Steinbeck biography - most comprehensive yet, but marred by bias; The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, by Jackson J. Benson. New York: The Viking Press. 1,116 pp. $35.
Spoiled mystics fall hard. Their very awareness of a departure from creative grace makes the loss doubly painful. No worldly reward - not even the Nobel Prize - can heal the wounds that open when such gifted individuals lose faith.
Jackson Benson's outsized and expensive biography - itself the product of a torturous process - shows why these points apply to John Steinbeck. Obviously charmed by his subject, Benson cannot make the bitter declaration. It's the weighty roll of almost incredible detail that demonstrates how acclaim and riches can erode a writer's standards and leave him rootless in his own land and dry.
In a letter that appears fairly late in the book, Steinbeck confesses: ''Once I trusted the persuasions of whatever force it was that directed me and it was easy because no one else (cared). But then I became what is called eminent and immediately many people took over my government, told me what I should do and how, and I believed many of them and gradually tried to be something I am not and in the process became nothing at all. It is a sickeningly common story.''
Sad? Of course. Also sad are the contradictions forced by Benson's admiration for the Nobel laureate. Example: An opening thesis is that Steinbeck worked, not for fame or profit, but ''because he loved to write, because he was addicted to it.'' And yet, much later on, Benson cites a period in which the author was forced to practice his craft strictly in pursuit of cash.
For her part, Steinbeck's mother had a mystical bent. And Steinbeck often used the tones of spiritual transport in telling others just what writing meant to him. His greatest joy, he once said, was to ''spread a page with shining.'' And, ''Once (the pen) is in my hand like a wand, I stop being the confused, turgid, ugly and gross person. I am no longer the me I know.''
Did the deeper implications of Steinbeck's descent into fame escape Benson? It seems that the West Coast literature professor could have better served such a complex and ultimately tragic figure by trading emotional bias for a tougher and plainer love. That love would have been able to say, without defensive clutter: the man lost his way, but his best prose - which grew out of a pure narrative drive, minus any urge to pontificate abstractly - shall waken new readers for many generations to come. It could have celebrated Steinbeck's courage in refusing, despite advice from various close advisers, to issue variations on ''The Grapes of Wrath'' again and again, instead of giving us new work. The point is, all that's admirable about Steinbeck loses force, along with the flaws, whenever Benson slips on his rose-colored glasses.
This is not to deny the new biography its place as a remarkable compilation of hard data. Other Steinbeck biographies will follow (Chronicle Books in San Francisco has announced a new one for this month), but today Benson's stands as the most comprehensive.
During one of our many conversations, Benson said he invested 13 years plus $ 110,000 from family income - beyond the grants and advance by Viking - in researching and writing ''True Adventures.'' Then he endured a long revision process after McIntosh and Otis, literary agents for the Steinbeck estate, felt certain materials might violate rights of privacy. ''Viking would call,'' Benson said. ''We'd fight out every change. It was a painful time, for I had no power in the situation. Only my editor (Viking's Bill Strachan) kept me afloat.''
Thomcq Steinbeck, one of the author's two sons, alleged after reading the galley proofs that Benson had ''manipulated people's personalities to put my father always in the right. I love my father very much, but he wasn't a deity.''
Thom also charged - and this reviewer must agree - that Benson gave too little space to Ed (Doc) Ricketts. John Steinbeck, after all, acknowledged Ricketts as his mentor and wrote thousands of words about the Cannery Row marine biologist. Benson pretty much has his say about Ricketts in one short chapter. Why the cursory treatment? Perhaps because Benson feared post-publication problems from Ed Ricketts Jr., who said in an interview with this reviewer that he took umbrage at Benson's approach.
Fortunately, ''True Adventures'' gives the late Carol Henning Steinbeck, John's first wife, her due. It makes clear that she did major editorial work on ''The Grapes of Wrath,'' as well as providing the title. Her humor and staying power helped Steinbeck survive the Great Depression and his years of fiercest creative struggle. It's a pity that the book only paraphrases her - a result, Benson said, of the former Mrs. Steinbeck's refusal to be taped during interviews. She nonethless emerges as an immensely vital and talented person whose early presence reverberated throughout Steinbeck's career. The woman deserves a biography of her own.