Cover image for The other side of Eden : life with John Steinbeck
The other side of Eden : life with John Steinbeck
Steinbeck, John, 1946-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, [2001]

Physical Description:
xxviii, 360 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : portraits ; 24 cm
Reading Level:
1080 Lexile.
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PS3537.T34 Z86685 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PS3537.T34 Z86685 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PS3537.T34 Z86685 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Author Notes

In recent years Steinbeck has been elevated to a more prominent status among American writers of his generation. If not quite at the world-class artistic level of a Hemingway or a Faulkner, he is nonetheless read very widely throughout the world by readers of all ages who consider him one of the most "American" of writers.

Born in Salinas County, California on February 27, 1902, Steinbeck was of German-Irish parentage. After four years as a special student at Stanford University, he went to New York, where he worked as a reporter and as a hod carrier. Returning to California, he devoted himself to writing, with little success; his first three books sold fewer than 3,000 copies. Tortilla Flat (1935), dealing with the paisanos, California Mexicans whose ancestors settled in the country 200 years ago, established his reputation. In Dubious Battle (1936), a labor novel of a strike and strike-breaking, won the gold medal of the Commonwealth Club of California. Of Mice and Men (1937), a long short story that turns upon a melodramatic incident in the tragic friendship of two farm hands, written almost entirely in dialogue, was an experiment and was dramatized in the year of its publication, winning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It brought him fame.

Out of a series of articles that he wrote about the transient labor camps in California came the inspiration for his greatest book, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), the odyssey of the Joad family, dispossessed of their farm in the Dust Bowl and seeking a new home, only to be driven on from camp to camp. The fiction is punctuated at intervals by the author's voice explaining this new sociological problem of homelessness, unemployment, and displacement. As the American novel "of the season, probably the year, possibly the decade," it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. It roused America and won a broad readership by the unusual simplicity and tenderness with which Steinbeck treated social questions. Even today, The Grapes of Wrath remains alive as a vivid account of believable human characters seen in symbolic and universal terms as well as in geographically and historically specific ones. Ma Joad is one of the most memorable characters in twentieth-century American fiction. It is her courage that sustains the family. Steinbeck's best and most ambitious novel after The Grapes of Wrath is East of Eden (1952), a saga of two American families in California from before the Civil War through World War I. Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), and Sweet Thursday (1955) are lighter works that find Steinbeck returning to the lighthearted tone of Tortilla Flat as he recounts picaresque adventures of modern-day picaros. The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) struck some reviewers as being appropriately titled because of its despairing treatment of humanity's fall from grace in a wasteland world where money is king.

Steinbeck also wrote important nonfiction, including Russian Journal (1948) in collaboration with the photographer Robert Capa; Once There Was a War (1958) and America and Americans (1966), which features pictures by 55 leading photographers and a 70-page essay by Steinbeck. His interest in marine biology led to two books primarily about sea life, Sea of Cortez (1941) (with Edward F. Ricketts) and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). Travels with Charley (1952) is an engaging account of his journey of rediscovery of America, which took him through approximately 40 states.

Steinbeck was married three times and died in New York City on December 20, 1968 of heart disease and congestive heart failure. He was 66, and had been a life-long smoker. (Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Addiction, abuse, and alcoholism all figured in the life of Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, and John Steinbeck IV (1946^-91) followed in his father's footsteps. Not as a soldier in Vietnam in 1966--the accident of birth kept his father out of combat in both big wars--but as a writer who returned to Vietnam in '68 as a freelance journalist--experience that accounts for some of this memoir's most interesting chapters. He won acclaim for a Vietnam memoir, In Touch, as well as an Emmy for his work on the CBS documentary, The World of Charlie Company. And he became alcoholic and otherwise addicted, just like his parents. He kept mum about the family secrets almost to the end, starting to acknowledge them only shortly before his death following back surgery. His widow, Nancy, completes this insightful account of a chaotic upbringing and its consequences, rounding it out with her memories of life with him and her thoughts on the truncated journey with him toward a new life. --Whitney Scott

Publisher's Weekly Review

The title conveys the dual focus of this memoir: "life with John Steinbeck" refers both to the famous American novelist as seen by his son, and to Nancy Steinbeck's life with the son, her late husband, John Steinbeck IV. Nancy's introduction explains that Steinbeck IV commenced his autobiography in 1990, and after his untimely death in 1991, she "needed to finish his manuscript for [their] family." The book is in short sections, some by John, some by Nancy (a few are coauthored); they both tell sad tales of dysfunction and abuse. The son, a lost soul who never fully developed his own identity apart from his father's fame, tells of a childhood of "Promethean intensity," characterized "by shameless, alcoholic abuse and neglect." After being sent to Vietnam at age 20, John became a journalist (winning an Emmy), Buddhist monk, father, social activist and drug addict. With the exception of the last two years of his life, his periods of sobriety didn't last, though his tumultuous marriage to Nancy, against all odds, did. Nancy's story, perhaps the more dominant and message-driven, is all too familiar: loyal and enraged wife of an intelligent, creative addict who promises everything and delivers little. That intermittent "little" was enough for Nancy, however: "you just plain loved him because he had guts... with a brain... with words... with heart." Little new information on the senior Steinbeck appears, but Nancy does contribute an interesting, somewhat iconoclastic point of view rife with New Age inflections. While John's prose is rich with imagery and Nancy's story is sympathetic, a sense of aimlessness pervades the book. Only devoted Steinbeck fans will feel compelled to read this dual memoir. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Nancy Steinbeck writes here about her father-in-law, the celebrated American novelist John Steinbeck, and about his son, her husband of 12 years, the late John Steinbeck IV. Her narrative frames her husband's memoir of life with his father, which was left incomplete at his death in 1991. John Steinbeck IV, a soldier, correspondent, and junkie who at one time lived "on the dregs of his substantial biannual Steinbeck royalty check," writes of his bitter resentments (family and country) amid the landscape of the 1960s and 1970s. His wife, a former therapist, writes of her role as a codependent and describes herself and her husband as tortured "inner angry babies." Squandered privilege, legacy, medication, and intimacy abound, and irresponsibility and bad choices commingle with navet, delusions, transcendental meditation, and self-absorption. John Steinbeck IV's essays might appeal to readers interested in the the political era and post-traumatic stress syndrome experienced by veterans of the Vietnam War. But all in all, this is writing from a self-imposed trap.DScott Hightower, Fordham Univ., New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One ENTROPY JOHN In 1949, New York City spring was as beautiful as any vaulted redwood forest might have been to a country child of three. Sunlight splashed on iridescent pigeon wings turning them into birds of paradise, and when the rain came to our brownstone glade, it made the pavement smell sweet and cool as it dripped from the elms that lined my block.     What I think of as solid facts are nearly impossible to isolate even in the present, and then the distant past echoes with such an enormous range of dream bytes that interlock so faithfully to themselves with tongues in grooves that they speak to me almost past meaning. A flavor happens, but my childhood impressions are so thoroughly mixed in with things that I remember, things I have heard and things that my nerves prefer, that I have no need for conscious fabrication. I do know that I remember big. My red wagon was the size of a stagecoach in the little garden that was Sherwood Forest. Feelings follow suit as they get lacquered back and forth from the present to the past, building up in layers until they glow alluringly like a black pearl.     I am told that I was a very sick infant with a convulsive stomach that brought me little agonies. Still my brother, Thom, who is twenty-two months older, tells me I was a mild child. He says he determined this in part as a result of an early art experiment that he performed when I was age two. Inclined from birth toward graphics and costume design, he used me as his constant subject. His medium in this particular case was a pint of liquid ox-blood shoe polish. This day, he had decided to paint me red, "like an Indian." He remembers standing me in the tub where he started out with just the war paint thing in mind. However, going off in the other direction from the sort of amateur barber who continues to shorten sideburns into nonexistence, in Thommy's search for perfect symmetry the effect here started to grow into total coverage.     After he had gotten through with my face and chest and then on to my back, the liquid polish started to drip down my butt and legs splashing luridly into the tub. Suddenly startled by the sight of his creation, he thought he had finally crossed the line and begun to kill me. Perhaps somewhere in his unconsciousness was imprinted the specter of human sacrifice, we don't know. It is true that he gestated in Mexico, but notwithstanding the possibility of some remembered Aztec codex, aghast and horrified he ran downstairs screaming of murder. He shrieked to my mother and her gaggle of afternoon guests that I was bleeding to death up in the bathroom. The assorted friends, who in all likelihood were gassed on afternoon screwdrivers, flew up the three flights of stairs to find me waiting passively for more detail work. But then, surprised as well and seeing the expressions on this horde, I must have realized that something untoward and probably dangerous was afoot. I immediately went square-mouthed into tears, stamping and looking wildly around for what the peril might be. I think I actually remember this part, as soon something started to sting.     My mother's friends, the New Yorker crowd, continued to have their cocktail hour at our home, and my brother maintained his talent for art. With fondness and a kind of pride, Thom tells me that at this age anyway, I somehow remained a stalwart and trusting sort, and that I accepted further experimentation at his hand without much blame or suspicion.     By four, I was accosting most everyone on the street with what I thought was my extraordinary ability to count to ten and spell my name ... "You wanna hear me?" Then, to amuse his friends, my father had carefully taught me to respond by rote to the question "What is the second law of thermal dynamics?" In what I am told was a deep froglike croak, I would answer, "Entropy always increases." Indeed it does, but precocious as I must have been, outside of breaking some of my toys, a real grasp of systems and the notion of an integral disintegration from order to chaos was difficult for a four-year-old to really cotton to. Nonetheless, I was well warmed and surely nuzzled in the glow of after-dinner conviviality and the adult enjoyment of this feat.     My father, with too much time on his hands, was given to developing a lot of theories about child rearing. He could be a very kind and wonderfully funny man, but he was also his father's son, and I think a too-casual admirer of ancient Greece. When his mind was idle, I'm afraid it sometimes turned toward Sparta. He had a feeling that training a small child to jump off a high chair into the arms of a parent taught one thing, but allowing the child to fall to the floor at random was the better and deeper lesson. With this grave instruction, a child might learn something about physics, but more importantly he would also learn about life: that the parent would not always be there for him and then he would be better "prepared" for any eventuality. This approach did not entertain the possibility of causing paranoia or bodily injury, so father was quite sure that this was useful and right. Taking everything into account it probably was good to be classically prepared when it came to surviving such a creative family as mine, though the invitation to jump into anyone's open arms remains a sticky business for me and I'm almost never to be found standing on a high chair.     We lived in a four-story brownstone on East Seventy-eighth Street in Manhattan. Though it was surrounded by large apartment buildings, our house sat alone and even had a little wrought-iron fence right on the sidewalk in front and a large pebbled yard in back. All spring and summer, morning glories mixed in with ropes of ivy covering the entire front of the house.     The subway was still elevated on that part of Third Avenue and the sound of the "El" had a comforting quality that made me feel connected to all sorts of strange and exotic things and also to the characters who came walking off the train and up the street. Though some of these folks muttered angrily to themselves and jousted at invisible enemies, New York was a safe place. You could sleep in Central Park without fear.     Organ grinders with monkeys and photographers leading ponies came past my house like a circus train, along with ice cream vendors, hoboes, and tinkers who could fix anything. I watched and saw that the hoboes would make secret signs on your front steps or near the door to signal to other floaters that the family within was good for a cup of coffee or maybe even a sandwich. Since I was often unsupervised and it was the only thing I could make, I was a master of a Blue Plate Half-Pounder baloney special. We got a lot of hoboes.     In summer, everyone talked about the beach and something called Coney Island. The name told me that it was probably the home of ice cream. There was also some kind of a field apparently owned by a Mister Ebbetts where the Brooklyn Dodgers played baseball. This was really very important to know about if you wanted to get a smile of benediction south of a place called the Bronx. There were mean and bad people called the Yankees way up there in the Bronx.     Though we lived right in the heart of the city, hummingbirds drank nectar from the flowers by the balcony outside my third-floor window. Once I woke up to discover a praying mantis on my pillow case. It turned its wonderful head to look at me, I swear it smiled a hello, and I saw it was enchanted.     There was real magic everywhere I looked. Most of it I didn't understand. I became quite busy trying to, but the fact of the matter was that it was impossible to get the world to stay the same long enough for me to figure some of it out. There were a lot of mysteries.     Eager to get a handle on the big stuff, I snuck into the local church on a weekday. After going as high as I could by the stairs, I found a dusty ladder and searched around for God way up in the rafters. I had seen the priest often point and say He was "up there." I was disappointed at not finding Him or much of anything but some old light bulbs and newspapers. I really sensed that the priest was earnest though, and I knew that only big important people read the newspapers, so I figured that God had probably just gone out somewhere. Shopping? Getting groceries maybe?     I was fairly convinced that there was a landlocked crew of desperate Em-pirates on top of what they called their "State Building," and when people complained that they had to make money, I couldn't see in my mind's eye what was so bad about standing by a machine that probably stamped out all those shiny bright coins that could buy candy. But no matter, I could count to ten and spell "Johnny," my mother was pretty, I had a brother named Thommy and a cat named Doctor Lao from Siam.     I don't remember winter as much. I expect this is just an attempt to block out the agony of galoshes and snowsuits and vaporizers, as well as the bizarre emotional calamities that percolated all through the holidays with the spiced cider. Any four adults obviously had at least twelve personalities. It was deeply confusing. In spite of all the nice smells, the atmosphere sometimes just hung dangerously. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's were for me an immediate source of primal apprehension. They were always festooned, but with a weird mélange of turkey dressing, hurt feelings, pine needles, scotch and soda, anger, gifts, violence, and tears, and all of this was called a celebration. Now that was especially hard to figure out. The God thing was much easier. The presents helped a lot though, and anyway, I know my parents tried. I felt sure that they were very smart and presumably knew best. After all, they were very big, and all grown up.     My parents were divorced in 1949. After a while Dad fell in love with Aunt Elaine and moved to his own brownstone six blocks away on Seventy-second Street. Mother had been a singer, and my father wrote about the dusty song of eternal hope that common people share with their dogs. She never forgot a tune, and he could repeat to perfection the tones of the stories that he heard. He heard them so often that eventually he could just make them up and they remained true. She had perfect pitch, but without any sin, she was just compelled to lie. He wrote skewered parables, while she was a paradox. For the most part hers were haunting lies, intended to make the listener wonder and shiver with her hints of magic. Both he and she were rich with wide-eyed fantasy and inspiration despite their own deep and hidden despair and a glimpse of impermanence. Either way, it was the song and the stories, and the karma of words that drew them to each other; and then, it was the wine with its sorry bite that severed the eloquence and the charm and pulled them apart.     By the time I was five years old, under some East Side Knickerbocker's stewardship, I, too, drank a lot of champagne to ring in the New Year. So it was, that on the first day of 1951 I woke up from my first blackout in a little ring of vomit, but by then I could count much higher than ten and entropy was definitely increasing. Copyright © 2001 Nancy Steinbeck. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Andrew Harvey
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Forewordp. xiii
Introductionp. xix
1 Entropyp. 1
2 Mom and Popp. 6
3 The Woundp. 14
4 The Wild Tibetanp. 24
5 Naropa Nightsp. 33
6 Chateau Lake Louisep. 37
7 Room Servicep. 48
8 Prince Charming the Fourthp. 54
9 Outside Inp. 60
10 Boarding Schoolp. 67
11 Trouble in Paradisep. 73
12 Revoltp. 90
13 A Geographicp. 94
14 The Rose Gardenp. 97
15 At War with Dadp. 102
16 Home-1967p. 107
17 The Scenep. 110
18 Saigon Againp. 119
19 The Coconut Monkp. 127
20 The Turn of the Screwp. 135
21 Broken Taboosp. 144
22 Decentp. 152
23 Billy Burroughsp. 154
24 Kissing Trainsp. 158
25 Whip Stallp. 169
26 Close Encountersp. 179
27 The Kerouac Festivalp. 188
8 Apocalypse Nowp. 195
29 Magical Thinkingp. 201
30 Motherp. 206
31 Our Magical Kingdomp. 211
32 Impermanencep. 231
33 1984p. 243
34 Blood, Sweat, and Tearsp. 253
35 Hell Bentp. 257
36 Last Ditchp. 263
37 Last Strawp. 270
38 Pentimentop. 278
39 The Two-Foot Dropp. 291
40 The Receptor Site- My Father's Gravep. 297
41 Larger Than Lifep. 302
42 Grace Notesp. 308
43 Icarus's Flightp. 316
44 The Karma of Wordsp. 332
Timelinep. 349
Bibliographyp. 353
Indexp. 355