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“A Distant Star Sending signals”

ISSUE:  Summer 1976
Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, editors. Viking. $15.00.

A POET and critic, a recent immigrant to the United States, recently observed that what captivated her about the American character was its “complex mingling of toughness and tenderness, realism and idealism, naïveté and irony.” She was not writing about John Steinbeck, though she might have been, for he demonstrated throughout his life and career those paradoxical qualities which are now, posthumously, set forth in his collected letters.

The letters, some 500 selected from 5, 000, date from the winter of 1926 when he was beginning to venture into a career as writer to a fragment of an unfinished letter to Elizabeth Otis, his editor and one of his closest friends, dated October 1968. Some parts of some letters have been quoted by literary scholars in earlier critical works, but here for the first time are gathered not the full corpus of his letters, but the main body of them and, one guesses, the most significant and the most revealing of the man and the novelist. The two are one, of course, for as Steinbeck wrote for The Saturday Review in 1958: “A man’s writing is himself. A kind man writes kindly. A mean man writes meanly . . .a wise man writes wisely.”

Two themes, which are to appear in varied forms throughout the next 40 years, are set forth in the first letter of the volume. The first is that fear so deeply part of the human condition that all suffer in some degree but artists in such large measure—the fear of being alone: “I wanted to break that fear in the middle, because I am afraid much of my existence is going to be more or less alone, and I might as well go into training for it.” A second, perhaps both a counter and a complementary theme, is the joy taken (“deliciously”) in the task of writing. The themes returned again, in letters to acquaintances, friends, editors, and critics, and one can trace through these letters Steinbeck’s passion for writing, his search for the right word, for the appropriate rhythm.

The two themes are woven together in letters separated by decades: usually first the expression of the ultimate aloneness, and then the reaching out to communicate with the written word. “It is primarily a lonely craft and must be accepted as such,” comes the plain simple fact in 1933. Or again, in 1948 when nothing seemed to be going right in his personal or professional life: “I’m getting rested and working hard outside too . . . . Oddly enough I do not feel lonely at all. I know I will soon enough. I know it will come like little fingers of ice but not so far except once or twice a kind of blind panic.” And then, within a week: “There will be only one test of this and that is whether any good work comes out of it . . .it will all boil down to work.” And again in 1961: “Once the words go down—you are alone and committed. . . . That’s the lonely time. Nine tenths of a writer’s life do not admit of any companions nor friend nor associate.” And so one senses both the natural rhythm and the tension between the loneliness (accepted or fought), the need to be alone, the process of writing itself a lonely and an alone act, but finally the story, the novel, the play, written and printed, reaching out to others. At times came the despair that grew from distraction, from responsibilities, from the clutter of life. “Too many friends, relations, children, duties, requests, parties,” he complained in 1958. “Too much drinking—telephones—play openings. No chance to establish the slow rhythm and keep it intact.” And a year later, still harrassed and drifting: “I wanted peace from the small and to me old repetitious tensions—the day’s breakage in the house to be repaired, the crystal system, very like the solar system, of friendships, responsibilities, associations, mores, duties, empathies, all revolving and held in orbit by me, by the fact that I existed, but all of these orbiting at different rates, at different speeds and with no two parabolas the same.” But then, when the writing went well, the restored sense of wholeness, and of joy: “I do have the greatest pleasure in work—while it is being done.” (1952) And finally, the reaching out: “The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. . . . A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. . . . We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel—”Yes,that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought. ” “(1956)

We learn much about the forms and methods of his discipline, how he conceived themes, plots, and characters, how he set it all down. His advice to Robert Allsten, one of the editors of this volume, in 1962, offers useful counsel not only to the novelist but to all who would write. But we learn very little about the influence of other writers on his own work. Only in passing do we get glimpses of what he was reading, and but mere fragments of comment on the other novelists of his generation—Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Hara, and others. “I don’t read much when I am working,” he observed in late 1929, “because novels have a way of going right on whether you are writing or not. . . . A novel doesn’t stop at all when your pen is away.”

Critics have traced to Steinbeck’s friendship with Ed Rickets, the marine biologist of Cannery Row with whom Steinbeck composed The Sea of Cortez, his perception of the individual and the group, the “nonteleological” philosophy. Here, in letters written during the mid 30’s, one can find the complex sources of these ideas. As early as 1933, in a long, rambling letter, Steinbeck set down his fascination with “the way the group has a soul, or drive, an intent, an end, a method, a reaction, and a set of tropisms which in no way resembles the same things possessed by the men who make up the group.” Soon he is writing of this group phenomenon as the “phalanx” that “may be of any size from the passionate three who are necessary to receive the holy spirit, to the race which overnight develops a soul for conquest, to the phalanx which commits suicide through vice or war or disease.” This philosophy, combined with an intense, and angry, concern for the plight of the dustbowl migrants whose lives he had shared, his sense of awe at the tough will of a people to survive, form the background for the writing of the two novels which must, in retrospect, be judged his greatest—In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath. When urged to change the final scene in The Grapes of Wrath, he angrily insisted that he was writing of “survival” not of “love,” and that “the giving of the breast has no more sentiment than the giving of a piece of bread. . . . I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written.” At his best, that self-evaluation stands hard and true; it was the lesser works, written as books are written, that have stood the judgment of time less well.

The letters reveal a man of candor and courage, a man willing to let himself be vulnerable; there is little dissembling, little that is self-serving. There may be echoes of Hemingway’s machismo in Steinbeck’s blunt praise of the bullfight: “I like bullfights, because to me it is a lonely, formal, dignified microcosm of what happens to every man, . . . In the bullfight he survives for awhile sometimes.” (1953) But the sense of manhood is expressed more often as a “fierce sense of independence.” (1959) At age 50 he began to notice: “The little inabilities grow so gradually that we don’t even know it.” (1952) A little stroke came as a warning; and the “travels with Charlie” became an occasion to prove to himself that he could still do it. Advice to take it easy he rejected out of hand: “That’s the thing which makes invalids. It’s not taking it easy that matters but taking it right and true. The mind does not tire from true work nor does the body moving efficiently. Only frustrations weary one to death—a blunt axe, a dull saw, or a false premise.” (1959)

In 1963 he could declare that he had “known for years that criticism describes the critic much more than the thing criticized.” But the recurring criticisms did sting, especially the disparagement from many quarters on the occasion of his winning the Nobel prize. Was it an honest sense of limitations or a self-protective trick to write: “Long ago, I knew perhaps that mine was not a truly first rate talent, I had then two choices only—To throw it over or to use what I had to the best of my ability. I chose the second and I have tried to keep it clean.” (1961) Or the same judgment with a bit more bravado: “I am a fortunate one. I have never been bored and I have always been curious. . . . I have whomped a small talent into a large volume of work.” (1961)

There is never a final summing up. From 1976 it seems to me that the best writing came in mid-career—Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and some of the shorter works, The Red Pony, for example, But there are cycles of criticism as cycles of writing, and firm judgments don’t often stick. Scholars will find in this volume evidence to inform their criticisms. The rest of us will rejoice that a new book by Steinbeck is on the market again. Clean writing holds; so does an honest life.


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