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Carol and John Steinbeck

Portrait of a Marriage

Susan Shillinglaw

Publication Year: 2013

In Steinbeck’s formative years, she was his mainstay, his partner, his inspiration 

Published by: University of Nevada Press

Series: Western Literature Series

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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p. vii-vii


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p. ix-ix

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pp. xi-xv

On a recent tour I led to the Red Pony ranch near Salinas, California, a woman asked me if I was related to John Steinbeck. “You are, aren’t you?” No, definitely not, although when I stand on dusty Hebert Road, near the barn with the little swallows’ nests still under the eaves, with the water tank behind me and the paddock before me, the white buildings of distant Salinas...

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pp. 1-9

Viking Press spent more money on the publicity campaign for The Grapes of Wrath than on any other book in its history. Editor, president, and sales force knew prerelease that they had a blockbuster. Sales were brisk before the novel hit bookstores on April 14, 1939, growing to a torrent after reviews came in lauding and denouncing the book that, on the one hand, so movingly ...

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Chapter One. Rengades

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pp. 10-33

Their childhoods were happy enough, yet neither Carol Janella Henning nor John Ernst Steinbeck was a particularly settled child. Both felt like outsiders. John told his younger sister Mary that he “was never at home in Salinas,” where he was born in 1902. “I was a stranger there from birth.” And Carol, born sixty miles north in San Jose, was the black sheep ...

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Chapter Two. Make it New

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pp. 34-59

Young Carol Henning and John Steinbeck struck iconic poses in post–World War I California. In San Francisco, Carol reinvented herself, undergoing a metamorphosis from gawky high school wallflower to career girl. Secretarial school was the path of a 1920s “New Woman,” a modern option that led to a socially useful career in business. Meaningful work ...

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Chapter Three. Home in Pacific Grove

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pp. 60-83

For the next five years in Pacific Grove, John and Carol lived a pared-down life. Mr. Steinbeck had the tiny board-and-batten retreat constructed in 1903, and young John had spent many foggy summers there, poking in tide pools along the rocky coast two blocks from the cottage and riding in the community donkey cart. That little house was his home base—true in ...

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Chapter Four. At Ed Ricketts’s Lab

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pp. 84-117

The story of Carol and John Steinbeck is enmeshed with that of marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts, a remarkable man whose scientific curiosity was as deep as his philosophical ruminations; whose love of Walt Whitman’s poetry and Gregorian chants was as palpable as his tolerance for nearly everyone who entered his orbit. From 1930 to 1948, the year Ricketts ...

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Image Plates

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pp. P-1-P-16

...“John and Carol gathering cephalopods.” Carol is playing the accordion, an instru-ment that she purchased from Carlton Sheffield, Steinbeck’s college roommate, for one cent. Her playing drove Sheffield to distraction. (Drawing from Carol’s Carol, John, and Ritchie Lovejoy, mid-1930s. Ritchie and his wife, Tal, were close friends of John and Carol’s throughout the 1930s. Ritchie was an artist, designer, ...

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Chapter Five. Wave Shock, 1932–35

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pp. 119-147

In the summer of 1932, with the equilibrium between John and Carol precariously tipped, the two stood in separate corners, chastened. The wronged husband had borrowed a scene from a pulp western in ordering Joseph Campbell out of Pacific Grove and then stalking off into the hills. Eventually he made his way to Carlton Sheffield’s house in Los Angeles and ...

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Chapter Six. "Viva, Mexico!"

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pp. 148-163

To John, Mexico had always been “the golden something,” a place he longed to visit with college friends—a remote destination for Stanford undergraduates, “for all our talk.” Since childhood, he’d listened to the mother of his friend Max Wagner describe her years as a journalist during the Mexican Revolution, exploits that fired a young boy’s imagination. In high school and ...

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Chapter Seven. California Is a “Bomb Right Now . . . Highly Explosive”

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pp. 164-201

Mexico was a seminal journey. In the spring of 1936, a refreshed Steinbeck sat down to write with a transformed sensibility. Both imaginatively and physically, he would leave his valley of the world and turn to the world at large, his focus changing from roots to routes (a distinction made by Paul Gilroy in his study of the African-American diaspora). Roots demand an ...

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Chapter Eight. Enter Gwen Conger

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pp. 202-216

What sets the lifetime of a phalanx? What allows the unit to fracture and ultimately disintegrate can be as complex as the mixing of forces that led to its creation. But in some cases the demise can be rather prosaic— a spinning top running out of momentum can easily be tipped off axis. For John and Carol, finishing Grapes finished them, leaving them physically and ...

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Chapter Nine. On the Sea of Cortez

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pp. 217-236

A few years after the 1940 voyage that Steinbeck, Ricketts, and Carol took to the Sea of Cortez, Carol and a friend were on a fishing boat on Monterey Bay, watching the sunset. Suddenly Carol exclaimed that the scene reminded her of Baja: “Oh what a time we had. That was the happiest time of my entire life.” There were tears in her eyes. It was the only occasion when Viola ...

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Chapter Ten. Life in Fragments

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pp. 237-256

When Carol lost John, she lost her life’s narrative. It was difficult, nearly impossible, for her to find another that sustained. John cut Carol adrift. The marriage lasted a year, almost to the day, after the Western Flyer docked in Monterey in late April 1940. John spent that year on overdrive, working on Sea of Cortez, a Mexican film, and a film of The Red Pony with ...

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pp. 257-261

Carol met Bill Brown during the war, when mutual friends introduced them, and he attended parties at Carol’s house. After her divorce from Loren, they renewed their acquaintance at Carmel’s Mission Inn in the early 1950s, where he was manager and bartender. (He had been resident manager of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco and of the Moana Hotel in Honolulu as ...


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pp. 263-294

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 295-304


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pp. 305-312

E-ISBN-13: 9780874179316
Print-ISBN-13: 9780874179309

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 15 b/w photographs
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Western Literature Series