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Steinbeck: A Life in Letters – Book Review


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.

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):

This review is part of a John Steinbeck Tour through The Classics Circuit. Read more reviews of John Steinbeck’s books here.


21 Comments

  1. August 17, 2011    

    Great review Wendy! And pretty ambitious reading, at 900 pages. I have a massive Edith Wharton biography on my shelves that I just can’t convince myself to pick up and I’d probably be the same way with this book if I actually owned it. Nevertheless, it sounds really interesting!

  2. Pam's Gravatar Pam
    August 17, 2011    

    Oh I LOVE his quote on Cal from East of Eden. I loved that book. Actually I have Timshel tattooed on my ankle. ;O)

  3. August 17, 2011    

    This sounds fascinating. I love reading diaries and letters by public figures. Evelyn Waugh’s diaries, in particular are bitingly funny. Thanks!

  4. August 17, 2011    

    This sounds like an excellent book. It makes me feel rather sad that the art of letter writing has all but died.

  5. August 17, 2011    

    Laura: If I had not had the day off of work yesterday, I would never have finished it! I know what you mean about delving into these chunky books. The whole reason I joined the Steinbeck tour was to motivate me to read this one which I bought about 2 years ago *laughs*

    Pam: LOL!

    Falaise: I really enjoyed this intimate look into Steinbeck’s life – it was surprisingly entertaining! I’ll have to check out Waugh’s diary.

    Kathy: Yes, I agree – it is sad that letter writing has all but disappeared.

  6. August 17, 2011    

    I really want to read this. I enjoy books of this nature.

  7. August 17, 2011    

    Terrific review, Wendy. Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors, and I agree with his own assessment…East of Eden is his masterpiece.

  8. August 17, 2011    

    I really must try and get this book ,I loved his novels and would love to see the man behind the books ,all the best stu

  9. August 17, 2011    

    I read (and loved) The Grapes of Wrath in high school. I read Of Mice and Men and thought it was only “fair.” I think my favorite, though, is Travels with Charley. Definitely want to reread that one! And read East of Eden (which I’ve owned for years!) sometime soon. It’s such a chi later, but I have a feeling it’s one to get swept up in.

    Lovely review, Wendy.

  10. Nan's Gravatar Nan
    August 17, 2011    

    Amazing, amazing review. I am in awe of reading 900 pages of any book. But I know what you mean – often letters make the pages fly by. I’ve been a fan of Steinbeck all my life but haven’t read him in years and years. Thanks so much for this post.

  11. August 17, 2011    

    Steinbeck has been far from my favorite writer, and I never would have thought I’d have an interest in his letters. But a pretty substantial chunk of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which I read for this Classics Circuit tour, was devoted to letters between him and his literary agent and editor, and they were wonderful. It felt like a totally different personality from what I would have imagined, much more humorous, and just very sympathetic to me overall. Still not sure I’m ready for a whole book of them, but your excellent review has gotten me closer than ever.

  12. August 17, 2011    

    This sounds fascinating. The art of letter writing…certainly a dying or dead art. So sad. I actually have to agree with Steinbeck re: Grapes of Wrath versus East of Eden. Granted, I’m only half through with Grapes of Wrath, but I loved every word of East of Eden and GoW just isn’t doing it for me….but I’ll wait until the end to decide what I think for sure….

  13. August 18, 2011    

    How have I missed this one? It sounds fantastic. I’ve read other letter collections from authors and it’s such a great insight into their lives.

  14. August 18, 2011    

    Great review of what sounds like an excellent book! I especially loved the quotes about marriage (not that I necessarily agree, but wow he was bitter!) and the “reader.” I’m tempted to put that one somewhere on my blog. It’s so true.

  15. August 18, 2011    

    I love to read journals and collections of letters … especially those of “classic” authors. I will have to check this selection out at some point. I have recently read a collection of Julia Child’s letters and a collection of the poet Anne Sexton’s letters … both equally engaging, but in different ways. Thanks for sharing with us! :)

  16. August 18, 2011    

    Thanks for this review. I never make time to read books of letters, something I have to fix. My library has Steinbeck: A Life in Letters so I am adding it to my list.

  17. August 18, 2011    

    I am just beginning to discover Steinbeck, and I am madly in love with his writing. So beautiful and it truly captures America and how he views it. I will definitely have to read these when I read more of his work!

  18. August 20, 2011    

    This book sounds amazing! I love all of the quotes that you selected. East of Eden is my favorite of his and it’s interesting to find that he also thought it was his best. Cal was a great character. He was the “Everyman” and I can see how most of us can relate to Cal and his struggles. Thanks for sharing and I’ll definitely pick this one up to read!

  19. August 25, 2011    

    Kailana: I hope you’ll get a chance to read it – really wonderful.

    Linda: He is one of my favorite authors too.

    Stu: If you love his novels, you should DEFINITELY read this book.

    Les: If you loved Travels with Charley, you would love this book – it has the same “tone” as Travels and is such a great glimpse of Steinbeck.

    Nan: Thank YOU! What a nice comment!

    Nicole: Steinbeck was surprisingly funny in his letters (something I would not have guessed having read his books which tend toward serious subjects). I have a feeling you’d like this one :)

  20. August 25, 2011    

    Rebecca: Sorry to hear you are not enjoying Grapes as much as you thought you would – I loved it. But then, I am such a Steinbeck fan he could write blurbs for books and I would love them :)

    Melissa: Quick, go get a copy!! You’d love it!

    Shelley: I loved the Reader quote :) And yes, he was VERY bitter following his second divorce – but then, he recovered himself!

    Carey: I’d love to read Julia Child’s letters – I bet she was funny :)

    Gavin: I waited a long time to read this one – wish I’d read it sooner. Hope you’ll also enjoy it!

    Allie: Definitely! Glad to hear you are loving Steinbeck’s work – such an amazing writer, wasn’t he?

  21. August 25, 2011    

    Kristi: Glad you enjoyed the review. Yes, East of Eden was terrific! Hope you’ll enjoy this one when you get a chance to read it.

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