928, when he was 26, Steinbeck received a monthly allowance from his father of dollars 50, no mean sum at that time. He also had use of the family's summer house in Monterey.

Parini said yesterday: 'Most people imagine that Steinbeck came from an impoverished background and was almost one of those workers in The Grapes Of Wrath, but his family home in Salinas was a beautiful Victorian house with maids and servants. His was a self-conscious identification with working people, but he always travelled first-class and stayed in suites at the Dorchester in London and the Georges Cinq in Paris.'

Steinbeck's sister Beth told Parini that John had three adoring older sisters, and a strong mother and weaker father. 'He was surrounded by strong, mothering women. Frankly he was spoilt.'

Parini, the Fowler Hamilton Fellow at Christ Church College, said: 'This is a loving biography. I love this man and his work but it is interesting for scholars that the dark side comes out.'

Elaine Steinbeck, who was Steinbeck's third wife, commented: 'This is very different from the usual things written about my husband, but it is an excellent book. These things were just part of John's life.

' He was first and foremost a writer and his first wife was very helpful to him. Their marital problems were none of my business. I spent his last 20 years with him and he was the best company I've ever been with.

'He was very funny, had a marvellous mind and was a wonderful companion.'

(Photographs omitted)

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