Carol and John Steinbeck:
Portrait of a Marriage

By Susan Shillinglaw

University of Nevada Press | 312 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Susan Shillinglaw

 John Steinbeck is one of the few American writers whose name is iconic. 

Decade after decade, specific books of his have been deployed by thousands of teachers across the land; and thanks to multiple generations discovering in classrooms the power of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, or East of Eden (with the occasional maverick instructor assigning Cannery Row or Travels with Charley), the legacy of Steinbeck is robust. 

  Yet, as biographer Susan Shillinglaw reminds us in her insightful, important, and necessary new work, there was a time when the man who wrote The Grapes of Wrath was a mere struggling writer; an acknowledged talent, yes, but always on the edge of failure with an uncertain future

  Thus we have Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage.  And in this new book, Shillinglaw makes a powerful case for the idea that Steinbeck’s first wife had everything to do with his ability to persevere, to create a body of work that drew notice to his burgeoning talent, and to carry on despite all the pressures (fiscal, psychological, and otherwise) that plague serious writers attempting to emerge.

  Shillinglaw’s tightly focused narrative is a corrective to the tendency of too many biographies to try to be so comprehensive that they become sprawling cradle-to-grave narratives, with crucial episodes reduced to summaries.  Instead, we have here a superb example of a significant portion of a great writer’s life being looked at intently, with far more detail and interpretation than one usually finds in standard biographies.

This focus invites readers to apprehend the agonies of growth as well as the periodic bursts of optimistic joy and fulfillment that informed a 12-year epoch forming the first phase of Steinbeck’s long and varied career.  Carol Henning Steinbeck was more than a buoy in young Steinbeck’s life.  She was his anchor.

Cynics might say that women like her were mere appendages to their men, little more than glorified typists.  But that’s not fair.  In her own way, Carol Henning Steinbeck was as much of a rebel and just as unconventional as Steinbeck himself.

She drank hard, had her own artistic gifts (creating pen-and-in drawings and as a sculptor, in particular), and her pungent sense of humor was complemented by a pugnacious tenacity and grit.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage is that is illuminates and illustrates how California was a sanctuary in the late 1920s and throughout the Depression-era 1930s for the bohemian, artsy, and eternally yearning kindred spirits who surrounded young Steinbeck.

Long before the San Francisco in the Sixties phenomenon evolved, there were plenty of countercultural streams rippling through California.  In the case of Carol and John Steinbeck, between the years 1928 and 1940, they enjoyed the company of then-unknown future legends a’ la mythologist Joseph Campbell, musical composer John Cage, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, journalist Lincoln Steffens and others—all of whom were living on next to nothing and somehow thriving in spite of the miseries invoked elsewhere in the nation

Moving from one place to another (San Francisco to Pacific Grove or Los Gatos to Monterey), the marital odyssey that was capped in 1939 when Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath is revealed in this fine new work as a time of creative ferment, audacious ambition, and of course the inevitable sacrifices that Carol made in the service of John’s writing (which was their mutual primary focus).

Much like Hadley Hemingway (Papa’s first bride) or Lowney Handy with young James Jones (she was Jones’s mentor, protector, lover and ally), or myriad other gifted, strong women whose individual talents were rendered secondary by the quests of their men, Carol Henning Steinbeck played a crucial role that faded over time.

However, the richly varied and exceedingly well-researched narrative composed by Susan Shillinglaw argues successfully that it was Carol to whom young Steinbeck owed his decisions to write with singular focus about California and the infinitely subtle complexities of its troubled, itinerant, usually down-and-out inhabitants

By so effectively encouraging Steinbeck to make California the locus of his art, Carol helped him to find his voice.  It’s no accident that The Grapes of Wrath is dedicated: “To Carol, who willed this book.”

This wonderful new biography offers plenty of echoes of Steinbeck, but its real value is in restoring to memory the voice, style, and persona of Carol Henning Steinbeck:

More and more John and Carol dressed alike in slacks and work shirts, even though a woman in pants was considered risqué at the time.  Traditional gender lines blurred as John and Carol launched their egalitarian marriage . . . She was tough, or at least projected toughness, and thought a great deal like a man in many ways.  And John’s rugged exterior shielded a very sensitive, vulnerable man.  That fluidity of roles sustained both.

Of course it all ended badly more than 12 years later, with bitterness and shared exhaustion.  But the heart of this biography beats with the shared energy of hope.  And it’s that forward-looking, youthful hope that made their union briefly perfect.

(M. J. Moore is completing a biography of novelist James Jones and than plans to write the first-ever biography of author Mario Puzo.)

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