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John Steinbeck: A Biography

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Born in a small town in northern California in 1902, Steinbeck refused from the outset to fit himself to any mold, digging ditches and washing dishes while intermittently attending Stanford University. Failing to take a degree, he struggled for more than a decade to establish himself as a writer, always putting his work first. Eventually he enjoyed an extraordinary period Born in a small town in northern California in 1902, Steinbeck refused from the outset to fit himself to any mold, digging ditches and washing dishes while intermittently attending Stanford University. Failing to take a degree, he struggled for more than a decade to establish himself as a writer, always putting his work first. Eventually he enjoyed an extraordinary period of creativity during which he summoned a powerful vision of the Depression. Books such as Of Mice and Men, The Long Valley, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath became battle cries that aroused international indignation and brought Steinbeck a world audience. Jay Parini explores Steinbeck's love-hate relationship with Hollywood and Broadway, his career as a war correspondent, his difficult first and second marriages, and his often tempestuous associations with numerous celebrities, among them Joseph Campbell, Charlie Chaplin, Lyndon Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Drawing on interviews with dozens of people who knew Steinbeck intimately - including his beloved third wife, Elaine - and on published and unpublished letters, diaries, and manuscripts, John Steinbeck is both an important reassessment and a masterful portrait of one of the greatest American novelists. Includes bibliographical references (p. [489-506]) and index


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Born in a small town in northern California in 1902, Steinbeck refused from the outset to fit himself to any mold, digging ditches and washing dishes while intermittently attending Stanford University. Failing to take a degree, he struggled for more than a decade to establish himself as a writer, always putting his work first. Eventually he enjoyed an extraordinary period Born in a small town in northern California in 1902, Steinbeck refused from the outset to fit himself to any mold, digging ditches and washing dishes while intermittently attending Stanford University. Failing to take a degree, he struggled for more than a decade to establish himself as a writer, always putting his work first. Eventually he enjoyed an extraordinary period of creativity during which he summoned a powerful vision of the Depression. Books such as Of Mice and Men, The Long Valley, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath became battle cries that aroused international indignation and brought Steinbeck a world audience. Jay Parini explores Steinbeck's love-hate relationship with Hollywood and Broadway, his career as a war correspondent, his difficult first and second marriages, and his often tempestuous associations with numerous celebrities, among them Joseph Campbell, Charlie Chaplin, Lyndon Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Drawing on interviews with dozens of people who knew Steinbeck intimately - including his beloved third wife, Elaine - and on published and unpublished letters, diaries, and manuscripts, John Steinbeck is both an important reassessment and a masterful portrait of one of the greatest American novelists. Includes bibliographical references (p. [489-506]) and index

30 review for John Steinbeck: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kim

    This has given me everything I could have wanted from a biography of Steinbeck. In clear and accessible prose, Parini sets out Steinbeck's family and personal history and an analysis of the writer's various works in context. In some senses, the book is also a social history of the US in the first 2/3 of the 20th century, as it traces Steinbeck's relationship with his favourite subject, the American people. The Steinbeck of Parini’s biography is the Steinbeck I imagine from the relatively few of This has given me everything I could have wanted from a biography of Steinbeck. In clear and accessible prose, Parini sets out Steinbeck's family and personal history and an analysis of the writer's various works in context. In some senses, the book is also a social history of the US in the first 2/3 of the 20th century, as it traces Steinbeck's relationship with his favourite subject, the American people. The Steinbeck of Parini’s biography is the Steinbeck I imagine from the relatively few of his novels I’ve read: compassionate, humane, a caring friend and generally observant and insightful. Parini also reveals Steinbeck’s darker side: insecure about his ability as a writer, emotionally volatile and prone to episodes of severe depression. This is a not a short book. However, I found it utterly engaging. It has inspired me to read some of Steinbeck’s lesser-known works, as well as his letters. It has also made me wonder why I don’t read more literary biographies. When they’re as good as this effort, they make rewarding reading.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Nick Holmberg

    I don't read too much biography. And I know more than most about JS. But this book was illuminating. Parini has a very accessible writing style. I don't read too much biography. And I know more than most about JS. But this book was illuminating. Parini has a very accessible writing style.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Stasha Neagu

    Ed Ricketts influenced Steinbeck by introducing him to the works of William E Ritter and John Elof Boodin and J.S. HAldane. The thought that "the living body and its physiological environment form an organic whole, the parts of which cannot be separate from one another ( cannot be understood in separation from one another." Steinbeck's thesis is that man in groups, like all units made up of individual parts, appear to connect to a larger spirit or will that exists somewhere beyond individual res Ed Ricketts influenced Steinbeck by introducing him to the works of William E Ritter and John Elof Boodin and J.S. HAldane. The thought that "the living body and its physiological environment form an organic whole, the parts of which cannot be separate from one another ( cannot be understood in separation from one another." Steinbeck's thesis is that man in groups, like all units made up of individual parts, appear to connect to a larger spirit or will that exists somewhere beyond individual response. This is explored in In Dubious Battle, Tortilla Flat, the stories that would eventually make up "The Long Valley." Refused to accept an award for best novel of 1935, he said: "The whole early part of my life was poisoned with egotism.." In the last few books he identified "in most real way with people who were not me..the work has been the means of making me feel that I am living richly, diversly..even heroically." Like so many writers of this era, he considered it a part of writer's responsibility to bear witness, to address a social crisis with the hope of affecting some kind of change. Gore Vidal on Steinbeck: "..Steinbeck was really a journalist at heart. All of his best work was journalism in that it was inspired by daily events, current circumstances. He did invent things. He found them." Psychological profile of human develoment suggests thay we are perpetually in a state of growth, or should be...Steinbeck's intellectual growth had certainly not ceased...from the naive swashbuckling view of the individual in history..(in) Cup of Gold, through the grand 'social' novels of the 30s where his focus on the individual in relationship to the group dominated In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath...(later work was influenced by) non-teleological thinking with the holistic emphasis on the relations among all living creatures and their place in a complex biosphere... The individual is seen in the later works Viva Zapata!, East of Eden, Travels with Charley, the Winter of Our Discontent as a separate integer within the larger context of the group and the environment...Writing, for Steinbeck, continued to be a process of self-discovery and personal growth. Having read the biography in entirety I can say it gave me a goid picture of Steinbeck both as a writer and as a person and opened up my reading appetite for more of his works. Being a relentless thinker and writer, Having tried his hand at so many different genre of writing from war reportage to novel to musical comedy (!) to travelogue, I bow down in front of him in admiration - here is a man who lived for writing.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sherry

    Having picked East of Eden up for a third time I thought it would deepen my understanding of my favourite book and author if I read his biography and his journal of the East of Eden books alongside it. Though when I first began I had considered abandoning it because I initially thought the author’s tone seemed a tad patronizing of Steinbeck but I persevered and I’m glad I did. This book was fascinating giving insight into Steinbeck and his works and allowing me to see them in a new and more appr Having picked East of Eden up for a third time I thought it would deepen my understanding of my favourite book and author if I read his biography and his journal of the East of Eden books alongside it. Though when I first began I had considered abandoning it because I initially thought the author’s tone seemed a tad patronizing of Steinbeck but I persevered and I’m glad I did. This book was fascinating giving insight into Steinbeck and his works and allowing me to see them in a new and more appreciative light. I ended up binging the book in about 3 sittings, a new experience for me when it came to biographies. Also despite earlier reservations of a patronizing tone, on the whole it seemed fairly balanced and fair, attempting, and succeeding in giving a full picture of the man and his artistry.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    Spoiler alert: Steinbeck dies at the end.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Doug Noakes

    Biographer here does a good job giving the readers a balanced perspective on Steinbeck's life--he was no saint in private life (who is?) but basically a good man who dealt with his public success and sometimes complicated personal life about as well as could be expected. A casual reader of Mr. Steinbeck will likely be impressed by how he took a hands-on approach to researching his novels, stories and articles, even going on landings in Italy during WWII, and helicopter operations during the Viet Biographer here does a good job giving the readers a balanced perspective on Steinbeck's life--he was no saint in private life (who is?) but basically a good man who dealt with his public success and sometimes complicated personal life about as well as could be expected. A casual reader of Mr. Steinbeck will likely be impressed by how he took a hands-on approach to researching his novels, stories and articles, even going on landings in Italy during WWII, and helicopter operations during the Vietnam War (when he well in his sixties!) Perhaps if he had lived longer his reservations about that war would have been made public. He had a strong streak of independence and avoided becoming too personally politicized by admirers. The fact that we don't get much material directly from Steinbeck's first two wives or family members is a loss but, overall, this is an engaging and detailed life story of one of America's greatest writers.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Duncan Prior

    Great book. Bought for me ~20 years ago by my now-wife and I have finally got round to reading it. Covered different aspects of Steinbeck's life without looping around the key themes as some biographies do. Really gave me a sense of his life, personality, works and beliefs; as well his times and environment. If anything I felt a little sad because it made realise that the injustices that infuriated Steinbeck have not gone away, perhaps in fact have worsened. Perhaps this feel was exacerbated by Great book. Bought for me ~20 years ago by my now-wife and I have finally got round to reading it. Covered different aspects of Steinbeck's life without looping around the key themes as some biographies do. Really gave me a sense of his life, personality, works and beliefs; as well his times and environment. If anything I felt a little sad because it made realise that the injustices that infuriated Steinbeck have not gone away, perhaps in fact have worsened. Perhaps this feel was exacerbated by the strong sense of Steinbeck's depressive moods the book conveyed. That's not an unpleasant feeling for the reader but a reflection of the quality of the book. One minor point - I think there is a quote from Red Pony I think is slightly out of context. On around P212-14, I think.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kip

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Perhaps it is because I don't read biographies about authors very often but I found this author's approach to Stienbeck's life too focused on his individual books and not enough on his life. It felt like the author simply wanted to demonstrate how much he knew about Stienbeck's writings and those of his contemporaries. I couldn't finish the book. Perhaps it is because I don't read biographies about authors very often but I found this author's approach to Stienbeck's life too focused on his individual books and not enough on his life. It felt like the author simply wanted to demonstrate how much he knew about Stienbeck's writings and those of his contemporaries. I couldn't finish the book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Dianne

    Everything you didn't know about John Steinbeck, his background, his relationships, his astonishing contemporaries and encounters. He was the Forrest Gump of his time apparently-hobnobbing with everybody that was-or wasn't somebody. His family threw up their hands long before-one did not write as a job-or a career-or a living. And yet. Everything you didn't know about John Steinbeck, his background, his relationships, his astonishing contemporaries and encounters. He was the Forrest Gump of his time apparently-hobnobbing with everybody that was-or wasn't somebody. His family threw up their hands long before-one did not write as a job-or a career-or a living. And yet.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Bazar

    I haven't read a good bio in a long time. Picked this up since I recently drove through Steinbeck Country in California and got me interested in the man. Parini did a nice job of capturing the man's demons and insecurities...which were many. The critics tore him apart after The Grapes of Wrath and chipped away at Steinbeck's soul. He withered. Interesting as he sold thousands of copies during his lifetime. What does it matter what the critics say when people are buying your books by the truckloa I haven't read a good bio in a long time. Picked this up since I recently drove through Steinbeck Country in California and got me interested in the man. Parini did a nice job of capturing the man's demons and insecurities...which were many. The critics tore him apart after The Grapes of Wrath and chipped away at Steinbeck's soul. He withered. Interesting as he sold thousands of copies during his lifetime. What does it matter what the critics say when people are buying your books by the truckload? You can't please everyone, Mr. Steinbeck, but you sure did please many. And still do.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Nelson

    Neither hagiography not hate, Parini's biography is an even-handed life in extremely readable prose, that situates the books within the life. Parini is a sympathetic reader of Steinbeck's work who nevertheless has his eyes wide open to the excesses and faults that marred even the best of Steinbeck's novels. Because Parini avoids the beatification of Steinbeck's best work (Grapes of Wrath), he is free as well to avoid the excessive overreaction many critics lavished on the later writing. This jud Neither hagiography not hate, Parini's biography is an even-handed life in extremely readable prose, that situates the books within the life. Parini is a sympathetic reader of Steinbeck's work who nevertheless has his eyes wide open to the excesses and faults that marred even the best of Steinbeck's novels. Because Parini avoids the beatification of Steinbeck's best work (Grapes of Wrath), he is free as well to avoid the excessive overreaction many critics lavished on the later writing. This judiciousness makes Parini an ideal guide to the merits and demerits of the fiction. If Parini is to be trusted (and on the basis of this book, he ought to be), both Tortilla Flat and Winter of Our Discontent deserve better than they have gotten from critics over the years. Parini is equally good on the life. He doesn't go in for heavy Freudian readings of Steinbeck's family background; at the same time, he is persuasive at locating Steinbeck's own failures as a husband and father in Steinbeck's own sometimes fraught upbringing. In other words, Parini goes light on the psychology without ignoring the obvious links between Steinbeck's remote father and Steinbeck's occasional inability to connect to his own sons. Though the book is long, it clips along, offering an intelligent and much-needed reappraisal of the life and the works.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tom Walsh

    I have been a fan of Steinbeck's for a long time. I've read most of his novels, but never a bio. I was instantly surprised he was from Salinas, the town ot "East of Eden." Steinbeck led me to Zola, where I discovered Naturalism, a genre I have tried to read much about, but still have more to learn. I was not disappointed. Parini did a thorough job on Steinbeck. I was surprised the critics were so harsh. I never suspected he was so depressed with his reviews. His writing, to me, is superb! Good b I have been a fan of Steinbeck's for a long time. I've read most of his novels, but never a bio. I was instantly surprised he was from Salinas, the town ot "East of Eden." Steinbeck led me to Zola, where I discovered Naturalism, a genre I have tried to read much about, but still have more to learn. I was not disappointed. Parini did a thorough job on Steinbeck. I was surprised the critics were so harsh. I never suspected he was so depressed with his reviews. His writing, to me, is superb! Good bio!!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kristin Huston

    Fabulous read. Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and after reading this book my admiration has not been diminished. Sure he had issues but don't we all. He felt passionately about America and the less fortunate and was so eloquent in writing about their lives. There is no other author that I have re-read as frequently as John Steinbeck. I just wish more high schools would use his books. Fabulous read. Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and after reading this book my admiration has not been diminished. Sure he had issues but don't we all. He felt passionately about America and the less fortunate and was so eloquent in writing about their lives. There is no other author that I have re-read as frequently as John Steinbeck. I just wish more high schools would use his books.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

    This is an amazing biography! One of the best I have read. Steinbeck was an interseting man. I did not know that he had been a reporter in Vietnam. He so loved the whole Salinas Valley and Monteray and Carmel, CA. His writing showed how much he loved the area. He loved to travel and he loved to meet people. If you are a fan of his novels, you shoud definitly read this book. Great book!!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Yeti

    The best of Parini's three biographical works. Steinbeck is not the man I thought he was ... Parini set me straight. Parini's research is meticulous, his prose is sharp, insightful, and well tuned to the subject matter. Steinbeck is a worthy subject for Parini. The best of Parini's three biographical works. Steinbeck is not the man I thought he was ... Parini set me straight. Parini's research is meticulous, his prose is sharp, insightful, and well tuned to the subject matter. Steinbeck is a worthy subject for Parini.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Cws

    92S

  17. 5 out of 5

    Gabriel

    fascinating biography--have been in a steinbeck phase lately--and parini does a wonderful job of both telling his life and exploring his writing.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Athey

    hard going from what I recall...

  19. 4 out of 5

    Marjorie

    Read as part of study group on Grapes of wrath but lots of other readings I would love to get to

  20. 5 out of 5

    Eva

  21. 5 out of 5

    Logann

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jason Sands

  23. 5 out of 5

    Victoria Krysiak

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

  25. 4 out of 5

    Amyas-Jean

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mark G

  27. 5 out of 5

    Steven

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jim wagner

  29. 5 out of 5

    Constantine Alexander

  30. 4 out of 5

    Athena

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