Arts

Carol and John Steinbeck:
Portrait of a Marriage

Bio of Steinbeck's marriage shows how success tore apart a creative couple
Ladies Comedy Night Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage

Seventy-five years on, John Steinbeck's masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath, remains potent reading. The opening prose poem about the drought that drives the Joad family to the promised land of California—"The sun faced down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more"—takes on a new resonance as the Golden State suffers its own arid era.

The Grapes of Wrath grabs the reader with a singular energy that makes it easy to miss the dedication: "To CAROL who willed this book." Carol Steinbeck not only picked the title, but also rode herd on the hard years of creation in a rare kind of artistic synergy. For more than a decade, Carol and John Steinbeck were soulmates and collaborators, also birthing The Red Pony, In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men.

In Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage, Susan Shillinglaw gives Carol Henning Steinbeck her full due. This strong-willed, sharp-witted woman was more than just a supportive wife, more than a repressed Zelda Fitzgerald.

For many years, the director of San Jose State University's Center for Steinbeck Studies, Shillinglaw has drawn on her deep access to archives, letters and family interviews for this fascinating study.

Carol Henning was born in San Jose, four years after John Steinbeck. Precocious and witty, Carol was "a poster child for the decade: she smoked freely, swore energetically and set her own rules."

In the summer of 1928, Carol and a friend vacationed at Lake Tahoe, where Steinbeck was biding his time working at a fish hatchery. The attraction was pretty much instantaneous.

John and Carol married in L.A. in 1930, and by the mid-'30s the strife and suffering of the Depression pointed the Steinbecks toward a novel about the migrant experience in California. John traveled widely in the Central Valley soaking up the hardscrabble stories of field workers. On this "pilgrim's journey to partisan wrath," Carol, Shillinglaw writes, was "the more politically engaged."

The rest of John and Carol's saga unravels unhappily, the intensity of their creative yoking dissolving as simply as a "spinning top running out of momentum can easily be tipped off axis."

Carol and John Steinbeck does a valuable service in exploring a model of creativity beyond the usual solitary-genius trope. In Shillinglaw's analysis, their marriage achieved something "larger than both individually, with art the 'keying mechanism' of their marital bond." His name is on the cover of every edition of The Grapes of Wrath, but Carol lives in all of its pages.

Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage

By Susan Shillinglaw. University of Nevada Press, cloth, $34.95


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