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John Steinbeck: A Biography [Paperback]

Jay Parini
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

John Steinbeck was born in a small town in northern California in 1902, and his career mirrors the highs and lows of the 20th century. A difficult relationship with his parents, his turbulent married life and his often tempestuous friendships with celebrated writers, entertainers, intellectuals and politicians, all played their part in the creation of some of the century's greatest works of fiction. This biography by Jay Parini offers a portrait of a driven and difficult man. Parini is an American poet and novelist whose previous books include a biographical study of the poet Theodore Roethke which was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize in 1979.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Mandarin
  • ISBN-10: 0749311282
  • ISBN-13: 978-0749311285
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Product Description

About the Author

Jay Parini, an American poet and novelist, is currently the Fowler Hamilton Fellow of Christ Church, Oxford. He is the author iof numerous books, including Athracite Country, Town Life, The Last Station and Bay of Arrows. Reviewing The Last Station in TLS, John Bayley called this novel of Leo Tolstoy"s last year 'a subtle master[iece'. Parini's earlier biographical study of poet Theodore Roethke was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Being a huge fan of Steinbeck, I was fascinated by this book. Its a really good read, and kept my attention thoroughly as it progressed equally intently between his personal and working life. The only slightly irritating thing was the constant referral to Steinbecks Mother - to my mind a simplistic analysis of the psychology at play in families. But in the overall picture, that's not important. If you love Steinbecks work and want to know more about his own journey, then its a fantastic read, and in places especially moving.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Travels with John, well told. 22 Aug 2000
By Kenneth Blum - Published on Amazon.com
In my opinion, the greatest American writer is John Steinbeck, and the great American novel is The Grapes of Wrath. So it was a delight to read this fluid, exhaustively researched and insightful biography of Steinbeck by Jay Parini.
From Steinbeck's birth in northern California in 1902, to his death in 1968, the book details the influences and defining moments in Steinbeck's life. There is very little conjecture here. The book is objective, but the details are compelling and the writing is smooth. The complete cooperation of Steinbeck's third wife, Elaine, was, I think, a key the book's veracity as well as its insight.
You'll be inspired by the young Steinbeck's complete faith in his writing ability. He sensed his destiny at a young age, and stubbornly pursued it.
You'll be surprised at how a man with such a deep inner sense of his own gift for writing was, at the same time, so easily devastated by critics.
You'll be amazed at Steinbeck's popularity and influence around the world. The world recognized Steinbeck's genius, while the literary pecking order in the United States threw stones. Why? - probably for two reasons. First, we love to throw stones at those who achieve popular and financial success. It's an American tradition. Second, woe be to the author whose writing can be understood by the masses. Steinbeck was an eloquent writer whose beautiful prose could be savored by everyone, and he wrote a superb story on top of it. The literary elitists prefer writing and a story that can only be understood by literary elitists.
I have only one mild criticism of Mr. Parini's biography of Steinbeck. As I said, there is little conjecture, but he does seem to put a load of psychobabble guilt in the laps of Steinbeck's mother and father. The evidence seems to indicate otherwise. His mother's perfectionism wasn't all bad, and wouldn't any mother be concerned if her 30-year-old son was still living as a near-pauper? And his father may have been a passive man, but he supported his son financially through many, many lean years. The portrayal of John Ernst Steinbeck as a failure is too harsh a judgment.
But that's only a minor criticism. This is truly a marvelous biography about the most talented and compassionate of American writers.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Great author - poor biography 27 Sep 2010
By B. Bates - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am a big John Steinbeck fan. I was hoping for a biography to help me understand the man a little more. What I got was a critique of his writings. The author took great enjoyment in showing how he interpreted the Steinbeck writings. Hey, we have read the books and can form our own opinions! The biography was so long-winded that I found myself skipping entire sections. So, I was disappointed that the book was not a true biography of the man. The biography is in there, you just have to muddle through the author's side tracks to see it. I don't know of another biography to recommend since this is the first I tried, spurred on by the glowing reviews. Maybe I missed something and it is a great biography, but not for me personally.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Discovering John Steinbeck 8 Jun 2000
By Loren D. Morrison - Published on Amazon.com
I first "discovered" John Steinbeck back in the mid 50's when I was a student at the Army Language School (now called the Defense Language Institute, I think) in Monterey, California. At that time, all but one of the canneries had been shut down, as the sardines had disappeared from Monterey Bay, and the conversion of Cannery Row to a tourist Mecca wasn't even a gleam in some promoter's eye. I was able to spend my weekends ferreting out the sites dear to Steinbeck while I was reading about them. I particularly concentrated on Monterey, Pacific Grove and Salinas.
Through the years, I returned to Monterey Peninsula when I could and visited the Salinas Library, and later, as they opened, the various centers and museums dedicated to him. All in all, I thought that I was a real expert on Steinbeck. It took Parini's biography of Steinbeck to make me realize just how superficial my knowledge really was.
Reading Parini's biography of Steinbeck, I began to learn about Steinbeck as a flesh and blood human being. I knew of course, that he had a well developed social conscience and that he had never received the critical acclaim that he desired. Parini, however, brought to life a talented, tortured, stubborn, difficult Steinbeck that I hadn't known.
Nowhere are these aspects of Steinbeck's personality revealed better than in his struggles to write a new version of the Arthurian legend, or what he frequently referred to as "The Malory Project." Steinbeck had been fascinated with the Arthurian Legends since he had read, and understood, Malory's MORTE d'ARTHUR, at about the age of nine. It would seem that his life-long ambition was to write his own Arthurian saga.
Parini shows Steinbeck with writer's block, searching for the "right atmosphere," the right paper, the right kind of pens and ink, the right anything to give him the inspiration he needed to fulfill his life's ambition. He even left his English retreat to travel to Italy in search of possible Malory sources. Nothing worked and, in the end, he had to give up the Malory Project. With the abandonment of his dream, his health began the decline that only ended with his death. (His partially completed manuscript and many of his notes about the project were published after his death as THE ACTS OF KING ARTHUR AND HIS NOBLE KNIGHTS by John Steinbeck.
Parini's biography brings to life Steinbeck, the flawed man, and shows him with the courage to return to California's Central Valley after the publication of GRAPES OF WRATH made him persona non grata. It makes the reader feel the pain that Steinbeck felt when he suffered critical rejection. The reader lives through, with him, his marriages, his divorces, his weaknesses and his strenghths. I believe that this is the finest of the Steinbeck biographies.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Terrifically insightful 29 Mar 2000
By Glenn Miller - Published on Amazon.com
There's no doubt Parini is an excellent writer. He's proven that on numerous occasions. But the Steinbeck autobiography proves he is also an excellent researcher and distiller of information. Steinbeck has been one of my favorite writers for years, and, as stated within his preface, he is one of Parini's favorites as well. Parini's admiration for Steinbeck comes across, as he details the many periods of Steinbeck's life, such as the Depression years, the war correspondence days, and the latter novels, such as The Winter of Our Discontent and Travels with Charley. Of particular interest within this biography is Parini's exploration of Steinbeck's psychological background and why he includes so many strong female characters within his novels.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Master Writer's Hundredth Birthday 20 Mar 2002
By William Hare - Published on Amazon.com
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.
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