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March 20, 2023

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters: Book Review

By Wendy Robards

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Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, by John Steinbeck, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten.

Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends and this is arbitrary because there are no beginning nor any ends. We do have curtains -- in a day, morning, noon and night, in a man's birth, growth and death. These are curtain rise and curtain fall, but the story goes on and nothing finishes. - From Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, page 523 (1956) -

John Steinbeck spent his life writing letters. He sent thousands of letters, written mostly in pencil in his tiny handwriting. Steinbeck's third wife, Elaine, and his friend, Robert Wallsten, gathered up more than six hundred letters written over the course of forty plus years to create an autobiography of sorts, a book which is as compelling as it is enlightening. Beginning in 1923, in his twenties, and ending in 1968 just before his death, Steinbeck's letters reveal his deepest thoughts, emotions and fears, and uncover his process of writing. What is astonishing about Steinbeck's letters, besides the sheer volume of them, is how they form a narrative of who he was as he grew from a young man into a wise and self-deprecating adult.

Robert Wallsten and Elaine Steinbeck organized Steinbeck's letters in a chronological order. They have inserted helpful notes throughout which guide the reader as to what was happening in Steinbeck's life at specific times, and which allow the letters to be read with perspective to events as they historically occurred. Despite its length of nearly 900 pages, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters never lags. It became apparent to me early on in the book that not only was Steinbeck an amazing novelist, playwright and short story writer, but he was an irresistible letter writer as well.

John Steinbeck's sense of humor is, perhaps, one of the most entertaining aspects of the book. His humor was dry, sarcastic, and ironic. He often made fun of his own shortcomings, and although it is evident that criticism often wounded him, he also found humor in it (perhaps as a defensive measure).

I notice that a number of reviewers (what lice they are) complain that I deal particularly in the subnormal and the psychopathic. If said critics would inspect their neighbors within one block, they would find that I deal with the normal and the ordinary. - From Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, page 68 (1933)

The early years of Steinbeck's life were filled with rejection and self-doubt, but also with a distinct yearning for greatness. Steinbeck's letters show him to be a man who worked hard for what he achieved. It surprised me how he often felt that what he wrote was not good enough. Despite his occasional swaggering, he actually is revealed as a man of extreme humility.

Of course the hundred page ms. flopped heavily. Just now I am busy on another one. Eventually I shall be so good that I cannot be ignored. These years are disciplinary for me. - from Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, page 29 (1930)

Perhaps when people think of John Steinbeck, they first think of The Grapes of Wrath -- a book which won him not only the Pulitzer Prize (catapulting him instantly into the limelight), but also won him a great deal of criticism along with a fair share of death threats. What amazed me was how, even after having completed the final draft, Steinbeck did not see The Grapes of Wrath as his greatest work.

I'm still tired and it seems pretty bad. And I am sure it will not be a popular book. I feel very sure of that. I think to the large numbers of readers it will be an outrageous book. I only hope it is better than it seems to me now. - from Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, page 172 (1938) -

Instead, Steinbeck believed East of Eden to be "the book" -- a novel which he had practiced his whole life to write and one in which he took great pride.

This is "the book." If it is not good I have fooled myself all the time. I don't mean I will stop but this is a definite milestone and I feel released. Having done this I can do anything I want. Always I had this book waiting to be written. - from Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, page 431 (1951) -

Embedded in the letters are many interesting revelations about his novels and plays:

  • Steinbeck's editor begged him to change the ending of The Grapes of Wrath, but Steinbeck refused saying "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."
  • A setter puppy belonging to the author destroyed half of his draft for Of Mice and Men: "Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically."
  • Cal in East of Eden was the character who Steinbeck related to most: "Cal is my baby. He is the Everyman, the battle ground between good and evil, the most human of all, the sorry man. In that battle the survivor is both."
  • Elaine Steinbeck was the inspiration for the title of Travels with Charley.

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters reveals a man who was at heart an idealist, philosophizer and romantic; a man who married three times (he divorced his first two wives) and fathered two sons. Steinbeck was devastated by the divorce from his second wife, Gwyn. He returned to California and holed up in a cottage, angry, sad and bitter. During this time his letters lost their humor. Steinbeck seemed to have lost belief in love and marriage.

American married life is the doormat to the whore house. Eventually they will succeed in creating a race of homosexuals. And they will not be content with that. I am just beginning to see our mores objectively and I do not like what I see and I do not want my boys brought up by them. The impulse of the American woman to geld her husband and castrate her sons is very strong. - from Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, page 343 (1948) -

Throughout this time, as in other low points in his life, Steinbeck seemed to sink into a depression -- unable to write or find the joy in his life. Eventually, he was to meet and fall in love with Elaine Scott who became his third wife ... and his romantic view of love was to return to him, along with his humor. In a letter to his fourteen year old son, Thom, Steinbeck writes about love: "Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it. The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it."

Reading Steinbeck's letters gave me a deeper appreciation for the writer he became -- they humanized him and gave me great insight into his thought processes and intelligence. I must also say, that I was thrilled to see Steinbeck's love of dogs appear in his letters. He owned many dogs, and often he wrote of their antics. What becomes clear in his correspondence is how much animals (and nature in general) meant to Steinbeck.

Dogs are curious extensions of ourselves. We have two -- a cocker belonging to Waverly -- Elaine's daughter -- a bitch of great appetite -- in fact a walking stomach -- greedy beyond belief, and also a big French poodle acquired in Paris -- the most intelligent dog I've ever seen. I don't need dogs as I once needed them but I like them as much as ever. Once they were absolute necessities to me -- emotionally. But if I lived alone I would instantly get one. A house is very dead without a dog. - from Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, page 462 (1952) -

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters should be mandatory reading for Steinbeck fans or for those scholars who wish to learn more about the inner workings of a great author. In this day and age of computers, cell phones, and digital communication -- handwritten letters are becoming a thing of the past. Reading this book made me realize how sad it is that we are losing the art of letter writing. There is something fantastic and confidential about reading someone's letters -- often people reveal more of themselves in a letter than they would ever verbalize in conversation. I think this was certainly the case with John Steinbeck.

Highly recommended.

Five stars out of five.

Other quotes from Steinbeck: A Life in Letters which I loved:

What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing the dictator controls. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap. In many cases it is the only history we have and yet it is the tool of the worst men. But over a long period of time and because it is the product of so many men, it is perhaps the purest thing we have. Honesty has a way of creeping in even when it was not intended. (page 526 - 1956)

I think I am without ambition. It isn't that I've got so much but that I want less. And I do have the great pleasure in work -- while it is being done. Nothing equals that to me and I never get used to it. (page 459 - 1952)

The Reader: He is so stupid you can't trust him with an idea. He is so clever he will catch you in the least error. He will not buy short books. He will not buy long books. He is part moron, part genius and part ogre. There is some doubt as to whether he can read. Well, by God, Pat he's just like me, no stranger at all. He'll take from the book what he can bring to it. The dull-witted will get dullness and the brilliant may find things in my book I didn't know were there. And just as he is like me, I hope my book is enough like him so that he may find in it interest and recognition and some beauty as one finds in a friend. (page 440 - 1952)

For myself there are two things I cannot do without. Crudely stated they are work and women, and more gently -- creative effort in all directions. Effort and love. Everything else I can do without but if those were effectively removed I would take a powder instantly. (page 359 - 1949)

The ideal is to be banned by everybody -- then everybody would have to read it. (page 276 - 1944)

Other works by John Steinbeck which I have read and reviewed (follow the links to reviews):

Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".


Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-08-22
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