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John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography Paperback – December 1, 1990

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Jackson J. Benson teaches American Literature at San Diego State University. His biography, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, won the PEN USA West award for nonfiction. He lives in La Mesa, California.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 1184 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (December 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014014417X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140144178
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 2 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #439,117 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

44 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Craig Chalquist, PhD, author of TERRAPSYCHOLOGY and DEEP CALIFORNIA on December 30, 2002
Format: Paperback
For my doctoral research, which involves the history of coastal California, I wanted one big, clearly written book that was solidly put together but not clogged with footnotes. I found it here. Fifteen years of research, some of it with friends and relatives of Steinbeck's, went into this biography, which reads like a straight-up narrative of the writer's adventurous life. Though long, it reads quickly, devoid of academic jargon. Highly recommended.
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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Kenneth Blum on May 29, 2001
Format: Paperback
John Steinbeck once considered writing an autobiography, and it's a shame the Nobel prize winner never lived to do it. Mr. Steinbeck's letters and journals blaze with sharp and honest introspection, keen insight into human behavior and empathy. It's certain that an autobiography would have been a classic.
So, instead, we rely on those who write biographies to chronicle the life of one of America's great writers.
There have been several Steinbeck biographies and many of those have been well done. But Jackson J. Benson's version, titled simply "John Steinbeck, Writer", is the definitive one - over 1,000 pages of readable and compelling material that follows the writer's life from his Huck Finn childhood in Salinas, California, to the success of his novels and the failures of his marriages in midlife, and finally to domestic bliss mixed with pain from pretentious critics whose stones and arrows he could not duck and would not ignore in his later years.
The ability to wrestle the massive amount of research that this work involved into a book that anyone can enjoy is an achievement that amazes.
It's the next best thing to the autobiography that never was.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Rafael R. Costas Jr. on May 22, 2002
Format: Paperback
Frankly, it just got a little long for me. Steinbeck was---and probably still is---my favorite American writer. This book reminded me why: Not only for the beauty of his prose and amazing powers of description, but for his uncompromising integrity, loyalty and devotion to his craft. I learned a lot about this man, but also about the book publishing business and the literary world.
One has to tip his hat to the author for the level of detail and the research performed, especially his good fortune in being able to interview all three of his wives. Reading this after reading most of Steinbeck's major works, gave insight into what drove JS to write each one of his works and helped dispel any misconceptions about his political tendencies and whether he was trying to write "political message" books or not.
Most appalling was to find out how little regarded Steinbeck was among the literary critics in the last 25-30 years of his life, to the point that they questioned the Nobel Prize Committee's decision-making process once JS was honored with the award.
There is a lot to learn in this book. I wouldn't have minded reading a little less detail on some of the progress (or lack of) on some of his lesser works and some of his travels. But for the Steinbeck fan, this is a must-read.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Invisible Man on February 4, 2006
Format: Paperback
I've read a few Steinbeck biographies and this one is my favorite. There is a ton of information in this brick of a book, and it took me a year to get through it (I read slow). Benson does a great job covering Steinbeck's childhood, his years at Stanford, his lousy jobs, his apprenticeship as a writer, and his perseverance and eventual publication (which still left him in dire financial straits).

The second half of the biography, where John moves to NYC, shows a different side of the man as he ventures away from his native California and obtains literary success. He does more traveling, marries for a second time, and contemplates writing his "big book" (East of Eden).

My favorite part of the book was its references to Steinbeck's writing habits. He was a very solitary man who was obsessive about writing everyday (his friends were often puzzled about why he was so selfish with his time). Also, he strove for simplicity in his stories (there was no showboating in the man or his work) and he tried to craft voice through a simple, parsed-down style.

This biography is very big, and the reader may get caught up in a different issue, storyline, or period of John's life. What facinated me, however, was John's writing habits and how he fought off doubt, depression, and writer's block. This biography was loaded with lots of information about the writing life (it's as good, if not better, than the Paris Review interviews).

Steinbeck is my favorite writer and if it wasn't for him I probably wouldn't write fiction. I enjoy reading about him, almost as much as I enjoy reading his books.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By H. Schneider on January 3, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The man was contradiction personified: during his university time he started his interest in science, attended zoology classes, dissecting animals, and he also wrote stories full of fairies and mysticism. He was acting the outlaw in the face of convention, thus provoking the loneliness that he struggled with for a long time.
The end product of this amalgam is endearing: a mystical materialist, a non-intellectual with more science in his mind than most headier writers, a champion for low-lifers and misfits, a rebel without interest in politics, an apparent man of action who does not believe in purposes and causes.
He mixed up the fiction that he read, wrote and lived: disentangling the 3 is the main challenge of a biography.
He wanted to be a writer and that was what he became, against all odds. Nobody wanted his writing for a long time. The biggest mystery about him is how he overcame the endless period of rejection. When he finally found publishers, his first books were commercial failures, partly due to timing, partly because the publishers did nothing to push. All his publishers went bankrupt, so he needed a new one for each book.
How could he possibly know that he had the talent to become one of the most famous writers in the world? Puzzling and admirable.
I love many of his books, others are mediocre, others are unreadable. He had a performance and success plateau in his middle age. Then creativity dropped off, which bothered him strongly.
A likeable man with hindsight, even if not to all contemporaries, and a writer of loveable books. Benson wrote a readable, if a little too fat biography. Benson's approach is very detailed. That must lead to a very fat book automatically.
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