Who was Werner Steinbeck? Well, that is the question posed by the saga of his 1938 novel, “Einstein’s Dreams,” the subject of last week’s New York Times Book Review. He was a well-established German-born U.S. writer whose first major American success — the 1950 novel, “The Grapes of Wrath” — catapulted him to fame and fortune. Yet never published outside Germany and now a reference to which has existed for almost half a century, “Einstein’s Dreams” struck many as distinctly out of Steinbeck’s range.
This week, Mira Moulouff-Sohi (“Einstein’s Dreams”): writer, business development director at the California Public Radio network KPCC, enrolled in a Google laboratory, set up a typewriter manual and audio recorder in the lab, and set to work finding answers to the burning questions that attendees of “The Home That Einstein Built” made to her that night — questions about the author, the author’s colleagues, and of course the real Einstein, who was supposedly an admirer of the novel.
There was a time when Steinbeck’s fellow Californians would have been suspicious of such a venture. He was a sort of Washingtonian obsession for many in Los Angeles at the time, especially in the freewheeling postwar 1950s, an “It” boy having won a draft lottery in the interwar period and embarked on a half-century foray into the publishing, acting and politics worlds. But the curious book-reading public had for long been confused about the author’s background and meant to believe he was born in California.
To be fair, as Ms. Moulouff-Sohi points out, Steinbeck was born in German in San Francisco on June 18, 1910, the same day that Albert Einstein was born on July 4.
“Don’t imagine Einstein to be an immigrant,” Ms. Moulouff-Sohi instructs those new to the story. “He came to America after the war, when his children were young. There is no evidence whatsoever that he was born in a farm house on the hills at Santa Anita.”
After some qualifying research, she concluded that of the many Steinbeck biographies that have appeared, including one by his widow in 1992, none was to put Steinbeck, played by the Hollywood actor Jon Voight, at the center of the story. “You’ll have to read the book itself to get the real answer.”
Werner Steinbeck was popular as a storyteller, but, for many, he was not a narrative novelist with a particular knack for the OED of historical nuance. Einstein’s Dreams, Ms. Moulouff-Sohi found, really was: an autobiography of a philosopher at the intersection of art and commerce.
“Although he was a sociologist, Einstein never attended a university,” she concludes. “When his books were translated into German in 1948, it was as a newly minted expatriate, out of the limelight, to write about the Berlin art scene and how money and fame could destroy a human life.”
Though there are many, many unanswered questions about Einstein, in many ways Steinbeck is a different kind of writer, a pioneer at the heart of the era of social, urban and literary revolution, while Einstein would have been too busy designing complex theories and measuring gravitational waves to worry about the minutiae of society. Steinbeck went on to write the screenplay for the classic 1951 film, “Say Anything,” and went on to spend nine years as a columnist for The Times, a fact that amused Ms. Moulouff-Sohi, who grew up in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1960s.
“Even now it is incredible to read what had been published,” she says, “in those days, when you had nowhere to go.”