This book is a beast. With over a thousand pages detailing the life of a very private man, this biography truly tells one everything they could possibly know about John Steinbeck. Perhaps a more accurate title would've been: John Steinbeck, Writer, Reader, Lover, Joker, Explorer, Worrier, Drinker, Traveler, Inventor, Researcher, Father, Sailor, Eater....
As a writer with a great love for Steinbeck's work, I was interested in the man behind the pages. As I haven't quite finished Steinbeck's entire bibliography (I'm at 66%), I felt some hesitation about reading this tome. Would knowing the inner life of Steinbeck alter my perspective of his creative work? I don't think it did, positively or negatively. My feelings about the works I've read remained unchanged, but my desire to read those I haven't yet read was greatly increased. (In the coming months, expect a considerable amount of Steinbeck in my feed.)
The sheer amount of work Benson must have put into this biography is impressive. It is with little doubt that I say this is the most extensive biography that will ever be written about Steinbeck. The research and the interviews are comprehensive. Having read John Steinbeck, Writer, I have few remaining questions about its subject, but many about its biographer. What kind of person sets out to write such a thorough work about an author? How long did he obsess over the subject? Does he have any regrets about how he spent his years? Does he dream about the Salinas Valley? Does he confuse events in the life of Steinbeck with his own? Was he sick of all things Steinbeck by the time of publication?
Some readers will perhaps be irritated with the length of John Steinbeck, Writer. Personally, though the work was longer than it needed to be, I was happy that Benson included as much as he did, allowing the reader to decide what facts are and are not important. What I appreciated less about this volume was the intrusion of Benson, the author (ironically, Steinbeck was sometimes criticized for intrusions, especially in later works). John Steinbeck, Writer is marred by the opinions of its author. Benson criticizes the critics, agents, editors, and publishers who continually begged Steinbeck to rehash The Grapes of Wrath; they were annoyed that the writer always wanted to try his hand at something new. Despite his criticism of these literary elites, Benson falls into the same trap, declaring The Grapes... as Steinbeck's masterpiece and declaring all subsequent works as inferior mistakes (the only possible exception being Travels with Charley). This is Benson's opinion and certainly unwanted. (Besides, these days we all know that East of Eden was Steinbeck's true masterpiece and y'all were just too close-minded to recognize it in the first forty years after its publication.) Less directly, it seems that maybe Benson has glossed over some known facts to paint Steinbeck in the most positive light possible. The picture painted here is of a genius who, because of fame and pressure, became slightly out of touch with his fellow man. I would argue that Steinbeck, especially after winning that cursed Nobel prize, was so incredibly far from the imaginative writer he set out to be forty years earlier that he probably wouldn't have recognized himself. At the hands of Steinbeck himself, Steinbeck probably would've been more honest about his mistakes than Benson was. And while Steinbeck toyed with the idea of writing an autobiography of sorts, a fact I learned from this work, he never got around to it. Thus, aside from what we can garner from Steinbeck's own writing, the most complete picture we have of the author comes from John Steinbeck, Writer, (because Steinbeck didn't use Facebook and you've always wanted to know what was on his dinner plate—and Benson went to great trouble to find out for you.)