By that point Steinbeck had already published the beloved coming-of-age story “The Red Pony,” as well as the hugely successful novel “Tortilla Flat,” both of which he wrote while at his mother’s deathbed, in 1933. Steinbeck’s human side is best revealed in these passages in which he’s caring for both of his parents at the end of their lives. Despite his grief, though, there’s something ebullient about the way “Tortilla Flat” romanticizes the mixed-race individualists who dwell in the hills above Monterey.
That novel, like “In Dubious Battle,” was acquired by Pascal Covici, who would remain Steinbeck’s loyal publisher for three decades, ending up at Viking. (Steinbeck had also managed to secure the savvy literary agents Elizabeth Otis and Mavis McIntosh.) In 1937, he produced another hit: the poignant and streamlined (if schematic) “Of Mice and Men,” brought to Broadway almost immediately by George S. Kaufman.
Steinbeck kept writing. “The clock is running down,” he said at just 39. Maniacally, he counted the number of words he produced each day. “Life was leaking out of him,” Souder rhapsodizes, “slipping away into the oblivion waiting for him in death.”
Perhaps; but after The San Francisco News assigned Steinbeck to write a series about the pathetic living conditions of the Dust Bowl refugees in California’s San Joaquin Valley, he actively began “The Grapes of Wrath,” his touching 1939 novel about the hegira of these Oklahoma sharecroppers. The Joad family is a single, self-protective biological collective, with Ma Joad at its nurturing center: “It’s all one flow,” she says. “Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out.” With these stereotypes in place, Steinbeck’s characters remain remote specimens — as the critic Alfred Kazin put it, they stay “on the verge of becoming human, but never do.” Yet, immediate and concrete and written more out of sorrow — and hope — than anger, the novel became an anthem of the Depression. “Steinbeck’s writing had merged with history,” Souder enthusiastically declares.
No longer living on a shoestring, the Steinbecks built a house in the Santa Cruz foothills. He and Carol traveled; they were friends with Charlie Chaplin. Shrinking from fame and plagued by “dreaded, soul-crushing celebrity,” Steinbeck nonetheless courted Hollywood notables, who courted him back, and though he complained about never having enough money, “Tortilla Flat,” “Of Mice and Men” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Grapes of Wrath” were all adapted for the screen.
But success may have destroyed his marriage. While visiting Los Angeles, Steinbeck had begun an affair with Gwen Conger, a 19-year-old “lit fuse” (Souder’s term) who would become his second wife and the mother of their sons. At the same time, John and Carol joined Ricketts on a voyage to collect marine specimens in the waters off Lower California. The journal the men kept over the six-week trip would be published a decade later as the lyrical nonfiction book “Sea of Cortez.”