On February 27, 1902 John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California. Now we stand at the centenary crossing, marking the one hundredth birthday of a Nobel Prize-winning novelist who, in the manner of few great creative artists, embodied the fundamental spirit of America's determination to overcome adversity. An ironic note from the career of Steinbeck, someone who wrote with such feeling about common folk overcoming adversity, particularly during the Great Depression,was that some of the most characteristic lines summing up the credo expressed in his writing came not from him but from Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who started his film career as a screenwriter. At the close of the great John Ford film based on Steinbeck's greatest novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," Zanuck, wanting the movie to end on an upbeat note, wrote the final scene in which Jane Darwell in her Oscar-winning performance summed up her feelings. Darwell delivered a testimonial about the survivalist nature of the common folk, with their ability to bounce back in the face of hardship.
Steinbeck is examined by Parini as an author always in touch with his roots. He was a classic example of the adage that a person should write about what one knows best. Doing so often got Steinbeck in trouble, as when residents of Monterey reportedly walked across the street rather than speak to him after he wrote "Cannery Row." Steinbeck later set off a tempest in his hometown of Salinas with the publication of "East of Eden." Citizens who had lived in Salinas for years recognized themselves as characters in the book. Steinbeck remembered the uproar years later when, not long before his death in 1968, he learned that the Salinas library would be named after him. "I wouldn't have been surprised if they had named the local house of ill repute after me," the author quipped, "but I never expected to have the library named after me."
The young Steinbeck tended to be shy and withdrawn. A neighbor became a close friend and helped draw him out, Max Wagner, who later became a film actor and remained friends with Steinbeck during the rest of their lives. Max's brother Jack became a writer and collaborated with Steinbeck later on film projects. The two writers shared a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination for their work in the 1945 film "A Medal for Benny." Steinbeck and Max Wagner each left Salinas to attend Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto. They both left after one year, restless creative spirits who hated confinement.
Parini reveals the painful experience of writing for Steinbeck, who endured numerous ailments from the early days of his career. The biographer reveals the "earthy" propensity of Steinbeck's subject matter, including such an early work as "Tortilla Flat," which revealed the lives of impoverished Mexicans living in shacks in Monterey. Later his close friendship with local Monterey marine biologist, Dr. Edward F. Ricketts, was revealed. The man known as "Doc" to localies was played by Nick Nolte in the screen adaptation of the Steinbeck novel "Cannery Row." In the case of Steinbeck's master work, "The Grapes of Wrath," the author carefully researched California migrant camps, a major element of the story as Oklahomans fleeing the great dust bowl resided in them on the way to establishing their own roots moving westward. Steinbeck had an excellent guide, Tom Collins, who managed the Kern County Migrant Camp and became a friend of the author's. Steinbeck's great novel was dedicated partially to Collins as he wrote: "To Tom -- who lived it." It was a simple dedication which meant so much, so typically earthy, and so typically Steinbeck.
One important friendship Steinbeck formed was with fellow humanitarian and author, Carl Sandburg, poet and Lincoln biographer. Actor Burgess Meredith also became a close friend after starring in the brilliant 1939 film adaptation of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."
Long before Cesar Chavez was available to courageously carry the banner of the exploited Mexican braceros, Steinbeck fought tirelessly for their cause along with crusading journalist Carey McWilliams. Steinbeck was a stalwart advocate of the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and became a friend and devoted admirer of two time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai E. Stevenson, for whom Steinbeck wrote speeches during his losing 1956 campaign to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Parini provides a solid account of Steinbeck as a man, including defeats as well as triumphs. In the former category there were Steinbeck's problematical marriages and difficulties with fatherhood. The biographer notes the success of Steinbeck's last marriage to Elaine Scott Steinbeck, the former wife of actor Zachary Scott. The two became initially fond of each other after the actress Ann Sothern, who had her own romantic designs on the famous author, brought her friend Elaine along for a Northern California visit. The women stayed at a Carmel hotel and Steinbeck, then living in Monterey, showed them the sights. It soon became obvious that the author's designs were on Elaine rather than the actress. "I don't think Ann ever forgave me," Elaine Scott Steinbeck later revealed.
Parini does a superb job of capturing a man of many parts, an author in touch with America's roots. Steinbeck's works are an evocation of the adventurousness and tenacity of the American spirit.