John Steinbeck had a paternal stance toward labor, toward migrant workers, toward the poor and desperate and meek—but not toward his own sons. Like other adamantly humanitarian novelists—Dickens, Tolstoy, and Salinger come to mind—he was far kinder to Humanity than the humans in his family. Despite ordering his second wife, Gwyn Conger (who had changed her name from Gwen), to undergo many abortions, she managed to give birth to two boys. She’d be putting the kids to bed upstairs in their Manhattan townhouse when Steinbeck would interrupt, telling her he needed her urgently downstairs to discuss something. Once he had pried her away, he’d prepare a cocktail for each of them and sit drinking in silence while he read the newspaper. When Gwyn politely reminded him he’d supposedly had something to discuss, he’d make two more drinks and remain mute. The boys’ mere existence...


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