There’s an old saying that great writing is simple but not easy, and so it is. The search for that one plain but inobvious word that will do the work of five, the agony of untangling a complex idea that has become a mass of phrases in the writer’s mind, the willingness to keep doing it over and over and over again until it is right — all of that plus some luck yields prose so clear that it seems a child could have written it.”
That’s William Souder writing about the author and conservationist Rachel Carson in his 2012 biography “On a Farther Shore.” It also nicely describes the work of biographer Souder himself: painstakingly researched, psychologically nuanced, unshowy, lucid.
He is drawn in subject to American originals whose lives are marked by great success, self-doubt, and an eerie capacity and need for solitude. A fascination with and absorption in nature characterize Carson and the ornithologist and painter John James Audubon, the focus of Souder’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist “Under a Wild Sky.”AD
In his newest biography, the smart, soulful and panoramic “Mad at the World,” Souder has chosen a subject on the same continuum: John Steinbeck, another loner who, like Audubon and Carson, refined his craft through mature, dogged, self-punishing industry.
A key connecting thread between Souder’s last book and the current one is the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who was a literary model for Carson, a best friend and onetime co-author with Steinbeck, and the inspiration for the character Doc in Steinbeck’s 1945 novel “Cannery Row.” Steinbeck and Ricketts collaborated on “Sea of Cortez,” a 1941 chronicle — as hedonistic as scientific — of a voyage in the Gulf of California to collect marine specimens. One can easily imagine Souder deep into his research on Carson, becoming smitten with the Monterey mystique around Steinbeck and Ricketts, and happily awakening to his next subject.
Audubon struggled to capture some of the vast variation and abundance of American bird life. Carson sounded the alarm over the dire insecticide threat to that abundance. And Steinbeck spied a pattern that bridged nature and sociology. Assiduously trundling through the writer’s journals and letters, as well as his 33 books, Souder explains the particular importance of the “phalanx.”
“Steinbeck eventually came to believe that you could not understand humankind by looking at individuals — any more than you could interpret a human being’s behavior by looking at one of their cells,” Souder explains. “The answers were all in the phalanx, the superorganism, the group unit.” The phalanx, Steinbeck believed, is a repository of knowledge about all that humanity has endured, including, in his words, “destruction, war, migration, hatred, and fear.”
Souder delineates the centrality of that notion to Steinbeck’s storytelling. It is the magical ingredient that makes his characters gritty but also larger than life. In “The Grapes of Wrath,” after all, what are the Joad family and the greater migrant surge of Dust Bowl “Okies”? Phalanxes.
So, in a lighter vein, are the paisanos of “Tortilla Flat” (1935) and the bittersweet ragtag assortment of intellectuals, tradesmen, prostitutes and derelicts in “Cannery Row.” Steinbeck also describes what happens to those whom the societal phalanx rolls over, like the two hapless wanderers Lennie and George in the 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men.” Once Souder highlights the phalanx theme, in fact, a reader could become obsessed with it, charting it all the way to the corrupt Long Island suburbs of Steinbeck’s last novel, “The Winter of Our Discontent” (1961).