A professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, Jackson J. Benson (looking more like a football coach than an English professor) put the kettle on for coffee, apologizing for its being “instant,” then led me downstairs to a basement workroom. I had read Benson’s meticulous, detailed 1116-page biography, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (Viking Press, 1984) and his recent Looking for Steinbeck’s Ghost (University of Oklahoma Press, 1988). In the latter, Benson tells of his own “education and misadventure” in writing the Steinbeck biography. I knew that Benson — like Steinbeck – was shy, that interviewing strangers had not come easily to him. (He tells, in Looking for Steinbeck’s Ghost, of needing to carry a towel in his car, in order to wipe nervous perspiration of his face before he knocked on doors behind which interview subjects waited.) I knew he had worked on the biography for 15 years, some one-quarter of his life. I guessed, but didn’t know, the biography had been more a labor of love, a matter of defense and advocacy of Steinbeck the writer, than one that garnered much fiscal reward.
We sat across from one another, over a long table on which Benson’s wife, a calligrapher, had been blocking out posters. From the back yard’s green lawn, a golden Lab named Tess gazed in through French doors and moaned.
A third-generation Californian, born and reared in San Francisco, Benson “hated school, loved reading.” On his own, apart from the schoolroom, he read Jane Austen, the Brontes, Dickens. He came upon Steinbeck’s books in the public library when he was in junior high school (“Which I hate to tell you,” said Benson, “was in World War II”). No one recommended Stein beck to Benson, and he wasn’t sure which book he read first, but guesses it was Of Mice and Men.
“It was about a world that was so different than the world of English or American 19th –century novel. It was shocking to read not only about your own country, but about something that was happening at the time, near you. And then I just kept on reading.” Benson intoned titles: “The Long Valley, Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row.”
In college, in the army, in graduate school, Benson continued to read and reread Steinbeck. But in academia, Steinbeck was scorned. He had taken Thomas Wolfe’s place as “the writer that we disdain.” A rancorous edge rasping his normally even tone, Benson said, “There existed, against Steinbeck, the typical Eastern establishment bias against the Western writer.”
After he received his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1965, Benson came to San Diego State to teach. From research done on his dissertation, he wrote a book, Hemingway: The Writer’s Art of Self-Defense. That done, he began to search for another project. Some eight month before Steinbeck died in 1968, Benson decided he would “‘save’ his writer from the savage scorn of mocking critics.” He’d write a critical assessment of Steinbeck’s work.
“My mother-in-law has a close friend who way a very good friend of Steinbeck’s sister who lives in Pacific Grove. She said to me one day, ‘Would you like to talk to Steinbeck’s sister?’ I hadn’t planned, of course, to do any interview, but I thought, ‘What the heck, I might as well.’’
In Pacific Grove, Steinbeck’s sister took Benson through the house in which Steinbeck and his first wife Carol had lived during the ‘30s. The house had been without heat. “She showed me the fireplace he built. In the garden, some of the plants were plants that he planted.”
Benson returned, several times, to Pacific Grove. He visited Steinbeck’s birthplace in nearby Salinas. He met Steinbeck’s childhood friends. They told him stories. Young John, even as a toddler, had been a defender of smaller, weaker boys against the larger and more powerful; as an adolescent he had been a “hell raiser,” Benson thought, “This is getting too good to pass up.” He decided perhaps he should not write a book re-evaluating Steinbeck’s work but a critical biography, a book that would mix literary criticism with biography.
In 1970, Steinbeck’s sister recommended Benson as a biographer to Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine (his third wife, whom he married in 1949). “Elaine Steinbeck said she’s like to meet me. So I flew back to New York. Which was very expensive at that time. Coach seats were $950. And I barely had the money to get back there and talk to her.”
They were to meet on Long Island, at Sag Harbor, where the Steinbeck’s had kept a summer house. Benson had read as much about Steinbeck’s life as he could, but there wasn’t that much to read. Steinbeck had opposed the publicity often given writers and had granted few interviews.
Encyclopedia articles about Steinbeck were filled with errors, some giving even his birthdate (1902) incorrectly. One article stated that Steinbeck and his parents were born in Oklahoma. They got wrong the name of his second wife Gwyndolyn, mother of Steinbeck’s two sons, Thom and John. (Errors persist, noted Benson, adding that there is now “even an idea aloft that Steinbeck’s first wife Carol wrote The Grapes of Wrath, which the feminists are pushing.”)
At the time of his first Sag Harbor visit, Benson as yet didn’t know enough about Steinbeck to ask good questions. Elaine Steinbeck, during their initial talks, helped “not only with the answers but occasionally with the questions. She spoon fed me.” The author’s widow introduced Benson to Steinbeck’s friends. But Benson, not an “aggressive, investigative-reporter type,” said that he “dropped the ball quite a lot.”
In Looking for Steinbeck’s Ghost, Benson gives an example of his fumbling an interview with a Sag Harbor boatyard owner.
- Benson: “So you knew Steinbeck pretty well?”
- Boatyard Owner: “Yeah.”
- Benson: “For a long time?”
- Boatyard Owner: “Yeah, a long time.”
- Benson: “What did you do … when you happened to see him?”
- Boatyard Owner: “… we went fishing together a few times.”
- Benson: “Did anything unusual or funny ever happen when you were out fishing?”
- Boatyard Owner: “Oh, no. Just the usual stuff, you know.”