In a letter to his editor and friend Pat Covici in 1960, he recorded his excitement about a planned trip by campervan around the United States.* Steinbeck wrote: "I nearly always write - just as I nearly always breathe". From his days as a struggling writer in the 1920s until his death in 1968, Steinbeck wrote letters almost daily: to friends and family, to his literary agent, to his editor and to the political leaders with whom he associated when he became well-known. The first letter in the volume was written in 1926 to a college friend while Steinbeck was working as a caretaker on an estate at Lake Tahoe while writing his first novel. Steinbeck did not write to his wife, to his sons or to his friends with an eye to publication. While I'm not sure that he would have liked the idea of the general public reading his letters, I'm still very glad that the editors - Steinbeck's wife Elaine and his friend Robert Wallsten - thought that putting together the volume was a worthwhile endeavour. This is highly recommended for writers and for anyone who appreciates Steinbeck's writing, wants more insight into Steinbeck the man and has plenty of time to read a doorstopper of a book.
I've been working on this book a long time-- a year or better. I mean, it's hard to finish a book you have been reading so long and enjoying so much, knowing that the end of the book is leading to the author's death. Not only that, but reading the letters about illness and knowing there will be no more books, no more-- well, anything.
John Steinbeck never wrote an autobiography, but his letters probably reveal more about the writer and the man than an autobiography could have hoped to. A letter he wrote in February 1936 spells out his feelings of inadequacy at the beginning of a new project. In a letter to a friend that had just lost his mother Steinbeck shares a feeling of inadequacy that most of us feel when he says, theres nothing for the outsider to do except stand by and maybe indicate that the person involved is not so alone as the death always makes him think he is. In an April 29, 1948 letter he says hes about to embark on a marathon book about the Salinas Valley, the one hes been training for all of his life. Then in a letter written to Mr. and Mrs. Elia Kazan from Nantucket July 30, 1951 Steinbeck indicates that he is presently six hundred pages into the book, but still has three or four hundred pages to go. Steinbeck was always generous in sharing, his thoughts and some of the methods he used when writing, with other writers. In a letter written to Kazan on October 14, 1958 he sums up his love for writing.
In fact, Steinbeck was our most elegant reflector on the writing process itself, particularly in the agonies of self doubt and the difficulties of finding one's way through to the end product.
The trip to Pacific Grove, learned that that little coastal town that I had never been to was really integral to the John Steinbeck story. Yes, his childhood Victorian remains there and can be visited and also, in the center of town, is the imposing "International Steinbeck Center." Yet to read his letters, one sees how his life evolved around Salinas and most happily, and most productively, along the coast particularly in Pacific Grove and Monterey. HIs heart, though, really feels like it was in Pacific Grove. Also he talks in the letters of the closeness to the water In Pacific Grove and he often returns to water and being near it in the letters. Very likely his home in Sag's Harbor and that little town were East Coast versions of Pacific Grove and his home there. Also interesting the thing about his name--apparently "Steinbeck" means something like "Stone Brook". In the 1958 letter (page 589) where he discusses this he talks about water on rocks, as you would have in a stone brook but also what you have just off the coast of Pacific Grove. I think Steinbeck's power/importance comes from what he did--with his life and his writing career--rather than because he was a great and clever writer. Cute the way he explains that between wives one and two, hanging in Pacific Grove, he has 8 women who periodically come to visit. So interesting how he spends so much time and effort (even to living and traveling in England and Europe for more than a year to work on it and research it)--and enjoys so much--work on the Mallory King Arthur stuff yet never publishes it in his lifetime. From the outside, of course the blood children should have inherited something substantive, as with Jack London's daughters--that's how it looks.
Some of Steinbeck's offhand remarks were a little questionable /dated (mostly regarding women /people of colour) but I'm not going to make a big fuss about that because the letters were written y e a r s ago and a lot of things have changed.
Then I'll begin to re-read the masterpieces he did complete and learn all over again why I love them so much. If you have more than a passing interest in John Steinbeck, the man, his work, his worldview, this collection is essential reading for you.
From the very first letter to the last Steinbeck talks about his process of writing and how his work defines every day of his life.
He wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 and the novella Of Mice and Men, published in 1937. In all, he wrote twenty-five books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books and several collections of short stories. Seventeen of his works, including The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), and East of Eden (1952), went on to become Hollywood films, and Steinbeck also achieved success as a Hollywood writer, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Story in 1944 for Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat.