William Souder is a veteran biographer, who has already successfully tackled John Jacob Audubon and Rachel Carson, two highly commendable subjects. This time he has a harder job, recuperating a less appealing figure: grouchy, sullen, truculent. The portrait here is by no means hagiographic: every one of Steinbeck’s flaws or misbehaviours is conscientiously noted. But Souder sees a pattern, ostensibly forgivable because divinely inspiring, behind these unattractive qualities. The figure in the carpet the biographer posits is indicated by the book’s title: Mad at the World.
Souder writes well, and this is a good place to start reading (or rereading) about Steinbeck. But Mad at the World sometimes feels a bit too terse and cursory, especially in the last 50 pages, and falls short of communicating a strong sense of the complicated, emotional life of a very complicated, emotional writer. For example, in his earlier, more extensive biography, Benson spent a full page describing the only meeting between Steinbeck and Hemingway (it was a disaster). Souder’s version of the same story is reduced to this: ‘Hemingway had interrupted the otherwise dull evening by breaking a walking stick over his own head to prove he could.’
Sadly it’s hard to get a solid sense of Steinbeck from Souder’s book, which is highly readable but, at 368 pages minus notes, feels too slim for such a lot of life, such a lot of work. And Souder, who has also written lives of John James Audubon and Rachel Carson, wastes valuable space trying his hand at Steinbeck-inspired evocations of landscape, or dispensing slightly cheesy wisdom about writers (“Writers write because they do care”).