I finished Steinbeck: A Life in Letters this past week. After reading over 800 pages and going through forty years of correspondences with friends, family, world leaders, other writers, and many more, I've come to identify with the man more than I ever thought possible. It's one of the best nonfiction books I've picked up in a long time. No biographer. Just the man himself with occasional footnotes from the editors to help clarify things, since you only read one piece of the given conversation.
But first, a major flaw.
The introduction clearly states:
"He lived in the mechanical age, and he could not ignore a machine so fascinating as the typewriter. He wrote enthusiastically whenever a secondhand or new typewriter came into his life and assumed that everyone he told shared his fascination with the touch, the type faces, and the symbols it was capable of." (p. viii)
Well, I read this book cover to cover and only found a few typewriter references. Only one of them even comes close to identifying a single make and model (there is no mention of the Hermes Baby he allegedly owned). In 1937, Of Mice and Men was gaining lots of exposure and good reviews, much in part to the success of the stage adaptation. Steinbeck wrote to his agent:
"You may notice that I have a new typewriter. We have never had a good one in our lives. Always something of about 1912. But after we saw this play was going to run a week at least, we went out and got a new one. And look what it has--! ñ '. A tila, and exclamation and a grave accent. Or rather an acute. I don't know where to use a grave and nobody knows where to use a circumflex, so we didn't get them. But isn't it beautiful? I hadn't realized that science had done so much while I worked on the 1912 model...You will notice too that this letter is longer than usual. That's because I can push down these keys with one hand instead of standing up and using both hands." (p. 145-46)
So, I guess we'll never know what the 1912 model was. I was kind of disappointed at first, but then again, most period literature from that area doesn't get specific about typewriters, as they were so common. It's like today. No one tells you, "I got in my Ford Focus" or "I packed up the Dodge Darkside Durango." They always say "car," even if the vehicle in question is a Mark IV Panzer.
Truth be told, Steinbeck mentions his fondness for yellow legal pads and sharpened pencils. In light of this, I'm sure why the editors put the paragraph about his love of typewriters in the introduction. I guess there are even more letters out there that were not included in this volume, but it seems to discredit your work if you hint that one thing is going to be in the book, and then it isn't.
I soon forgot about my disappointment and became fascinated with the man himself. As of today, I've only read Of Mice and Men, but East of Eden is next on my list, and The Grapes of Wrath whenever I can find my copy.
Steinbeck speaks to me as a writer because:
1. He sometimes struggled to keep going with a project.
"Ted, I swear to God that if I ever finish this novel I shall take to writing the tritest kind of plot stories or even true confessions. This is so damned hard. I have never worked so hard in my life and I don't seem to be getting ahead much. I don't know when this will be finished." (His first novel, Cup of Gold) - 1929, p. 16
2. He wanted to write stories with timeless elements, and doubted his ability.
"A man must write about his own time no matter what symbols he uses. And I have not found my symbols nor my form. And there's the rub." - 1959, p. 650
3. He wrote because he wanted to, not for money.
"My work moves on slowly. I kind of like the way it is going down now. I threw out everything I read to you and started fresh before I got your letter...I don't know why I keep on. I have plenty of books for one lifetime. But perhaps because of long conditioning I go right on whether it is lousy or not. The great crime I have committed against literature is living too long and writing too much, and not good enough. But I like to write. I like it better than anything." - 1958, p. 596
4. Struggled with contemporary pieces about the present age.
"It seems to me that most writers in America, and I myself among them, have gone almost entirely in the direction of the past. We are interested in setting down a celebrating old times. It is almost as though we wanted to define a past which probably never did exist. The stories of childhood, the stories of the frontier, the novels of one's old aunts, etc. This is fine, but there can be enough of it. There are very few American writers, notable writing for the New Yorker, who write about today or even today projected into the future. With something of a shock, I realize I that I have written about nothing current for a very long time. It has occurred to me that we may be so confuse about the present that we avoid it because it is not clear to us. But why should that be a deterrent? If this is a time of confusion, then that should be the subject of a good writer if he is to set down his time." - 1954, p. 485
Steinbeck speaks to me as a human being because:
*these items will not include citations, as there are too many to count
1. He was very interested in man's relationship to nature. Conducted research in the Sea of Cortez with friend and oceanographer, Ed Rickets.
2. He loved both of his sons and spent as much time with them as possible, teaching them valuable skills and keeping them away from television and radio. Visited his eldest son, Thom, in Vietnam shortly before his death in 1968.
3. He was a patriotic American in spite of America's faults.
Other interesting facts:
- Corresponded with three Presidents.
- Had ties to Lyndon Johnson.
- His books were in high demand in the USSR and its satellite territories.
- He secretly met with dissident writer groups behind the Iron Curtain.
- He was hated in his native Salinas after publishing Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Cannery Row. The press labeled him a Communist. The gas company cut off supply to his house. A deputy sheriff claimed he would be framed for rape if he stayed in a hotel alone. The persecution was so bad he left and never returned.
- He got thousands of letters from total strangers asking for money.
- He was fascinated with invention and wrote to a number of experts with ideas for new devices.
- He didn't like having lots of money.
- He was initially worried about receiving the Nobel Prize in 1962, since so many other writers had ceased work after the fact. He promised his friends that he would never stop writing.
- He despised the never-ending attention he received when traveling, and didn't like making speeches or appearances.
- Wrote Dr. King after the march on Selma.
- He was fascinated with the work of Sir Thomas Malory, and spent much of his time in the late 1950s working on a translation of Morté de Arthur.
- He had a great sense of humor.
I could go on and on, but then you wouldn't have motivation to read the book. I've never read a biographical work in this form, but I enjoyed it immensely. Some of his best-known quotes are in there, but I liked reading about his life before his Depression novels, and in between the better known parts of his life. If you're a fan or even remotely curious, I'd recommend this book without hesitation.
Power to the pen. Or pencil, if that's your fancy.