A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2020 in Nonfiction
A resonant biography of America’s most celebrated novelist of the Great Depression.
The first full-length biography of the Nobel laureate to appear in a quarter century, Mad at the World illuminates what has made the work of John Steinbeck an enduring part of the literary canon: his capacity for empathy. Pulitzer Prize finalist William Souder explores Steinbeck’s long apprenticeship as a writer struggling through the depths of the Great Depression, and his rise to greatness with masterpieces such as The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. Angered by the plight of the Dust Bowl migrants who were starving even as they toiled to harvest California’s limitless bounty, fascinated by the guileless decency of the downtrodden denizens of Cannery Row, and appalled by the country’s refusal to recognize the humanity common to all of its citizens, Steinbeck took a stand against social injustice—paradoxically given his inherent misanthropy—setting him apart from the writers of the so-called "lost generation."
A man by turns quick-tempered, compassionate, and ultimately brilliant, Steinbeck could be a difficult person to like. Obsessed with privacy, he was mistrustful of people. Next to writing, his favorite things were drinking and womanizing and getting married, which he did three times. And while he claimed indifference about success, his mid-career books and movie deals made him a lot of money—which passed through his hands as quickly as it came in. And yet Steinbeck also took aim at the corrosiveness of power, the perils of income inequality, and the urgency of ecological collapse, all of which drive public debate to this day.
Steinbeck remains our great social realist novelist, the writer who gave the dispossessed and the disenfranchised a voice in American life and letters. Eloquent, nuanced, and deeply researched, Mad at the World captures the full measure of the man and his work.
Journalist Souder (On a Farther Shore) presents a comprehensive, eloquent exploration of the life and career of John Steinbeck (1902 1968). Souder begins with Steinbeck's childhood, frequently miserable college years at Stanford (he was known to fire a gun at the wall when frustrated with his writing), and time living in a cabin on Lake Tahoe, where he toiled tirelessly on his first book, Cup of Gold, and met his first wife, Carol Henning. The novel's unsuccessful 1929 publication was quickly followed by the stock market crash, and five years later, by his mother's death after a protracted illness. However, out of the ashes of this difficult time came his tremendously successful novel Tortilla Flat, in 1935, and then in 1937, Of Mice and Men. Meanwhile, Steinbeck started interviewing impoverished farmers from the Dust Bowl, research that went into the arduous writing of The Grapes of Wrath. In the years that followed, Steinbeck struggled with newfound celebrity, left Carol for his second wife, Gwyn Conger, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Souder neither deifies nor condemns his subject, remarking candidly on Steinbeck's misogyny and propensity for mythmaking, while making clear the author's ardent devotion to his craft. Steinbeck fans could not ask for a more nuanced account of this troubled giant of American literature.