Reading Steinbeck, A Life in Letters has proven more enjoyable than I expected and I wanted to share some of what I have been getting from the book.
John Steinbeck preferred writing letters to face-to-face contact. I can understand that. Don’t many of us writers feel we can communicate our thoughts better by putting words on a page than through speaking?
“In sixty years, I‘ve left a lot of tracks,” he wrote in 1962. Following those tracks through his letters led to this book edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallston. They collected several thousand letters and compiled them, primarily in date order, with an occasional comment about his life at that time.
Besides revealing a lot of Steinbeck’s personality, the letters contain a lot of information about writing. He took his craft seriously. In spite of writing about the darker side of human nature and often being depressed, he did have a sense of humor.
In 1931, he wrote, “I learn that all of my manuscripts have been rejected three or four times since I last heard. It is a nice thing to know that so many people are reading my books. That is one way of getting an audience.” He also wrote, “Kids don’t believe in emotion in adults since they invented it themselves.”
He sometimes used “Pegasus the flying pig as a symbol of himself, “earth-bound but aspiring. A lumbering soul, but trying to fly,” he once explained. Another time he wrote “not enough wingspread, but plenty of intention.”
Depressed after the death of one of his best friends and divorce from his second wife, he wrote, “If I can write again then I can be happy again.” By this time he had already become famous for The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, but worried that it had all drained out of him.
Advice on writing appears often throughout his letters. In 1949, he wrote to John O’Hara, “But we must first use the adjectives before we can know how to leave them out.” In 1950 he wrote, “…all filler wants to come out… I’ll want no word in dialogue that has not some definite reference to the story.”
He was very good with keeping to a schedule and meeting deadlines and was not adverse to taking advice from his publishers and editing his work. However, he refused when asked about changing the ending of The Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck wrote, “I have never been touchy about changes, but I have too many thousands of hours on this book, every incident has been too carefully chose and its weight judged and fitted. The balance is there. One other thing – I am not writing a satisfying story. I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied.”
He also kept a journal, he called his “diary day book.” Steinbeck wrote, “It is a kind of warm-up book. When I am working it is good to write a page before going to work. It both resolves the day things that might be distracting and warms up my pens the way a pitcher warms up.”
I worried when I first started reading this book, published in 1975 and more than 850 pages long. But I couldn’t stop reading it after a letter Steinbeck wrote in late 1930. “It is a gloomy day: low gray fog and a wet wind contribute to my own gloominess. Whether the fog has escaped from my soul like ectoplasm to envelope the peninsula or whether it has seeped in through my nose and eyes to create the gloom, I don’t know.”
What a picture of emotion. I can see the fog and almost feel it seeping into my body. Also I can understand how we sometimes feel that negative emotions escape us and create a fog-like atmosphere.
Steinbeck wrote in1961, “I am just as terrified of my next book as I was of my first. It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder and more heartbreaking and finally, it must be that one must accept the failure which is the end of every writer’s life no matter what stir he may have made…… So it is that I would greatly prefer to die in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a book and so leave it as all life must be – unfinished.”
He was awarded the Novel Prize for literature in 1962. In 1964 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson.
Steinbeck had been a war correspondent during World War II and went to write about Vietnam, as a correspondent for Newsday in 1967. Besides his 29 published titles, he was a journalist, short story writer and playwright. He is known primarily for his novels: Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, a Pulitzer Prize winner, Cannery Row and East of Eden. He died in 1968 at the age of 66.
In one of his last letters (1967), he wrote “And do you know, journalism, even my version of it, gives me the crazy desire to go out to my little house on the point, to sharpen fifty pencils, and put out a yellow pad. Early in the morning to hear what the birds are saying and to pass the time of day with Angel and then to hitch up my chair to my writing board and to set down the words—‘Once upon a time…”