- Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage by Susan Shillinglaw
Scholars and fans of John Steinbeck are fortunate to have two fine biographies available—Jackson Benson’s (1990) and Jay Parini’s (1995). The former is huge and exhaustive in detail and anecdote; the latter, while more concise, is more prone to literary critical conjecture and interpretation. Both are well researched and deftly written. Now another indispensable source can be placed beside these classics, Susan Shillinglaw’s Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage published by the University of Nevada Press.
Framing a biography around a couple for the duration of their marriage appealed to me conceptually, and the book proved as fascinating in the reading as in the idea. For one thing, it is informed by Shillinglaw’s deep knowledge of her subject. A professor of English at San Jose State University, she was the director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies for almost twenty years. So she brings to this project an intimate familiarity with a wealth of resources—unpublished letters, diaries, interviews, and manuscripts—that she encountered while at that post. She uses these primary sources to construct a portrait that gives us much new information about Steinbeck’s life, including many entertaining anecdotes and stories. But more importantly, for this reviewer at least, I believe she changes how this period of his life and work should be viewed.
Using the ancient warfare analogy of the phalanx, in which soldiers moved together in battle as one entity, she demonstrates that the convergence of John and Carol, and also Ed Ricketts, Joseph Campbell, and others in their circle, created an environment and a feedback system that greatly enabled and supported Steinbeck as he created his great works of the 1930s. Together, the group [End Page 168] was more than the sum of its parts. It provided a setting for informed, engaging conversation about biology, ecology, politics, mythology, and eastern religion; it was a “scene” of fun, drinking, and excess that flaunted the bourgeois values that surrounded them; and most importantly, it provided feedback and criticism that Steinbeck needed as a developing writer but seldom received. Fittingly, the phalanx analogy itself was one that this creative ensemble came up with and developed to explore the “herd” versus “rugged individual” dichotomy that was such a central social issue of the times.
While the entire group gets the attention it deserves, the focus is squarely on John Ernst Steinbeck and Carol Janella Henning and the unit they became from the moment they met in 1928. Raised in an uptight religious family, Carol rebelled strongly. By the time they met (when she was 23), she was a perfect fit for 26-year-old John. As Shillinglaw puts it “She was a poster child for the decade: she smoked freely, swore energetically, and set her own rules. She bought a car. Like John, she could toss down her liquor…. ” They jumped headlong into their relationship, married in early 1930, and she immediately made his writing career their mutual life project.
The chapter titles give an idea of the sweep of the book—(1) Renegades, (2) Make It New: Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, and Eagle Rock, (3) Home in Pacific Grove, (4) At Ed Ricketts’ Lab, (5) Wave Shock 1932–35, (6) “Viva Mexico!”, (7) California is “A Bomb Right Now … Highly Explosive”: Writing The Grapes of Wrath, (8) Enter Gwynn Conger, (9) On the Sea of Cortez, and (10) A Life in Fragments. I don’t need to rehearse Steinbeck’s overall biography here because readers of this journal know it. But I do think Shillinglaw’s concentration on the John-Carol relationship changes how we think about what we already know of that biography. They were the center of a whirlwind of friends, fun, and creativity; then they were isolated as John’s mother and father sickened and died; then they shifted focus from the valley of John’s childhood to the larger political and economic crisis situation in California; and...