Tools of Loneliness
Steinbeck: A Life in Letters edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten Viking Press $15,906 pp.
IN SIXTY YEARS I've left a lot of tracks," wrote John Steinbeck in 1962, when confronted with the idea of publishing a collection of his letters. "To try to cover the trail would be nonsense even if it were possible." Steinbeck was almost as prolific a letter-writer as a novelist; he began most mornings by writing a letter or two to ease himself into his work. They went to a variety of people: friends, wives, politicians, presidents and publishers. Even this large volume contains only a careful sifting of his enormous output of correspondence.
These letters do not reveal all the dark secrets of Steinbeck's mind. He was not an especially open man and seldom burdened others with his personal turnoil, which was considerable. But there are enough hints and subtle revelations to finally give the reader an understanding of what kind of man he was. The image of Steinbeck emerges slowly, almost resentfully, as if he was only willing to let people know him if they were ready to put a lot of time into the effort.
Steinbeck's early life was marked by repeated failures to get his work published, and he alternated between defiance and self-doubt. Shortly after the publication of Cup of Gold, his first novel, which attracted little attention, he declared, "The failures of the last couple of years seem to have no effect on my spirit whatsoever. Eventually I will be so good I cannot be ignored." Only a few years before, he had written, "I wonder if that sharp agony of words will occur to me again. I wonder if I shall ever be drunken with rhythms anymore. I am twenty-six and I am not young anymore." The defiance disappeared with success, but the self-doubt nagged at him throughout his life. Twenty years later, at the height of his popularity, he wrote, "I'm forty-six now and if I am going to be a writer I'd better god-damned well get to it."
Steinbeck was an instinctive writer; he seldom ventured into theorizing about his craft, and then only in a vague, subjective way. Early in his career, in 1929, he wrote a friend who was also a writer:
I want to speak particularly of your theory of clean manuscripts, and spelling as correct as a collegiate stenographer, and every nasty little comma in its place. I have no interest in the printed word. I would continue to write if there were no writing and no print. I put my words down to a matteg of memory. They are more to be spoken than to be read. I have the instincts of a minstrel rather than those of a scrivener.
He feared that he would fall into a rut, by developing his talents to the point where he could write easily, in a fully mature personal style. He worried that "style or technique may be a straitjacket which is the destroyer of a writer. It does seem to be true that when it becomes easy to write the writing is not likely to be any good. Facility can be the greatest danger in the world."
Most of Steinbeck's musings on the subject of writing are even less concrete than these examples. He had a modest view of his own ability; discussing his philosophy of writing, he said, "I suppose what it boils down to is this--a man has only a little to say and he says it over and over again. And the terrible thing is that I still don't know what it is I have to say, but I do know it isn't very complicated and it surely isn't new." Steinbeck gives the impression that for him writing was not so much a fulfillment as a release.
If he derived much happiness from his work, it seldom shows in his letters. "Words are properly the tools of loneliness and rarely fulfillment, the conveying of loss and frustration but no triumph like the closing of fingers on fingers or the pressure of knee on knee or the secret touching of feet under a table," he said. On another occasion, he remarked, "This is a lonely business. A writer should be like a surly dog with a bone, suspicious of everyone, trusting no one, loving no one. It's hard to justify such a life but that's the way it is if it is done well." Other times he is less dramatic and more down to earth. He told one friend,
For example, I just write what comes into my head and maybe sometimes it's lousy but it's the only thing I know how to do. I write lots--perhaps too much but I never had any sense of proportion. I eat too much and drink too much and screw too much also. It's all part of the same pattern and I don't question it any more."
If Steinbeck had a simple conception of his craft, he had a simple view of life as well--or at least that's what he claims. At one point he said:
I am so simple that I want to be comfortable and comfort consists in--a place to sleep, dry and fairly soft, lack of hunger, almost any kind of food, occasional loss of semen in intercourse when it becomes troublesome, and a good deal of work. You see that it is a description of a stupid slothful animal. I am afraid that is what I am."
Sometimes he describes himself as a manic-depressive, but more often he prefers to characterize himself merely as a simple man. "There are two things I cannot do without," he said. "Crudely stated they are work and women, and more gently--creative effort in all directions."
Steinbeck married three times and endured two divorces--both initiated by his wives, not by him--so it is not surprising that he focuses a great deal of his attention on women. "I like women," he writes. "It is only wives I am in trouble with." But there is little evidence that Steinbeck especially appreciated the company and conversation of women. In one bitter moment, he told a friend who was considering marriage, "I have thought that men and women should never come together except in bed. There is the only place where their natural hatred of each other is not so apparent." After his second divorce, he despaired of ever achieving a good marriage and went on a sexual rampage during which, he claimed, he slept with fifty women. During this period he wrote, "My love of women flesh and feel does not diminish. It even grows as I know more about the general and am less blinded by the particular. It was individuals who did the murdering, not the thing woman."
STEINBECK HAD a lifelong fascination with love and sex, but he never really trusted love. At one point he wrote, "A woman holds dreadful power over a man who is in love witm her but she should realize that the quality and force of his love is the index of his potential contempt and hatred." On a bleak fall day in 1948, he brooded on how to cope with life: "There is nothing anyone can do. It's something that has to be done alone. Even with women, and that's good, there is largely no companionship except for a little while." Steinbeck's third marriage, which lasted from 1950 until his death in 1067, was apparently a happy one, but he never erased the scars of his two divorces. Even though he seldom criticized ex-wives in his letters, the divorces left a residue of bitterness and skepticism that shaped his entire outlook.
The most disquieting passages in this collection are in the letters that Steinbeck wrote on politics. In one letter, he compared President Kennedy to Launcelot, and in 1965 he wrote President Johnson, "You have placed your name among the great ones in history. And I take great pride in the fact that you are my President." Concerning the war in Vietnam, he told Johnson aide Jack Valenti in April 1965, "I wish the bombing wasn't necessary, but I suspect that our people on the ground know more about that than I do." Less than a year later, however, he went so far as to say, "There is no way to make the Vietnamese war decent. There is no way of justifying sending troops to another man's country." But his doubts never evolved into definite opposition to American involvement in the war.
In 1962, long after his creative peak, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize. By that time, he was writing sentimental elegies to the American character like Travels with Charley and America and Americans. His last novel of any consequence, East of Eden, had been published over a decade earlier, and his most popular one, The Grapes of Wrath, preceded the prize by 35 years. In his last years, he grew increasingly reflective, feeling himself more and more a failure: "I consider the body of my work and I do not find it good. I'm not the young writer of promise anymore. I'm a worked-over claim."
Although he continued writing, his later work was largely mediocre. Perhaps it was his own last years he unwittingly foresaw in 1948: "Most lives," he said, "dribble away like piss in the dust."